Turmoil and Cultural Response

January 27, 2016

On 9 December 2015, the Brazilian newspaper “Folha de São Paulo” reproduced a report by the Federal Police which detailed deviations in public funds amounting to a total of R$39,5 billion (which is around US$10 billion). This is part of a crisis that goes beyond political, economic, or social aspects, something that leading local journalists and commentators are calling a ‘moral crisis’.

The impacts of the crisis are resonating throughout different social classes and segments. But there are signs that culture is playing its part in bringing about positive change, and that the behavior of art world professionals and enthusiasts is starting to adapt.

For example, local collectors seem more interested in supporting activist or socially engaged art than in searching for art investment deals—as was the case in the recent past. The PARTE art fair last November (2015) promoted a roundtable discussion about pixo, a radical art form present in the streets of São Paulo that has historically called for a wide-scale reassessment of social values. This once neglected social movement was represented for the first time in an art fair and warmly welcomed by the avid participation of a large public. The event helped strengthen understanding of the values of a different, socially-minded group.

Meanwhile, artists and other creative people are beginning to express their indignity at the situation in Brazil, and to collaborate however they can. A group of professionals and donors, including myself, got together last October, 2015, to launch a project aimed at facilitating political art responses to the abuses of the government through an activist art award scheduled to be launched in February.

One of the organizations behind the massive demonstrations that brought up to a million people to the streets in March 2015 realized that culture could amplify the impact of their message and help the population express its frustration in innovative ways. So they staged a talk about art activism at their national conference in November. The event was well-received and inspired actions and further collaboration between the art specialist and the politically active group.

In times of crisis, culture has a specific value. Indeed, if the heads of both chambers of congress along with one of the country’s leading bankers can commit crimes of major consequence but remain free and continue to exercise power, the message given to the population is one of inverted moral values. The confusion is such that even strategizing a response is difficult—how can a parliament fragmented into 35 political parties coordinate a response?

The answer may be in looking for a common denominator, capable of connecting across the different spheres, to help reinstate moral values and judgment. The British playwright Tom Stoppard once said, in reference to the challenges his country faced after the 2008 credit crisis, that art "provides the moral matrix from which we draw our values." Similarly, the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says that culture was initially conceived as “a navigation tool to guide social evolution towards a universal human condition.” Today, could culture be the antidote to Brazil’s moral crisis, providing the basis through which the country could work towards moral enlightenment? If so, then the recent economic turmoil leaves the cultural sphere with a strong sense of responsibility and a lot of work to do.

As much as economics has its role in the art world, the market is not at the heart of art. Deep contradictions and frustrations are some of the real fuels of creativity, and there is plenty of both in Brazil today. A new generation has a good opportunity to arise, and maintain the country’s cultural momentum as a way of strengthening the muscle required to lever historical change—as it has done in the past.