Abstract: This article probes the relationship between experimental art and politics, by addressing, as privileged themes, the concepts of utopia and cultural remix. The article explores the Hélio Oiticica-Marcola connection and the role of anti-heroic strategies employed by Brazilian avant-garde artists, which has involved both violent and negative aesthetics as well as ambivalent politics, and yet has yield new sensorial explorations and unforeseen spatial possibilities.
Great claims have been made and much faith has been put in arts ability to affect social change, but the defeat of many of Modernitys utopian hopes and dreams – such as the implosion of massive housing projects from the 1960s and 1970s around the world – contributed to undermine its universal assumptions. The concept of utopia, so out of fashion in the postmodern era, despite having inhabited the limbo of the living dead over the past three decades, is perhaps, because of that, a privileged controversial theme in contemporary art. According to David Harvey, author of Spaces of Hope, the lack of interest in the utopian tradition in recent times points to the suspicion that there really exists a strict relationship between utopia and totalitarianism. It is not without irony, for instance, that Brasília, built to promote a new democratic society, ended up housing a dictatorship that lasted for a quarter of a century. But it is precisely utopia, understood in a paradoxical way and never fulfilled, that the philosopher Theodor Adorno privileges in art. For him the aesthetic experience is at the center of a critical theory that questions the Enlightenment and the violence of Western rationality; a critical theory that confronts the fascist intolerance towards difference, which led to many twentieth-century political disasters (among them the holocaust), prompting Adorno to pronounce the famous remark: writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
In Brazil, another example of aesthetics political ambivalence is Tropicalismo, as difficult to define today as it was in 1969, despite the constantly growing international interest in this movement exemplified by the Tropicália exhibit curated by Carlos Basualdo for the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago in 2005 and the Bronx Museum of Art in NY, 2006, and further exemplified by the exhibition Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, between December 2006 and April 2007 and at the Tate Modern, London, in the Summer of 2007.
It is often impossible to separate a negative aesthetics that privileges experimentation, absurd and violent forms from a romantic, idealist, or even functionalist and socially utopian aesthetics. As Oswald de Andrade already observed at the heart of every utopia there is not only a dream but also a protest. Hélio Oiticicas box-bólide titled Homage to Cara-de-Cavalo from 1965, and his flag-poem Be an Outcast, Be a Hero from 1967, are both romantic and violent, and have since their creations, raised questions about the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, and they continue to generate polemics, now with an urgency prompted by gang-related urban violence and the 2006 Presidential elections.
We are all in hell. There is no way out, because we dont even know the problem, is the title of the dramatic interview with Marcola, the leader of the PCC – Primeiro Comando da Capital [First Commando Group of the Capital] – that the filmmaker and journalist Arnaldo Jabor published in the newspaper O Globo on May 23, 2006. In the months that followed, this fake interview circulated in many emails and blogs throughout Brazil taken occasionally to be a real interview with Marcola, at times fiction or allegory. What was most impressive about Marcolas words in this conversation with Jabor was the combination of intellectual sophistication with the rationalization for violence. Among literary classics and philosophers supposedly cited by this organized-crime boss, was a reference to Hélio Oiticicas famous quote Be an outcast, be a hero. In the middle of the interview Marcola states: Didnt you intellectuals speak of class struggle, of be an outcast, be a hero? Well, here we are! Ha, ha… You never expected these cocaine guerilla fighters, did you? Jabors imaginary interview – unfolding in the Nelson Rodriguess tradition of A Vida Como Ela É [life as it is] – continued in this vein for another couple of pages.
A second event this year explored the relations between art, media, misery, and violence. On a September morning, the city of Recife awoke covered with posters promoting Marcola for President and Pedro Correa for Vice President, an urban intervention by artist Krishna Passos that emphasized both political corruption and the politicization of organized crime (documented in the Folha de Pernambuco September 20, 2006). The two events – Jabors fake interview with Marcola, and Passos Marcola-for-President posters – seemed to ask if there is a direct relationship of cause and effect between art and politics. Can we blame artists like Hélio Oiticica for the increase of violence in Brazilian cities, as does the conservative philosopher Olavo de Carvalho?
