Terms of Power

October 25, 2019

Colonial. In its broadest sense, the word carries with it the evocation of the unequal distribution of power. Perhaps no other term suggests the same sort of situation, which is not only a specific moment or event–as signified by the concept of conquest–, nor direct domination through overt acts of visible violence. Colonial situations configure, rather, forms of institutionalized subjugation that weave tense and uneven negotiations over time. It is a necessary term, one that is indispensable to take stock of the contrasts and complexities of Latin American societies between the conquest and political independence in the early nineteenth century. It is also an important tool to reflect more broadly on other situations of domination that ensued and that continue to develop today.

The term has of course not remained the same throughout history. In its current usage, colonial refers not only to direct political, economic and administrative control exerted by one political unit over external territories, but also to more diffuse but no less effective discursive and social practices that generate control of certain social groups over others. Whether the term should be used to define an entire period, or the cultural production of regions subjected to colonial domination, is open to debate. In the sense it is understood in modern critical thought, when applied to the cultural production of Latin America under Habsburg and Bourbon rule, the term is certainly not equivalent to “viceregal,” which is the designation favored by historians who judge the label “colonial art” pejorative, or who consider that it implies a dependent or secondary status with respect to the art of Spain. Viceregal may be used to name the type of government prevalent in the Americas, and perhaps also the arts produced in the viceroyalties, but does not capture the full complexity of the distribution of power within particular societies. These terms signify differently and are not necessarily opposed.

Yet there are values associated with the choice of usage. Depending on the context, I use both terms but give priority to “colonial” in discussions of artistic production. The term defines a critical position and proposes a particular perspective on the practice of art history and its bearing on the present. It is not by chance that those who favor use of the term “viceregal art” tend to focus on forms of art history centered on immanent notions of artistic practice, and who demonstrate perhaps less interest in relating the visual arts to larger social issues and contexts. And it is also true that it is the term of choice of more conservative political and historiographic positions, some of which seek to deny the very fact of colonialism.

“Colonial art” not only points insistently to the broader inscriptions of artistic practice but can also allow for more subtle understandings of social relations. To the extent that it is understood as the expression of material but also discursive forms of power, the term has helped historians move beyond the dualistic visions of colonial society that simplistically oppose the figure of the Spanish colonizer to the indigenous colonized. Conceived as a complex system of relations and exchanges, it has the advantage that it may be applied to myriad situations that admit ambiguity and the possibility of changing positions in a richer and more complex scenario.

In the final account, the category “colonial art” necessarily implies artistic production in a broader social fabric. It guides us to a position where the arts can be understood as part of the larger sphere of material culture, the space of things that build the meanings that represent and actively construct social meaning. Moving beyond a restrictive notion of aesthetics, “colonial art” speaks to broader systems of cultural, social and political representation. Its use depends on a matter of choice, one that inevitably stakes out a position with respect to our perspectives on the art of the past.