Email correspondance

Elaine A. King
Carnegie Mellon University, USA
María de Mater O'Neill
El cuarto del Quenepon, PR
Feb-April 2001

Elaine King's essay

An interesting proposal by King, «Changing Culture and Transaesthetics Within a Post-Modern Enlightenment» (publish by the now close cultural e-zine Quenepón, May 3, 2001), suggested that the Internet as media, can serve as a democratizing space for dialogue, creation and commonality. Equally interesting is the exchange started by Mari Mater O'Neill apropos of King's article. O'Neill comments on the increasing elitism in Internet media, the political weakening of certain contemporary art, and the complicity between Internet media and such results, as well as the presentation of the artist's world as pop culture. The artists has change her opinions about some of the ideas express in the emails correspondance with Dr. King, nevertheless, it is publish for the purpose of documentation.

Maria de Mater O'Neill, February 20, 2001 writes:
Elaine here we go: The understanding of a work of art has always depended of on the knowledge of the artist's medium and historical background, I don't think this is new because of technology. What technology might have done in some cases is provided the visibility of more artist's work, a way of surpassing the different obstacles that the industry has built. The notion that identity is totally mobile, that culture is not national, all references to the so called globalization phenomenon - in particular that of Caribbean countries - is a dangerous concept.

Our history, especially in Puerto Rico, has been a history of constant national affirmation. That identity like culture evolves, I agree. But the idea that all of a sudden, because we now have to circumscribe to this notion of "we all live in a big house", the resistance to us to moving in, makes us an unpopular group. All these years trying to make our voices heard… and now it is too late, because we are told that using our unique voice is just being rude. The premise your ideas lies in a first world perspective. Since you are part of that culture, you assume that reality is just the same everywhere. That the questions you make are important globally, when in reality they are only important in your culture.

I do think we live in a time of simulation; we start thinking it, feeling like it, we believe in it, but the reality is that it's not. And this happens because we never have contact with the real thing in the first place. One of the myths is that technology will free artists from the power hierarchy of the arts. Technology is very expensive, plus you have to live in country with the adequate infrastructure to support it. The artist has now realized that the art world has become more and more like the music industry. You have your promoters, the producers, the publicists, the trendsetters, the agents and the makers. So I don't care if one does installations, video over the net, never ending experimental html, the moment you get noticed by the industry, you're written about, invited to talk, receive grants to do it… you're already in the industry. The work does not have to be the product- the artist herself or himself can be the product.

The Internet, the era of global information, an instant messaging world, would not give the artists that marginality, that space. I thing it will do the opposite - speed up the visibility of the work in the industry. So it might not look as if there is an art center, but there is, powerful and invisible. You're writing from it. What has changed, is that artists, humanists, some of us, do not care about what comes out of the center. We think we don't need the center's approval, visibility and analysis. This is not because we have the Internet, but because we have years of cultural and national affirmation. "National" has become an ugly word, full of bigotry and ethnocentric connotations. It is true, as you state in the article, that artist's collaborated with the facilitation of technology. Right now we are debating through technology. But, make a note, I am debating in your language. I have to go over to "your house" to communicate with you. It's still a one way street.

I also agree with you that when culture changes and evolves, ideas and perception do too but technology does not necessarily shorten that gap. Art for me is perception, and this perception lives intrinsically on the person's cultural, socio-political environment and history. There is no universal art, not global art, there is a tendency to homogenize everything according to the perception of those with secure identities that live in economically powerful countries. Let's talk about the body, the body as identity. It is fair to say that self-portraits of Latin-American artists deal with no formal or academic representation of the body. The body is represented as a metaphor, as others see us vs. how we perceive ourselves. Gays, lesbians, the so called "minorities", have in the 20th century and on, a tendency to use the self-portrait more than other groups from Europe, US, etc. Is it that when this uneven power is presented the artists need to establish and make a point of the obvious?

Let's talk about the body and globalization. It is true, modern art ideas established that art had a spiritual social function (since photography came into picture there was no longer need to represent reality faithfully) but in the globalization art era, the artist has -for me an impossible task- to address humanity as a one entity, disregarding differences that make perception so varied. Globalization has erased the body, the face, the identity and has become a blur, a looking-glass, that separates the artists from the community. So to a country like Puerto Rico - with a still unresolved political relationship with the US - what does it mean when the body disappears?