In a decade that radically mixed art and life, Oiticica, among others in the 1960s, took the artistic experience beyond the pictorial space and outside the frame and the neutral zone of official art institutions. By interpreting Malevichs White on White as the limit of painting, the artist translated pictorial questions into life, exploring color and space in time-based performances, which valued the creative potential of samba dance and marginalized urban spaces. Setting color free in space and pursuing a new structure for color, the artist created in 1964, his first Parangolé. In the process, Oiticica crossed many aesthetic and spatial boundaries, besides blurring multiple social, racial, and class borders. His redistribution of sensorial experience subverted the Modernist emphasis on the visual sense.
And if Oiticica shortened the distance between the MAM [Museum of Modern Art] and the Mangueira [an important slum in Rio], he rediscovered geometric abstraction in the movement of bodies dancing the samba, while identifying a super-sensoriality in states of ecstasy generated by dance rituals, sex, and drugs. Immersed in popular culture he understood marginality and social transgressions to be constitutive parts of an experimental space, that is to say, a radical space in which the rules of behavior are never known beforehand. For Oiticica, this freedom referred to not only aesthetics but ethics as well, considering that as an artist and homosexual, he confronted the morality of a patriarchal Catholic society, as well as the male chauvinism and the racism inherent in Brazilian society. The challenge within the phrase Be an Outcast, Be a Hero has its historical and political context in the Military Coup of 1964, and in the subsequent student revolt, as many besides the students fought for freedom of expression, and for an alternative and more democratic model of national development. These artistic, social and political ideas were expressed simultaneously and with equal fervor in the plastic arts, cinema, theater, literature, journalism, and popular music.
Oiticicas Homage to Cara-de-cavalo [a bandit nicknamed Horse-face] stressed the role of the anti-hero in the modernization of Brazilian culture – from the central character of Macunaíma, an important novel from the Anthropophagic movement of the 1920s by Mario de Andrade, to the popular Cordel literature [poetic broadsides] that romanticized Lampião and Corisco [famous outlaws turned popular heroes in the Northeast region of Brazil]. The musical lyrics of Moreira da Silva and Chico Buarque de Holanda also celebrate the anti-hero image of the Malandro Carioca, a hustler who used his cunning charm, and wit to extract creative energy from poverty and oppression, managing to turn around just about any difficult situation. In addition, the bandit-marginal is also at the core of the Cinema Novo films such as Black God, White Devil, 1964, by Glauber Rocha, as well as the Boca do Lixo films such as the Red Light Bandit, 1968, by Rogério Sganzerla. The anti-hero is fundamental in the plays and writings of Nelson Rodrigues, and is an integral character in TV soap operas. Thus, the ethical transgressions of the anti-hero are key to multiple avant-garde operations of lowering ideals of form and beauty performed throughout the twentieth century by among others Hélio Oiticica. Such ongoing polemics generated by art was recently revisited by the large public outcry after the censoring of the installation Desenhando Com Terços [Drawing With Rosary Beads] by Marcia X, in which the late Rio de Janeiro artist placed on the gallery floor multiple rosaries in the form of erect phalluses. This installation was part of the group exhibition Erótica at the prestigious CCBB-Rio gallery in April of 2006.
