"Boom," "Boom," "Boom": The Middle Class and "Latin American Art"

June 22, 2015

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B. Perat, Vernissage au Salon, 1866. Image from Wikimedia Commons

A World Bank Study published at the end of 2013 states that "between 2003 and 2009 the middle class in Latin America grew by 50%." Compared with what is happening in the United States and Europe, this information seems paradoxical. There, the idea of the extinction of the middle class has spread like wildfire, its apocalyptic implosion cited as a reason for everything, so much so that some outraged people even claim to detect the effects of this social cataclysm on the sphere of art. 

Dave Hickey––the American short story writer, essayist, unconventional art dealer, professor-by-default, and impassioned critic––was interviewed not long ago about his experiences over the course of more than half a century in universities, galleries, fairs, biennials and museums. When asked to describe the greatest change that had taken place over that time, Hickey replied: "The main change, which people haven't noticed, is that there's no middle class anymore––there's a courtier class, that would be you and me.  We're intellectual headwaiters to very rich people.  As a consequence, compared to the disposable income of contemporary collectors, art is cheaper than it ever has been.  A purchase that would mean a lot to a nice couple on the West Side would be nothing to these people.  Also collectors don't understand the geometry of price elevation in art, especially in historical art.  That means they flip the art too soon, which screws up the market.  That means they don't take care of it.  That means it doesn't matter to them, period.  I always wanted to sell artworks for enough money that the collector would walk by it and think, ‘$40,000!––and look at it!!’  I always hoped that there would be some kind of transubstantiation from money-value to art-value."

Although the situation seems to be different in Latin America, where each country claims for itself a kind of art "boom" in every district with cosmopolitan pretensions, it is important to note that the World Bank is reserved when it comes to the inevitability of the expansion of the region's middle class.  Toward the end, their report concludes: "Latin America finds itself at a crossroads: will it break (further) with the fragmented social contract that it inherited from its colonial past and continue to pursue greater parity of opportunities, or will it embrace even more forcefully a perverse model where the middle class opts out and fends for itself?"

What follows are six predictions made at this crossroads; they are specific, of course, to the small parish of art in the diverse communities found throughout a geographic chain of countries that includes a piece of the United States stolen from Mexico, passes through the West Indies, and extends all the way to a small piece of the Antarctic:

1.  New rich people, new art.  The new batch of people who occupy the wide staircase of the middle class will find in "contemporary art" the niche where they can become persons of taste with an art that is more challenging and risky on the surface, but also cheaper and more abundant.  Scattered throughout this intellectual art-within-reach, there will be bargains to be found on artists from the past who are in the process of being valorized by nascent art history and their intersections with the catalogue raisonné—but at the end of the day this is an anachronistic art more connected to the collecting of past elites and to the warehouse of the museum, than to any history yet to be written or to the ahistorical character of these emerging groups. 

The new middle class, riding the crest of a wave of economic growth, learns quickly and follows the trail blazed by the most recent cultural production.  If this class is so dependent upon access to education, the stability of an employment contract, and credit, why shouldn't it attempt to educate itself under the auspices of the art of the moment by asking for generous loans from the banks of this so-called new aesthetic? 

The oil painting by the octogenarian painter associated with the 1980s gives way to a painting in which the gesture is more of a concept than a naïve expression of joy.  The image, amplified to great scale, and cheap in terms of its photographic quality, will come across as bombastic by virtue of its size and its attempts at good taste, as well as its conceptual apparatus.  The bucolic landscape, the drunken clown, or the image of Chaplin's tramp will be replaced by pieces that emulate Warholian Pop for the walls of a new loft apartment with all the flawless practicality of an Apple Store. 

Little relics of the past will increasingly end up at the bottom of drawers in minimalist furniture.  The past will only be permitted when it exudes an aura of the retro, since the boutique bohemian doesn't only buy the object, but also the memory of its idealized past, as a fetish laden with nonexistent tradition. 

Every step across the floor of a gallery, an independent space, a fair, a biennial, or a museum will take our Adam and Eve farther away from their paradise of ignorance,  clothing them in intellectual apparel.  As a result there will be a need for more and more spaces and cocktail parties, more and more miles of "contemporary art" to create the capacity for the urgent whims of these passengers, who travel swiftly from screen to screen along the information highway.   

A whole generation of artists will be forgotten, their sin not having taken the leap into the contemporary soon enough; later on, once they are dead or their resistance has been overcome, they will be reclaimed by the secondary market of doctoral theses and gallery speculation, which sees for them a second opportunity on earth. 

2.  Normality.  Everything will be normal and will tend toward normalization.  The normal will appear in the figure of the exotic professional artist who, thanks to his past or his background, shines brightly in society and in the society pages.  The emerging classes will look to emerging artists for personal stories that resemble theirs: the story of having made it on their own, without illustrious pedigree or in light of a particular style or school.  Without these stories there will be no personalities, there will be no artists.   

Attitude will prevail over form, attitude will become form.  And an artistic attitude defined as ever more "authentic" will contrast with the conservatism of those artists who, in the interest of preserving their status as artists and the dream of living off the sale of products generated by their own physical or mental labor, become the most conservative members of the status quo that accommodates them.  In this way the genre of political art will be celebrated for its political correctness, and the art of protest will take care to maintain a position just at the margins of criminality.  Artists, dissatisfied critics of the world, will become ever more docile when it comes to the insular world of art, a type of obsequiousness that demands time and effort. 

