Within the last ten years, a director at The Whitney was asked, “Why isn’t there more Chicano Art in the Biennial?” His response was, “What’s Chicano Art?”
His question was telling. He probably intended no malice but was simply ignorant of the phenomenon. He had been at the alleged epicenter of the fine art world his entire career. He had personally known hundreds of illustrious artists of what he believed to be remarkable diversity of styles and identities. He was the archetype of the “ideal” audience; the appointed meta-arbiter of contemporary aesthetic value. He could not imagine that any artistic movement of aesthetic significance had evaded his awareness.
Yet he was not jefe in the barrio. There no one gave a shit what he thought. Almost nobody even knew he existed and they certainly didn’t need his stinking badge to call themselves “artists.” Painters, poets and musicians have always abounded in Mexican-American communities where aesthetic culture has neither been presumed the exclusive province of the economic elite nor an expendable aspect of social existence. Art is everywhere and pretty much for everyone. This is not to be Pollyanna about the harsh realities of life but only to observe the flowers that stubbornly bloom from the cracked earth.
There are the rich cultural traditions infused with a Mestizaje mixture of Arte de Populare, Catholicism, la familia, colonialism, indigeny, exploitation, deprivation, immigration, violence, assimilation and resistance. It is a complex stew that is fluid at once self-awarely highbrow and lowbrow, self-defeating and self-empowering, concerned with authenticity but intrinsically hybrid.
A Chicano artist may reference a baroque religious source on one day and low rider car culture the next, sometimes in the same painting. Painters as different as Rigoberto Gonzalez and Adan Hernandez may depict the violent consequences of the drug war and, like Rigoberto, ennoble the victims in a Baroque Pieta, or like Adan, depict a romanticized pachuco executing a drive by in a stylized film noir aesthetic. Seemingly continuous yet Pyrrhic struggles for liberation may be alluded to through the invocation of Zapatistas whose political relevance extends to contemporary battles for social justice and economic enfranchisement. An image of a calavara may convey subtle political content and be a reference to the prints of Guadlupe Posada but it might also simultaneously reference a Catholic tradition of familial reverence like Dia de los Muertos as well as an Aztec statue of Xochipilli, the god of art, games, beauty, and homosexuality, seated in a trance and moaning under the influence of the psychotropic flowers that ornament his body. All these meanings are potentially simultaneously present.
In the unlikely event that the elite contemporary art maven might be exposed to such imagery, all they generally perceive is folk art and Halloween. This is because they are limited by the scope of their own social geography. They are self-congratulatory for their memory of MLK and Selma but their recollection of Caesar is a little fuzzy, he may have had something to do with raisins. Even then, the presence of the calavara seemed a bit too literal, too melodramatic, too low brow for their tastes.
Chicano art is about both affirmation and resistance. The very word carries political and class connotations that make almost everyone uneasy. Many middle class Mexican-Americans are reluctant to affiliate themselves with the term and its class laden imagery that might impinge on their upward social or economic mobility and may not reflect their personal political sentiments. The Anglo bourgeoise tend to see the term as threateningly militant and its imagery occasionally macabre and potentially disturbing. The newly arriving Mexican bourgeoise too often tend to loathe the word and any affirmation of the pocho culture they think it represents. The Northeastern elite simply see Chicano Art through the prism of primitivism and as a marginal subcultural phenomenon, superstitious, uncomfortably Catholic, graphically violent and out of step with their aesthetic pretensions. Chicano art is not cynical enough, not materialist enough, not epistemologically neutral enough to lend itself to the fatuously ambiguous rhetoric that dominates high brow aesthetic discourse.
This goes to the question of “Who is the audience for Chicano Art?” In my hometown of San Antonio, there is a tellingly cruel joke, “Why are so many Chicano artists print makers?” The cynical reply: “Because nobody will buy a Chicano painting.” Like most harsh humor, it reveals an uncomfortable truth. Go ahead, name all the important Chicano Art collectors trying to astutely amass collections that document the movement…. Cheech Marin, Dr Guerra, Ricardo Romo, Joe Diaz…. yeah, I just shot my wad, if you know of others I would like to meet them.
Even these gentlemen are not actually supporting a “market.” They don’t generally compete at auction to acquire works nor do they usually purchase from galleries. The Chicano art world is small enough that these few collectors tend to go directly to the studios where the handful of artists they collect are eager to provide them with valuable works just to be in their collections or to pay the back rent on the studio. This is not to say that these collectors have not done their share to advocate for the art by willingly lending works from their collections for exhibition or have not helped many a struggling artist get over a financial hump. Indeed, they have been individually generous but their mode of activities has not tended to foster the creation of a more formal and stable market for Chicano Art.