In the past, artists didn't work in isolation in the studio, they communicated which each other, hung out in bars, gave each other criticism, fought amongst themselves. As a matter of fact, the art critic was also involved. Now, in the art industry, the artist is more isolated than ever. We might now know what others are doing, but the discussion is pretty much over. No wonder there is no major collective movement of art now! There is a medium movement, the uses of technology, but to exchanges software, techniques, even computers, is not an exchange of ideas. Painting is a physical activity. The record of the artist's hand is ever present. Painting, because it is body-oriented, is a craft. A craft needs time. With the computer, the marks of the body are not present, they are not needed. Now, time and space are less than before, historically speaking. A computer helps us speed things up. I admit it can be a superb art tool, as any other, but the artists has to be aware of the simulation characteristic it possesses.

Art needs time. Ideas need time. Have you seen the Biennial of Cuba, which is mostly installation and technology pieces? You can "see" it in the Web. Most people I spoke to that attended, came out empty. Where are the ideas, where are the artists, where is humanity? Why did the Biennial of Cuba decide to deal with communication and technology? The Internet in Cuba is restricted. Software can not be sold in Cuba because of the embargo. For who was this Biennial really for? What was it's purpose? To prove that Latinos are not techno-retards? With all the interactivity, and street interventions, what did it do for the non artistic community in Havana? Or was this a show put up for the outsiders, powerful museum curators, international art magazine editors, celebrity artists? Why would anyone create an exhibition based on a mere fashionable medium instead of on ideas? The world has not become smaller because of technology, instead it is more remote and blurry. Innovative work always emerges in unexpected places.

A perfect example is the artists who were "discovered" by the first world art scene. This is true in everything, like we are nothing until we're given a final seal of approval. As a young student in Cooper Union, I was told by Ashton, in her art history class, the reason she did not discuss any work from the Caribbean and Latin America was "because nothing has happened down there". This was before Fridas's explosion in the art scene in New York. I was so upset I had to drop out the course. Recently I was told the same line, this time regarding music, by a vice president of a recording company in the US, except it extended to Ricky Martin. You see, according to him, nothing was happening in Latin music before him. According to whom? Because they don't know our history, it is therefore not validated.

So, to answer your question,
>1."Does an artist from a certain part of the world
> need to stick with symbols and styles still
>associated with that part of the world?"
There is no global without the local.
>2."It is it appropriate, for example,
>for an American artist to paint in a
>traditional Chinese style or visa versa?"
How could they? To truly understand the meanings of a particular visual culture one has to understand the social imagery it was built on. You have to be Chinese, if not, one cannot escape oneself , it would be a perception of the Other. It would be anthropological.

>3."Will we eventually become so connected
>that diversity and heterogeneity will perhaps
>evolve into a culture of homogeneity?"
Homogeneity comes from power. Its is dictated from a powerful center. It is the refusal of the power center to learn from the Other. And why should they? Why would the Others, us, care? Do we have to be included in the first world essays, shows, etc? Times have changed, maybe because technology or maybe because of cultural endurance. It is fair to say, that it wasn't until recently that Latin American and Caribbean artists were able to curate - all by themselves - a mayor exhibition (5 actually) at Reina Sofia in Spain.

>4."It appears that such an evolution toward a
>global cultural style is on the rise as evidenced
>at both Documenta X and the 48Th Venice Biennale,
>and the 53rd Carnegie International."
Those are three examples of first world centers of power. You are documenting your own world and how the rest of the world is perceived by you. It has nothing to do with our reality. Nada. Quenepón is now including work both in French and English in an effort to bring out the artists, writers, etc. from the French and English-speaking Caribbean. We encountered so much difficulty in establishing contact through the Internet with other Caribbean islands. The Dominican Republic has constant interruptions in electrical energy. Cuba is restricted. Haiti and the smaller islands have very few art pages. But at the same time, we get many entries from the United States. No wonder. We have 60.000 readers per edition, but it has does nothing to shorten the gap with the other islands. In the Internet, we have found we are more isolated. We have the computers, the software, the technology as any first world cultural ezine, and it has done nada. You must understand that I'm responding from my cultural, socio-historical background. Neither you nor myself hold the truth. It lies between us.