But even when art is openly political, its contribution is first and foremost its ability to maintain in permanent tension the heterogeneity and the difference of all of its constitutive elementsthe relations between words, images, and things; as well as the relationship among forms, materials, processes, languages, concepts, senses, and feelings. The connection Oiticica-Marcola revisits the question of the artists ethical and social responsibility, while exposing a raw and cruel lifestyle present in many of Oiticicas works. Viewed in retrospect, Oiticicas celebration of violence seems to romanticize poverty and revolution. Marginality as a liberating project in art of the 1960s was a result of the search for an experimental space uncompromised by bourgeois values or market interests. This project was derived in part from the non-object theory articulated by the critic Ferreira Gullar in 1960 in continuity of the Neoconcrete ideas that conceived art beyond notions of representation. In other cultural contexts, the combination of art and politics also led to the same anti-representational impulse. An example is the media intervention by the Tucumán Arde group within the labor movement in Rosário, Argentina, in 1968. A further example against mimesis can be found in the Minimalist movement, also known as ABC, or literalist art, theorized by artists such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris in New York, in 1966.
The experience of ecstasy and violence present in some of Oiticicas works might be closer to the experience of the sublime, which includes the non-rational and the irrational, as an intrinsic part of the experience of beauty, as conceptualized by Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. In the lyrical and ecstatic dimension of Oiticicas works there is the desire to dissolve the separation between subject and object through joyous liberation and the experimental exercise of freedom.
But contrary to Adornos horror of the cultural industry, we today believe that contemporary art must indeed explore all cultural forms, including those taken from, and existing within the mass media. Context is content, and the blurry lines between representation and simulation inevitably reject the Modernist universal claim of aesthetic purity and autonomy. An example of this Modernist bias is the notion that Cubism was responsible for the radical invention of collage, propagated as an autonomous artistic development, rather than a pictorial appropriation of methods already employed in the advertising industry since the second half of the nineteen century. In Brazil, the subversive body-centered metaphors of cannibalism, carnival, and hunger, which have been at the core of many twentieth-century revolutionary aesthetics, can further dislocate high and low sensibilities by subverting the optical and aural senses with digestive and sexual metaphors, thus promoting a cannibalization and a carnavalization not far from the aesthetics of cultural remix.
Sampling and remix, born from collage, film montage, jazz and hip hop – radicalized and facilitated by the widespread access to digital technologies – continues to build upon the political ambivalence of many twentieth-century avant-garde practices. With dizzying speed – from Oswalds emphasis upon the contribuição milionária de todos os erros [the rich contribution of all mistakes] to Fernando and Humberto Campanas street based furniture designs, such as their Favela Chair – the logic of cultural remix tends to leave the material, metaphorical, and political fault-lines of collage and sampling exposed.
In the failure of the utopian and revolutionary Modernist ideals we can include multiple attempts against the notion of art as commodity by the 1960s neo-avant-gardes. Even though documents of performances and other immaterial experiences were in the end reintegrated into the art market, the broadening of the artistic experience into multifaceted relationships between art, commerce, and the media, is today producing more complex and less innocent works. Art and the artist are not above the good and the bad in a self-referential world, but arts own logic and ethics promotes a critical renovation of culture, including the questioning of the nature and the function of art itself, as well as the limits of institutions and other artistic and media venues.
Contrasting with Modernitys utopias, and yet building upon some of their political ambivalence, contemporary artists today are both critical of the values of global corporate capitalism, and yet thriving within the international media celebrity system. Such is the case of sound artist Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, an important innovator and theorist of the remix (Rhythm Science, 2004). Spookys form of resistance, which openly embraces new technologies to challenge racism and collapse disciplinary and social hierarchies, is both aware of technologys military and corporate origins and ties, and further contributes to blur the lines between representation and simulation. The new meanings produced by his performances merge experimental and functional art, avant-garde and kitsch spectacle, sampling and copyright, open source and capitalist-for-profit. Whether practiced by twentieth or twenty-first century artists, in the tropics or elsewhere, the political ambivalence inherent in the aesthetics of cultural remix does not necessarily lead to utopian nor dystopian experiences, but often to a critical and experimental exercise of freedom.
*Presented at BRASA VIII – Brazilian Studies Association International Congress, Oct. 13-16 2006, Nashville, Tennessee. This article has been published as Canal Contemporâneos contribution to documenta 12 magazines project. The editors of Chto delat have included it as a supplement to the “Debates on the Avant-garde.”