Creative Invention in the Face of Adversity?

January 27, 2016

Financial plenty can build a great culture industry, but deep markets hungry for art product rarely produce great art. In truth, the opposite has more often been the case. Occasionally, artists of clear vision thrive as their pools of financial, material, and institutional support deepen. But great art is often made in adversity, whether personal, financial, material, psychological, or cultural. In Brazil especially, the human capacity to be resourceful, to inventively find ingenious routes to fulfilling practical needs in the face of what may otherwise appear to be nothingness, is something of a national ethos. It is true of the country’s everyday people—how they fix toilets, make shelter, support themselves—and it is equally true of its artists.  

The history of art in Brazil in the postwar period is one of invention in the face of scarcity. Even in recent decades, as a substantial art market has taken root and many artists have prospered, the spirit of resourcefulness that pervades so many artists' sensibilities has shaped the form, materiality, wit, and sense of play in their work. A complexity of content, form, tone, and emotion have been defined and gained character and texture from an individual and cultural resilience that has undoubtedly been shaped through Brazil’s history. That history—of dictatorship, repression, corruption, and the flourishing will to resist, counteract, escape, and reshape—has provided especially fertile ground for creative expression in the visual arts as well as in music, literature, and theater. There are as many compelling, vital artists in Brazil as in most major art centers of the world.

Often, as we have seen in recent years in the United States, market bounty can drive essential voices out of sight while fostering professional production—quality without tooth and soul. And so, in Brazil, with its resourcefulness and resilience, why would an economic downturn compromise culture? Indeed, in the realm of artistic production, it might even inspire a new golden age.

At the same time, there has not been the same history of public or private institutional support for art in Brazil as there has been in the United States and Europe. Support for contemporary art has been spotty and inconsistent, even in times of bounty. Having said this, attendance in museums in these economically sobering days is not down, but is instead rising. Indeed, MASP in São Paulo is being reborn as a vital cultural presence, with a great increase in private support. Inhotim continues to add new major permanent works to its grounds, and its audience keeps growing substantially—8,000 visitors and more on a strong weekend day!  

The biggest challenge in Brazil due to the economic downturn is in the realm of funding. Most cultural organizations of every type, from visual arts institutions to symphony orchestras, dance companies, and well beyond, depend greatly on corporate giving. Despite draconian import practices and tax laws—for example, importation of art is billed at rates of nearly 70% of value (and these paralyzing fees are not waived for not-for-profit museums serving a public, educational role)—corporations can designate that a certain amount of their annual taxes go directly to support cultural organizations. As corporate profits decline, so too do their donations. And for those companies that remain financially healthy (banks, for example, are some of the most generous patrons of the arts), their donations are being spread more widely around to help pick up the slack, which lowers giving across the board.

Commercial galleries are greatly challenged. Many of the recent generation of newly rich who were starting to collect art have been driven away. But even before the economy started to decline, some long-term collectors, deterred by prohibitive import duties, were buying less art internationally, or in some cases stopped importing it. At the same time, art dealers, as resourceful as the artists they serve, are starting to place more importance on their international presence, especially regarding art fairs.

Amidst all of this, important Brazilian art of the 1950s and 60s is becoming integrated into an evolving international understanding of the art of the past 70 years, as evidenced by the attentions of museums and collectors, and we are just at the beginning of this reconsideration. Contemporary Brazilian artists as diverse as Cildo Meireles, Tunga, Beatriz Milhazes, Adriana Varejão, Rivane Neuenschwander (so many great women artists in Brazil!), and many more, exhibit at major museums, galleries, and biennales, and enter major public and private collections around world. Exquisite major retrospectives of Mira Schendel and Cildo Meireles, recently presented at the Tate, and Lygia Clark at MOMA, are signs of a growing global reexamination of the recent history of art. 

With the devaluation of the real, Brazil is cheap again, and that will inevitably increase international visitorship to Brazil, which will raise engagement with Brazilian culture. I do not mean to diminish the hardships that individuals, businesses, and institutions will inevitably face. But as Brazil teaches us time and time again, while there will be challenges, and likely some casualties, creativity will survive and thrive. That resilience is in Brazil’s landscape and its cultural DNA.