But what about the museums? Museums are stages for social theater as much as they are cathedrals of enlightenment. Most directors and curators have never attended a university that even offered a course in Chicano Art, let alone committed themselves to the discipline. Go ahead, name all the Chicano museum directors…. ??? Name the important Chicano Art curators, regardless of their ethnicity…. Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, Ruben Cordova, Cathy Vargas ….. there are a handful of others but mostly working out of marginal or regional venues. As for Chicanos on museum Boards that come armed with substantial enough check books and political clout to command the Boards’ attention and dictate curatorial and collecting policy, well these are more rare than hen’s teeth. As both Mao and Zapata realized, all power flows from the barrel of a gun and big guns cost big money.
You can find the Chicano artworks at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, the Centro Cultural Aztlan and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago and occasionally at the Blue Star Art Space. David Rubin (formerly at the San Antonio Museum of Art) has been an enthusiast and included acquisitions and display of works by David Zamora Casas, Jesse Trevino, Alberto Mijangos, Albert Alvarez, John Hernandez and Vincent Valdez among others. The McNay Museum has even offered the obligatory nod in Hispanocentric San Antonio with exhibitions that included works by Vincent Valdez and Alex Rubio.
SAMA’s initiative over a decade ago to mount Cheech Marin’s “Chicano Visions” exhibit was a groundbreaking effort, despite its curatorial issues, but it never generated the momentum that its advocates had hoped. Indeed, disciplined curation has been a challenge for Chicano Art as long as I can remember. Chicano exhibitions are most frequently one person shows that tend to idealize the biography of the artist and offer an almost voyeuristic perspective across class lines for the museums thus allowing a window into a kind of exotic danger. They tend to either fall prey to idealization and noble savage laden presumptions or to reaffirming stereotypes that are ostensibly rationalized by Latino voices. As often as not, Chicano Art exhibits are occasions for political flag waving and celebrating La Raza more than critically examining the aesthetics of La Cultura. Serious examination across disciplines comparing and contrasting sub-phenomenon in the movement are rare, as are bonafide efforts to make formalistic or qualitative distinctions between works by Chicano artists. Curators of Chicano Art are not always held to the most rigorous standards. Sometimes even the museums themselves can become fiascos as in the case of the much troubled Museo Alameda in San Antonio who’s viability was from its inception precarious, despite some first quality exhibits curated there by Ruben Cordova and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto.
Even I have made a few admittedly feeble attempts including an “Apocalyptic Visions” exhibit at the University of the Incarnate Word that compared the paintings of Alex Rubio to those of Graham Toms. In my capacity as Executive Director of IMAS, I oversaw the exhibitions in the museum’s annex galleries that featured artists like Rey Santiago, Jesus De La Rosa, Manuel Miranda and a fellow named Paul Valadez. But these exhibits were not in the main galleries of the museum. They were executed in haste on shoestring budgets and the caliber of curatorial integrity I would have preferred was not on display. This was by no means the fault of the artists but due to the neglect by a distracted and underfunded museum director that wasn’t exactly getting resounding cheers from his Board for attempting to exhibit Chicano Art. Mexican national maestri were politically permissible but more expensive serious exhibitions of indigenous Tejano art were not welcomed with forthcoming financial contributions.
This goes to another issue about the market. When one is trying to seduce a Board of Trustees or other funders to provide resources for exhibitions, those funders tend to be business people, not art aficionados. Their knowledge is often superficial and their motives, at best, mixed. As often as not, they affiliate themselves with museums in order to garner social prestige and upward social mobility. If one thinks that one can best social climb via a trip through the barrio then one hasn’t been paying much attention. The two things these alleged patrons tend to comprehend are celebrity and money.
With the possible exceptions of SAMA and the McNay, when a director of a typical museum rattles off a list of names like Mel Casas, Jesse Trevino, Caesar Martinez, Gronk Nicandro, Adan Hernandez, Luis Jimenez, George Yepes, Jacinto Guevara, David Zamora Casas , Albrechto Alvarez, Richard Hernandez, Alex Rubio, Vincent Valdez, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Judy Baca, Cathy Vargas, Jessica Correa etc. the director is met with glazed stares as his Board asks, “Who are these people and why haven’t I heard of any of them.” “Perhaps because you haven’t spent many evenings down on South Flores Street” is the reply. When the inevitable follow up question is asked, “Well, how much is this art worth?” The disappointment is palpable when the answer comes back, “A few hundred to a few thousand dollars a piece.” What your Board is thinking even if they are too coy to vocalize it is, “Where’s the prestige in being associated with this art? How can it be good if I haven’t heard of it and it isn’t worth any money? Why should we allocate scarce resources to something that is potentially controversial and divisive? Why should we mount an exhibit that nobody on the East Coast or in the art press will even acknowledge took place? How is this a good thing for our reputations as individuals and as an institution?” At which point, said museum director is left with little more than moralistic platitudes about the museum’s mission and obligation to the wider community. Perhaps he even offers a critical aesthetic justification that simply goes over their heads. Regardless, they are generally unimpressed and remain unpersuaded that this is an appropriate endeavor that commands their money.