Elaine A. King, 5 March 2001 writes:
Dear Maria, I am going to address these ideas that you expressed:
>"... All these years trying to make our voice heard,
>and now is too late, because we are told that using are
>unique voice is just being rude. The premise your ideas
>are working are totally from the first world perspective,
>since, you are part of that culture, you assume that the
>reality is just the same everywhere. That the question you
>make are important globally, when in reality is only
>important in your culture."

Scholars and artists who are no longer are satisfied with the Marxist reduction of social and cultural reality to material forces, champion Deconstructivism--they foresee their own critical systems. Both systems that underlie much critical theory are synchronic--that is, they are anti-historicism in their outlook. Each aim at eliminating a consideration of the individual and of personal consciousness in favor of all inclusive, objective systems that reject the importance of the author. Only the remaining product matters and the experience of the viewer is primary—the author’s intention is no longer of any consequence. What are of importance are the codes operating in the unconscious.

Moreover Deconstructivism and Post-Structuralism as applied to the arts and humanities finds little worth in western traditions—Third World cultures and marginal social systems are exalted and held in high esteem. The debt to Nietzsche and his nihilist ideas and unlimited relativism saturated 90s art and much critical discourse. Nietzsche asserted in «The Will to Power», "European culture, has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with its tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect." The thesis of Neitzsche has been given a new light in the writings of Baudrillard and Lyotard that have become influential on artists in the 1990s.

According to Robert Morgan: The two most recent decades have been a period of our culture where criticism has ceased to function as operable in relation to works of art….Criticism as it related to the experience and analysis of art in specific terms was thrown out, and generalized theories of culture found their place at the center of a new academia. But these were theories appropriated from the French—Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Barthes, Baudrillard, Lyotard, etc.—and occasionally the German—Benjamin, Adorna, Horkheimer—schools.These artists’ and theorists demand absolute freedom rejecting authority and history; they are tolerant of only a miniscule segment of art production that subscribes to a particular ideology. Although I feel that much of the theoretical writing and debates of the past 15 years have helped to open up a very narrow and close mainstream canon, I am not in agreement that an artists individuality or identity, as well as their specific nationality and culture are irrelevant. I am disagreement with Roland Barthes discussion about the dismissal of the author. I am in agreement with you about the importance of individual identity as well as how the specificity of each culture impacts an artists production. Just because I recognize the power of global technology and how it is changing the international cultural fabric, I am not implying that I am in agreement with creating a culture of homogeneity. However, because of our "wired world", it becomes increasingly difficult for artists and all individuals not to be influenced by the bombardment of data.

Elaine A. King, March 11, 2001 writes:
Maria, today I reflected further on the issue of identity. So I continue:
Once I wrote an essay about artists living in Central Europe---I am very interested in their evolution since the fall of the wall and will be going to Prague in May to see what has evolved since 1994 {I was last there]. What I am expressing I feel applies to artists in PR...often people in the States think they can apply general interpretations about Post-modern art however I feel anytime one steps out of your own reality, despite the power of techno global communications that affords shared ideas, images, etc, one must always take into account the specific and the differences that exist among cultures.

I feel this applies: Mystery, truth, alienation, isolation and identification appear to be at the core of much of the art coming out of PR. In theory many think they know the meaning of each of these words--that is as definitions in the English language. However, so much of what is presented in an individual artist's work springs from circumstances that are not part of our everyday realm. I am not a subscriber of Essentialism yet I do believe until one has lived in a particular region and has been steeped in a particular culture can one gain genuine insights into the citizens and their culture. So much is subtle and is conveyed by nuance that stems from the history and everyday reality. What exists in much art releases a commanding energy that conveys a restless sense of reality. The power of internalized thoughts and feelings stem from centuries of collective history and decades of repression that becomes translated into externalized objects that at times may be perceived as strange, foreign, or even derivative to some. Nevertheless the multifaceted works and assemblages entice one to step closer and try to gain access to the individual artist's communication. We need to be cautioned not be shut off by preconceived notions. I look forward to your response to this message, as well as the earlier one I sent you.
Warmest wishes, Elaine

Maria de Mater O'Neill, 20 March 2001, writes:
Elaine, I do agree, our ideas here are one. The thing is that in the world we live in, our many worlds, reading and perception of others is really the perception of ourselves. This awareness doesn't come easy. It has to do with the choice of being aware of it or ignoring it. The art world has now become smaller in many senses. Since "civilization" became to be, art was always for and produced for the ones who could afford it.

