Mixed Blessings: Multiculturalism and the Colonial Legacy

October 25, 2019

In 1990, Lucy Lippard published the book Mixed Blessings: New Art in Multicultural America. The text adopted the term multiculturalism after rejecting other, more established ways of designating “otherness”—or what we would refer to today as diversity—and in spite of the fact that by the mid-80s the term had become institutionalized within the academic world and, from a political perspective, belonged to a certain strain of non-activist rhetoric. Lippard knew she couldn’t speak of “Third-World artists” because, as Vietnamese-American filmmaker Trinh T. Mihn-ha has noted, there is a Third World in every First World, and vice versa. Nor could she use the concept of “minority art,” a term whose ambivalence was already twenty years old. Indeed, we never refer to the Sistine Chapel as “ethnic art” even though we could, given that the “ethnic” refers to the idea of a group fundamentally unified by cultural practices. In any case, the real and pertinent question today was laid out plainly in this debate: how much does it matter how we are referred to, how we refer to ourselves and how we refer to others?

A year after Lippard’s book appeared in 1991—though it would be published a couple of years later under the title American Visions / Visiones de las Américas—the “Artistic and cultural identity in Latin America” conference took place.[1] Here, once again, debates arose concerning ways of naming with regard to the efficacy (or lack thereof) of applying a common label to all of Latin America as a strategy for raising awareness of the region, and warning calls arose regarding the problems that this loss of nuance could bring about. Some of the issues that had previously been discuseed by Marta Traba and Mario Pedrosa, among others, were taken up once again. As Ivo Mesquita, one of the event’s organizers, explained, “Today the question is how we can avoid this stereotypical image of the continent in which the notions of folklore and the irrational seep into all relationships and products.”[2]

Mesquita was not wrong: drawing attention to the art produced in this region had both positive and negative effects, since the region did indeed receive increased attention, but nuances were lost and it sometimes devolved into a search for a certain kind of “exotic” art capable of adapting to what the hegemonic discourse understood to be “Latin American.” What seemed Latin American in the imagination of the hegemonic discourse. Perhaps due to this, certain Brazilian and Cuban artists whose work conformed to this image found success prior to Argentina’s Madí group or the Brazilian Concretists and Venezuelan Kineticists: these latter three did not fit with the stereotype.

Therefore, nearly thirty years later, it seems fitting to take up Lippard’s argument and the debates of the then-emergent Latin American critical circles, for whom the postcolonial approach was considered insufficient and colonial in and of itself, falling prey to canonical European and North American readings. It seems fitting because in reality, the current debate about the nomenclature of what until recently was known as “colonial art” is similar in its basis and concerns to that of the late 1980s, when interest in contemporary art gave way to interest in modern art and, on that reverse chronological path, arrived at “colonial art,” sparking a need for its reformulation.

As was the case with Lippard, who sought out the least-bad of the possible denominations with her use of multiculturalism, from the standpoint of museums and the academic world today the question is how to refer to the art produced during the period of Spanish and Portuguese domination in a way that is more appropriate and—with apologies for the redundancy—less colonialist. Museums like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, for example, have opted to refer to their galleries containing “colonial art” as “Art of the Americas,” an interesting point of view since it obliges us to rethink certain art from the United States that is closely related to that of Latin America—in its use of spatial problematics as a strategy for subversion, among other issues.

However, personally, and with all due respect for what others have said, I worry about universalizing categories. What would happen if rather than seeking out a common label, we chose to strictly use terms such as “New Granadan,” (from Nueva Granada) “New Spanish,” (from Nueva España) “Cuzco School” or “Lima School”? Isn’t seeking a common term another way of standardizing without recognizing the nuances of very different realities, as occurred with the term “Latin American art” in the late 1980s? And isn’t it, then, a colonialist maneuver? 

Historian Svetlana Alpers reflected on how the Renaissance or the Baroque did not arrive to all parts of Europe at the same time, which is why it was better to speak, for example, of 16th-century Spanish art or Dutch art of the 17th century. So perhaps it would be better if we were to speak of the art produced in what is now known as Mexico (or Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, etc.) in the 17th century, or the 18th century. Nevertheless, there remains an open debate with regard to the search for an adequate term to refer to the art produced during colonial times, even if the most interesting aspect of this debate is not the final verdict, but rather the very fact that it exists.


[1] "Artistic and cultural identity in Latin America", a conference convened by Arts International in collaboration with Memorial da América Latina, Sept. 23-25, 1991, to coincide with the opening of the 1991 São Paulo Bienal.

[2] Jacob, Mary Jane, Tomassi, Noreen, Mesquita, Ivo, Arts International, Memorial da América Latina et al. American visions = Visiones de las Américas : artistic and cultural identity in the Western Hemisphere. ACA Books in association with Arts International : Allworth Press, New York, N.Y, 1994.