Introduction by Jane Farver
Wonderbread and Spanglish Art
In its short life, the U.S. has both adopted and developed a great variety
of cultural paradigms and myths that give cohesion to its national identity.
These constructs, by no means always a product of a conscious strategy,
overshadow and help to reduce the diversities in population identity,
a diversity which normally would tend to undermine a sense of unity. Some
of the ideas are notorious and past their prime, like the "American dream"
and the "melting pot". Some take their place in economics, like the "trickle
down" theory. Sometimes a little military action furthers the cause, like
the invasion of Grenada which was approved by 63% of the polled population.
"Wonder Bread" is one of these paradigms which operates on a cultural
level. It is a product sold and consumed as bread. Additives and advertising
provide its nutritional value without affecting any of the product's inherent
qualities. Over the years, the confluence of economic dynamics and culturally
conditioned taste buds has led to the establishment of "Wonder Bread"
as a benchmark for other products. Any effort by these other products
to resemble real bread is not so much seen as closing a gap but as an
act of refinement and sophistication. The products become variations of
what can be called "gourmet" Wonder Bread. Given the fact that even cultures
which have perfected real bread over millennia are slowly adopting the
same range of products, what normally would be no more than an example
of anthropological curiosity becomes also a paradigm for intercultural
relations. As an example of how values are shifted, the use of "Wonder
Bread" as a reference illustrates the flow of pressure between the hegemonic
center and the periphery.
The increasing pervasiveness of "Wonder Bread" outside of the U.S. is
directly explained by it satisfying expediency and economy and, less directly,
by the aura of status owned by those things imported from the hegemonic
culture. While direct pressure allows for a conscious decision about why
one should sacrifice one's taste buds, it is the indirect pressure which
subverts and eventually substitutes taste, creating a new canon. "Wonder
Bread" has become a symbol of modernity. Modernity has traditionally been
associated with progress and, therefore, seen as a necessary tool for
decolonization and independence. It is ironic that in this process values
are subverted to a point that, in fact, a new colonization takes place.
The reason to expand on this here is because, even if fraught with more
complex issues, the same process applies to art.
The pressure to shift values in art is buttressed by the still underlying
commonplace assumption that art historical processes are linear and develop
progressively in the search for quality. It follows that art which fills
the media with the latest news and achieves pervasiveness, becomes ipso
facto the canon. The desirability of the canon is internalized, and
following it comes to appear as a spontaneous, instinctive, indigenous
and authentic activity, when, in fact, it is the product of an artificially
created need. Taste acts as an acquired instinct. As an instinct, it bypasses
rational thought. As an acquisition it is controlled like any other merchandise
by, among others, values related to class status and property desires.
In a colonially dependent situation the controls operate from the cultural
and economic centers and shape these artificially created needs.
As with any colonizing process, the cultural pressure from the hegemonic
center creates problems for those living and working on the periphery.
A process of slow and organic development of cultural identities has been
interrupted by the adoption of imports well beyond what would be a normal
product of international contact and exchange.1
It is estimated that in Brazil, U.S. companies and their affiliates spend
in advertising the equivalent of one third of the government's budget
for education.2 UNESCO estimates that
between 50% and 70% of what is considered basic culture in the West comes
from radio, television and film. In Latin America, the U.S. controls 75%
of the TV programs, 65% of advertising, 55% of movie houses, 60% of records
and cassettes, 65% of the news and 35% of the publishing.3
One of the consequences is that a focus on art- making for one's community
has given way to the notion of art-making for the international market,
and in this process a new and alien concept of quality has had to be adopted.
Quality is not defined anymore by the degrees of revelation and mastery
of communication for and with one's people, but by how much leverage the
products achieve in the context of an external, often unknown, public.
Thus, the heroic scale and the aesthetic of spectacular superproduction
developed in societies of wealth become the standard against which the
artist of poverty is measured. Handicrafts connected with non-industrial
or obsolete industrial traditions become a tool to stereotype this artist
in his or her separation from the mainstream.
Western art since the Renaissance has developed an increasingly accelerated
dynamic of establishing "colonial techniques" or "minor art forms" within
the media covered by art history. Printmaking, for example, has become
a colony of painting. Instead of contributing original imagery, printmaking
primarily serves to translate and rehash imagery developed in painting.
The division between "super-spectacle" art and "modestly handcrafted"
art seems to be a political refinement of this dynamic since it helps
to secure the place of the rich hegemonic centers by slowly restricting
the definition of art to those products generated by them. This restricted
definition eliminates any possibility of qualitative comparison between
art from the center and art from the periphery. Whatever doesn't reflect
a minimum investment of money won't qualify as serious art. It also ignores
ethical and political substrata often informing art on the periphery as
consequence of the struggle for decolonization. From a hegemonic and formalist
point of view, much of art on the periphery will be perceived as a form
of a low-budget craft.4
The periphery, when not resorting to an isolationist use of tradition, produces hybrid art, the product of being in one place and looking toward another place. Manfred Schneckenburger, organizer of the latest Documenta exhibit, summed up the consequences of this state of affairs in an unfriendly but cogent way. In an effort to justify the fact that only one Latin American artist (Alfredo Jaar, from Chile) was included in what purported to be an overview of the best art in the market of the last five years, he declared that "it is not possible to show the situation of countries where art is always trapped between a great tradition lost and a wish for contact with the modern world."6
Given the different pressures the artist on the periphery is faced with several choices. The artist can: actively disregard the colonizing values and focus on the local audience; produce for the international market in spite of the handicap; or emigrate to the cultural center.