But let's talk about the media, Internet included, and art history. We all know that history is told by the one who wins… we also know art history really refers to Western art history (the one which is used to validate all the arts). All theses ideas are not new, but my concern is that fine line between the visibility that validates the artists and the inclusion of the artists in history. For me it's a strange situation. Puerto Rico has a longtime problem with history, the affirmation it brings to a collective, the dealing with the conflict of an edited history, and now, at this time, the distortion of history.

I think it all started with Pollock and his LIFE magazine profile, his stage picture with his cowboy look. There we see the construction of the artist as celebrity, the artist as being more important than his work. Then the balance started to shift. It is not as simple as Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, how one knows in this time what work will enter art history. Here is my concern: I think that good work will be determined by time but in reality the system of validation has changed. Therefore work known globally (by the right media) and the ability to construct the stardom of the artist might at the end insert the work? or artist in art history.

In the 1950's, artists in Puerto Rico where happy to be local. Not that they did not know what was happening in New York, but they decided to focus on other things they considered were more pertinent to Puerto Rico's needs. Now for Puerto Rican artists to be local, is looked upon as a failure in one's career. It's not that I'm against publicity and making a good living off the work or that we have to look only at our navels but market and history are two different things and serve two different purposes. Who validates? We all know and we have agreed to that in this exchange of correspondence, but the real question is how and the scary answer is why.

I think it is a myth that the Internet will give everybody a chance, as well as saying that just doing good work will guarantee the inclusion of an artist in history. Some rules have become stronger and more sublime and others have changed. As an artist, I can not escape from my historical moment. There is a market, the "industry" as I call it, with all the strategies it implies. I tell you it gets pretty confusing. Plus from where I am coming from, validation and history is a one-way street, from THERE to "Down Here" (how we forget the world is round).

Pepon Osorio recently had his first exhibition here, pretty big and well-received by Puerto Rico's mainstream art world. Do you think his work has become validated because of the Genius Award, or because he works in a time that the Latin America art boom has already happened and he is living in a country that Hispanic minorities are not minorities anymore, or because Americans are taken by his work since They're too afraid to go to El Barrio, or then again is he just a good artist doing honest work? I do not know if Pepon's work will be part of history but I know for sure that he (the persona) already is. So much for Barthes and the dismissal of the author! There is a cult to the artist. Just as Madonna is to music and not her quality of music or the voice. Or better yet, like the case of Frida Kahlo, how may households have a magnet on their freezer door but and know shit about her work? Yet they do know about her life, especially the cheesy part.

Ernesto Pujol is part of our art history because of the meaning that his work provides to our society or because he is one of the few Puerto Ricans who made the cover of Art News? Why is that? There isn't a solid education in the arts and humanities in our schools and the production of art is very expensive. Museum exhibitions like «Kandinsky and the Russian Vanguard» - presently showing at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (one of 3 they have to show because the museum is so big and costly) - cost approximately a very small amount of $250.000.00 considering how blockbuster exhibitions go- and a full-color page ad of an exhibition at art magazines like Latin American Art Nexus have a costs approximately $4.000.00, to give you a few numbers. This in a country (Puerto Rico) where the average annual income is $8.000.00 - $9.000.00 per capita (the lowest in the United States and the highest in Latin America) and $29.783.00 by household, according to the last 1998 census. The biggest employee is the local government (23 %). That people that can afford a $4.000.00 (a least) art work is a scant 4% and the growth of that population is 1% (assuming they all buy art every year). The first thing bought here is a car and not a house because public transportation is not reliable. So Elaine, the situation of the arts is pretty dismal. The way to sell, promote and educate in the art world (museum tickets, magazines subscriptions, art school tuition) is through the artist's "persona".