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Honoré Daumier, Charmé de se voir exposé, l'original ici présent conduit son épouse au salon..., 1841. Image from Wikimedia Commons

3.  Lower-class arriviste.  The empty room left behind when one moves to a better one generates a sense of unease: Who will occupy the place now?  Who will be the next to inhabit such cramped quarters?  Social mobility leaves a specter in its wake, and its ghostly presence appears in the press, in the graph in a magazine that shows how the country, despite its advances, still leads in indicators of poverty.

Yes, when possible, poverty will be confronted by paying taxes, or by dabbling in philanthropy (which helps avoid the payment of taxes while simultaneously granting prestige), but confronting the specter of restlessness will still require a sensitive apparition, a lyrical journalism capable of creating works of outrage.  A "contemporary art" that, because it is photogenic, is used to decorate niches of sympathy where the emerging middle class can feel the sublime, that sensation of being suspended between poverty and wealth, and for a brief instant recall with a guilty conscience that––out of a fear of fear itself––it hasn't yet figured out, and never will, how to utilize its advantages in order to abolish privilege or extend it to others.

This flickering into reality is temporary for the parachuting artist who drops into a marginal community, captures his material and then takes off, as well as for those who contemplate him from the comfortable zone of art and are astonished by the probing of this hunter-gatherer as he makes his way through the lower depths.  Faced with the looming threat of a future loss of social status that would convert them into objects of haughty contemplation for those who are richer than they are, the middle class and its artists keep pace by doing work, work, and more work.   There is no longer time for leisure, only business.  Poor poverty. 

4. More education for more artists.  And more education for all those who want to be artists, or more education so that everyone who wants to be an artist has to get an education, or education so that artists can know that they are artists and those that want to recognize them as artists know that they are educated.  More education as a filter for separating artists who have an education from those who don't.  When they complete their educations, more education for artists: master's degrees, specializations, doctorates, diplomas.  Or alternative spaces outside of the academy where artists analyze education to blow off stream and talk about the poor educations they received and the good educations they hope to impart on others since, sooner or later, many of these artists will become educators––a possible fate for every artist as art booms become more frequent.  But making art will never become a profession.  In the classified pages one will never find an ad that reads, "Contemporary art gallery seeks artist to propel to fame."  In the empire of the middle class, the artist must resign himself to joining the cultural court in the role of temporary employee or intellectual hobbyist.  

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Honoré Daumier, Aspect du salon le jour de l'ouverture..., 1857. Image from Wikimedia Commons

5. Curated curators.  For a larger middle class, more artists; for more artists, more production and regulation, and the language of this law, when formulated verbally, in words, finds its paradigm of authority in a legal figure out of Roman law: the curator.  If in Rome the curator was the one charged with speaking for those who had no voice before the law––children, the mentally handicapped, the insane––in every emerging art scene it will be this person who speaks for artists, who is capable of securing public and private funds and serving as the fuse––or the responsible party––in case there is a power surge during a given event. 

If curation is the transportation system for art, the curator is the driver.  To think that curation is at the service of language, and not of artists, institutions, or the powerful, or that its readings can go against the grain of the established canon or the intentions of the artist, is a whim that is very rarely indulged.  What is asked of the curator is that he or she provides a service as part of a chain of production in which value and price are assumed to be the same thing. 

One of the many services local curators offer is the production of infomercials that keep the various franchises of "Latin American art" up and running.  There are independent curators who, behind closed doors, criticize the clichés that characterize "Latin American art" but are more than willing to supply advertorials designed to promote "Latin American art," and who therefore, by being dependent, can ride the wave of "Latin American art" while continuing to call themselves independent.

6.  For more art, more critical posturing and less criticism.  Yes, we are all critics, but the reality is that given the exponential growth of art, there is proportionally less criticism.  As lack of independence, and pretensions to professionalism become more common, there will be less criticism.  The only energetic criticism to be found today lies in the critical posturing of those "outraged" voices in the arts who evoke, with narcissistic nostalgia, the youthfulness and artistic vanguards of the late 60s and early 70s.  But the new nonconformists seem to invoke a whole series of values that those rebellious generations would have considered bourgeois: "work, home, and family," or, to put it in art speak, "grant, institution, and community." 

Art criticism, which critiques what artists make or the conditions in which art is produced and consumed, is increasingly folded into the broad universe of social networks, a space so broad and so wide that the only risk one runs when firing off a salvo is that it goes unheard and loses itself in the void, and where one is expected not to rock the boat since confrontation––to a greater or lesser degree––might prevent future employment: if everyone lives off art, any criticism launched at art, to a greater or lesser degree affects the income generated through the concept of art.   

In light of these predictions, the "perverse model" of the Latin American middle class is reproduced in the dynamics of the art that interests it, which is bought for exorbitant prices and will never reconcile the value of money with the value of art––as Hickey wished––simply because it has no concept of the latter and does not seem to be interested in obtaining any, or in altering the social contract beyond its typography.

Maybe, for art, it is better this way.

––Lucas Ospina*

*Professor, Universidad de los Andes