If this is what happens in museums in South Texas, imagine the surreality of such a proposition at The Whiney, the Gugenheim, MoMA, LAMoCA or the de Menil? Despite their multimillion dollar Latin American Art initiative, don’t hold your breath waiting for the MFAH to become the oracular vehicle for the canonization of Chicano Art anytime soon. Cheech has been courting LACMA for awhile and claims to have made some headway at that venue but I doubt that institution will enthusiastically dedicate the resources to the promulgation of Chicano Art that they would eagerly commit to an artist or movement that has been pre-canonized by the Eastern establishment.
So who is the audience for Chicano Art? At the opening of the “Apocalyptic Visions” exhibit Adan Hernandez was in attendance to support his amigo Alex Rubio. While I admire and respect Adan as an artist and a friend, those that know him and love him, and those who don’t, will readily acknowledge that he is prone to being a curmudgeon. That evening, in typically frank fashion he opined that he didn’t care much for the works of Graham Toms, they were too slick and Disneyesque for Adan’s more colloquial tastes. But he predictably affirmed his appreciation for Alex’s paintings even though he thought them somewhat diminished by association with work to which he thought it didn’t relate. Adan observed, “Chicano Art should be made by Chicanos to be seen by Chicanos alongside other Chicano Art.” Despite the fact that one of the primary reasons I had chosen to curate these two disparate outsider artists together was because I believed that Chicano artists would not get the respect to which they were entitled until their work was presented outside the ethnocentric context of the barrio, I still couldn’t help but think that to some extent, Adan might be correct. After all, Adan Hernandez had put his money where his mouth was when he ostensibly declined a solo exhibition of his paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art simply because he felt they didn’t have enough Chicano artists in their collection and didn’t understand the work. The Contemporary art curators at the Met haven’t exactly been eager to collect Chicano Art after that unprecedented snub.
I began to ask, “What was wrong with leaving the art back in the barrio where I had found it? Did it really need the canonization that I was so intent on seeing it achieve? Was it not rich enough, relevant enough and vibrant enough in the culture in which and for which it was created? Were the murals not glorious on the old buildings and freeway underpasses where they ennobled and empowered their communities? What was wrong with it remaining Arte de Populare and why was I so insistent on seeing that it was awarded the stinking badge that I thought it deserved?” The more that I thought about it, the more I began to think that its canonization was more my hang up than it was of the artists themselves. After all, if the fine art aristocracy didn’t want it and the artists didn’t need a badge who was I to try to force a cultural melange that nobody seemed to require?
Then I had a selfish epiphany, Chicano Art and Chicano artists had illuminated my life. They had changed my perspective on the potential legitimacy of contemporary art. They had provided me with narrative and social justice, with craft and figuration, with moral high ground and complex moral ambiguity. Chicano artists had provided me with a contemporary art culture that I could actually respect and with art with which I could finally empathize. I realized that blond haired and blue eyed though I was, I had inadvertently become a byproduct of the Mestizaje experience and, at least for me, there was no turning back. I didn’t need Adan’s stinking badge anymore than he required mine.
I came to appreciate that this art was inevitably going to be of increasing cultural relevance even if the barrio didn’t demand it and the Academy didn’t currently value it. The demographic destiny was clear. Art of this period and this culture, while under-appreciated in the present, was inevitably going to become cherished by future generations and would ultimately extend its influence beyond the contemporary barrio to the wider culture as a whole and we would all eventually be more enriched for it. Adan was wrong, we all needed Chicano Art’s passion, its integrity, its innate hybridity, its capacity to conflate the low brow and the high brow into a visual language that was more democratic, less elitist and ultimately more historically significant than any of the decadent capriccios and monuments to vanity that could currently be found in the oligarchical cathedrals of aesthetic dogma. I came to believe that this destiny was inevitable regardless of anything I did or didn’t do. So why not just do it?
Chicano art will always be fluid, defy easy categorization and will always be evolving in dogmas, politics and imagery. It is art that authentically flows from life and that life is ultimately irrepressible.
So who is the audience for Chicano Art? Right now, it is principally other Chicano artists showing in studios and makeshift galleries sharing the work and providing inspiration to each other, mostly off the radar of the dominant aesthetic arbiters of either mainstream or elite culture. But it is eventually coming to a place near all of us and all who appreciate artistic integrity, authentic cultural expression and profound narrative illuminating the human condition will be the wiser and more genuinely human upon its arrival.