The construction of the artist as a celebrity makes the connection easy to those who are targeted in the art market, because people are not educated (or have no access) in art history and appreciation. Plus, what they are selling is status, success, freedom and an exiting life, and with non-white artists, the exotic promise. The Internet is just the same. When we started in April of 1995, way before the boom of the DOT.COMS, before the tech stock market, we were the one of the first 10 web pages in the Spanish-speaking Internet. And we where smitten! We saw all the possibilities that you mention. Now, with millions of web pages, companies wanting to make money from the Web, things have changed, just like the non-Internet world., the pioneer and longest-running of Latino portals just closed in the month of February due to financial strains. So a well-organized enterprise representing an important voice in the United States was shot down because of money. Even we - that work under a non-profit organization and with a voluntary staff - need to locate funds and sponsors, basically for graphic web artists, maintenance costs and yes, publicity. I think people have the right to be educated, to have shelter, food and health care regardless of whether they can afford it or not. I'll add that they have the right to access culture (arts and humanities) because it is their legacy. So, it is not clear to me how as an artist can shift the spotlight from himself / herself to the work without being put through an economical restraint. I repeat, I am concerned with what this will do to art history. Yes, this is reflection of our time but we might miss the work that provokes reflection and understanding of who we are. Because the artist doesn't or can't play the game and curators / historians don't care to investigate or don't have the funding to do it.
Mari Mater

Elaine A. King, April 11 2001 writes:
Maria I am responding to your email: 20 March 2001
I am in agreement with you that all history is a form of fiction and that the story told by historians is mediated by one's social position, ideological beliefs, life experiences, cultural standards, social policy, education, etc. In response to your points about "celebrity, stardom, and validation....." as a historian and critic, I am not concerned with "star." Always, the work of art is what is relevant and of the utmost importance and not "brand names" with labels. This increased focused on the top 100 international artists has caused a decline in the organization of interesting exhibitions, as well as the rise of what I call bland art.

I want to share a story with you that will illustrate my position about selecting art for exhibitions. When I was the director of the Carnegie Mellon Art Gallery, it functioned as a type of Kunsthalle, I was in need of an artist's work to compliment the works of another more recognized artist...the latter's work was very strong but utilized industrial materials in her forms. When I walked into the John Weber Gallery in NYC, I immediately was drawn to a selection of fascinating light boxes--inside were urban scenes that resembled eerie stage sets. Their enigmatic quality was fascinating, and the craftsmanship of their integral parts was divine. After about 10 minutes of examining this work, I asked John if I could exhibit 5 of these works--his reply was: 'Don't you want to see her resume...she is very young' ...meaning she has no track record. My response was NO! I am interested in showing her work and not her history.

Within the past decade a radical shift with significant consequences has occurred in museums and galleries globally because of the computer, funding and the prevailing art market. The arts are being well lubricated with corporate sponsorship. The names, Exxon, Mobil Oil, Chase Manhattan Bank, Phillip Morris, as well as Saachi, are common supporters of culture. Traditional sources of funding from deeply pocketed philanthropic patrons and government agencies have becomes more tenuous or absent, thus institutions must seek corporate sponsorship. This not only applies to the USA, but also to countries like Germany, France, and England, as well as Central Europe--Soros no longer does what he started out to do after the fall of the great wall.

As a child, my father always reminded us: "that there is no such thing as a free lunch," and this principles applies to the world of art. Financial sponsorship is not free--sponsorship of exhibitions and artists works inevitably, as does advertising-supported television, leads to a form of self-censorship, with the result that public awareness of social reality is continuously diminished. Control of the museum, formerly the domain of the scholar-curator-director and sympathetic, informed patron, has become an integral part of the marketing department that is closely aligned to economic strategies of nouveau riche trustees who oft are avid, status seeking collectors, who in turn rely on the opinions of prominent art dealers. Museums and other cultural institutions have become a significant part of growing tourism and the entertainment industry and they are finding themselves forced to adjust equilibrium among mission and marketing.

The transformation of cultural institutions from a place of reflection to a multifaceted emporium that accommodates varied consumer entertainment poses challenges and problems with the world of art. What's more the recent trend of developing architectural identity through signature buildings assimilates and composes the museums' many personalities. Despite the prevalence of project rooms for emerging new talent, it appears that these showcases have become nurseries for new market "stars" being fed by the dealer/collector/curator system.

Regarding your comments about Pepon Osorio, in one word my answer is NO! I do not believe his work became overtly validated just because of the recent "Genius Award," given to him last spring. Contrarily his work became more known and widely discussed when it was included in the controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial. Its refreshing form of outrageous installation was welcomed and greatly needed in a homogeneous art world. I feel the opening up of the restricted art canon in the 1980s and the endless writing and discussion on topics of multi-culturalism contributed to Pepon's success and audiences receptivity to his art. The "Genius Award," provides a positive endorsement, however one to an established and deserving creator. Martin Puryear also received this award, however prior to this, he was a celebrated and respected artist among many.

I will close this section with a quote by Jan van der Mark, the former Chief Curator of the Detroit Institute of Art, as well as former Director of the Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, who during his prime was known as an ardent seeker and hunter of unknown artists, and an individual who did hesitate to take risks--often his avant-garde attitude cost him his job. He has become a friend and I continue to admire him. Taken from Jan van der Marck, interview with Suzy Farbman, Shift, #3, 1988, p. 26.: "We no longer put a premium on invention, on careful planning, on taking chances, on nurturing talent, on letting young artists grow into mature artists....I find it an ominous sign that museums will put as much money into boosting or promoting an exhibition as they put into organizing an exhibition."

Part II Maria's references Barthes: I need to further clarify my position about my responses about Roland Barthes ideas to the subject of the author. I am in agreement with you about the product an artist produces--be it music, a visual work, a novel, a play, dance performance, etc., The work of art is of utmost importance, however, I cannot dismiss the relevance of the forces that helped to shape the creator of a specific work. It is not that I desire to dwell on biographical data, however, I cannot deny that certain things play a significant role in the formation of a specific piece. The period one is working in, their family background, education, social policy---etc., all have an impact on an individual and contribute to their output. We do not exist in a vacuum. Imagine if Walter Benjamin were alive today---what would he write? It is easy to express certain critical opinions about an individual, an era, or body of work when one stands in the future of its production--there is a great benefit to examining something within a historical context. Often this is a problem with Revisionist History.

Part III Maria's references to media: There is no doubt that the Internet is loaded with text and visual information. Despite the employment of the WWW by institutions, artists, viewers alike, it is much easier to find online sites with reproductions of original art works, as well as new digital works. However, if new media content merely parrots dominant and traditional media, ideology and representation, positive transformative experiences are less likely to occur. This is unfortunate due to the metamorphosis being offered through new media.The colonization of cyberspace by such carriers as America Online raises important questions about the content of these online sources. Whose interests are being served by the screening choices? What are the criteria for such decisions in the age of new media? Within a broader conception of the social, does the content construct an ideological world that reflects global, cultural diversity? What is the role then of the critic, historian, and philosopher within the world of new media and media interaction? How do we respond to these questions that seem to resist former paradigms of evaluation and critical assessment. Already having asked several questions above, I will end with an expanded list of questions that I feel function as a type of conclusion to our ongoing discussion.

Our dialogue influenced many ideas and prompted reflection about topics to which I do not hold answers. However, I believe that if one continues to probe into existing systems and structures, there remains hope for change. It is like the little child who continues to ask 'WHY,' despite the fact a parent or teacher feels they have answered there question. What is contributing to the rising homogeneity among artists and the dearth of provocative, poetical work at this time? Does the problem with the shows we see in galleries and museums stem from the problem that curators are unwilling to hunt in the alleys and by-way studios of strange places and regional locales, or, perhaps is the root of this era's creative poverty in the schools were artists are trained? Who are the teacher's of artists and how are they being trained? Are they also part of the educational system that fosters conformity and are influenced by a vast publishing system that rewards the sales of books and magazines? Has the artist-curator-gallerist-collector-critic relationship become so inbred because of the markets power and this is the virus contributing to the unhealthy state of banality? Or, is the uncertainty of our society in a rapidly changing transformative global, technological era contributing to the current Dark Age of creative output?

This Chapter is now finished, however let us as colleagues continue to dialogue.

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©2008 - María de Mater O'Neill