In the first case, even when focusing on the local audience, the artist
will tend to produce in reaction to colonization. A direct link to the
past is broken, interrupted or deflected by the presence of a filter that
factors in the values promoted by imperial culture. As Albert Memmi observes
in his "Portrait of the Colonized", a loss of history takes place with
the effect that "the colonized are kept out of the objective conditions
of contemporary nationality". Gramsci was reflecting on the same condition
when he noted that "remembering takes the place of thinking" in the production
of culture. Identity, under these conditions, easily becomes confused
with an artificial folklore. Fossil memories, bleached and dry, usurp
reality. Much of indigenist art, from Sabogal in Peru to Rivera in Mexico,
had this problem imbedded in the content of the work. A present generation
of artists is contributing a more formal and sophisticated approach; Cesar
Paternosto and Alejandro Puente, both from Argentina, and Esther Vainstein
(Peru) connect pre-Columbian traditions with modern constructivism and
In the second case, in which the local artist focuses on the international market, the tendency is to produce makeshift works, intended to achieve the look of the international standard but affected by the material constraints that prevail locally. Equipped with craftsmanship, but confronted with scarcity of materials and resources, artists will try to compete with the "heroic" scale and the industrial finish of art produced in the cultural centers and will seek to disguise material shortfalls with affectation. Work under these conditions runs the risk of halflheartedness.
It is in the third case, in which the artist migrates to the cultural
center, that there is, in theory, the greatest chance for success in the
mainstream. Until the mid-fifties, that cultural center was provided by
Europe, but then slowly shifted to the U.S.A. It is estimated that from
1945 to 1965 alone, at least 17,000 researchers and high level technicians
emigrated from Latin America to the U.S.A. During 1986, 25% of Ph.D.s
awarded in the sciences went to non-U.S.. citizens, and according to a
report published by the National Research Council in January 1988, in
engineering Ph.D.s the figure reached 60%. In turn, 60% of this figure
do not return to their countries of origin. Out of the 500,000 people
who left Puerto Rico during 1980-85, 14% were professionals. Unfortunately
there are no figures specific to this brain drain in art. Enormous amounts
of money invested in the education of highly qualified personnel in Latin
America have thus ended up, in effect, donated to the U.S.A., where migration
on those levels was motivated primarily by economic considerations.8
Political exile was the other major reason for resettlement during recent
decades. A high percentage of these exiles, intellectuals fleeing dictatorships
from the right, went to Europe and Australia, which provided a friendlier
atmosphere for their dissenting ideologies than the U.S.A.
Some artists will attempt to erase the roots entirely, with the objective
of blending completely into the new environment. This is an enterprise
comparable to that of trying to speak a new language like a native. Wh.
While not an impossible goal, it is clearly more difficult than for the
aborigines with whom one is trying to merge.
Other artists, shocked by the new environment, will retreat toward their
original culture with redoubled efforts, seeking protection. They will
share the plight of those who remained at home addressing the local audience.
But their problems will be even more severe; in their case, the audience
addressed is absent and feedback from them is non-existent or, at best,
sporadic. The audience becomes an abstraction, frozen in a past that is
fogged by nostalgia and wishful mystification. The artist becomes doubly
alienated, trapped in a fiction that looks real.9
But some artists may try to strike a balance between the cultures of
the center and the periphery and confront their reality without the recourse
of escape. Avoiding denial of either the present or the past, they will
attempt to produce a synthesis of experiences. They will produce what
might be called "Spanglish" art.10 Used
in relation to speech, the term has negative connotations, implying the
absence of a functional tool, and its substitution by a non-working hybrid
of two languages. It is the confluence of a language incompletely remembered
with a language incompletely acquired, forced to make do in their new
integration. The negative interpretation obscures the origin and the need
that it fulfills. Used in relation to art, "Spanglish" represents the
merging of a deteriorating memory with the acquisition of a new reality
distanced by foreignness.
"Spanglish" art is probably the most authentic alternative for the uprooted
Latin artist. It is a natural and unaffected expression representing with
fairness the fact that one came from one place and went to another and
it functionally bridges the abyss left by that travel. It is an individualistic
solution which allows for release of the tension caused by the clash of
two cultures, and it permits the integration of both experiences into
one iconography. Inspired by the immediacy of individual experience, this
art will tend to distinguish itself from art that either reflects a programmatic
attitude or evinces political awareness. The cultural significance inheres
in the witnessing to a shared destiny, rather than in the activity of
a shared aesthetic search, and quality is dependent on individual effort,
rather than on group support or a community of interests.
It is difficult to find paradigmatic examples of "Spanglish" art. Since
"Spanglish" does not constitute a consciously adopted platform seeded
by programs, in most cases it remains as a component mixed with other
art-making elements. When I first used the word in relation to art, I
had the work of Ana Mendieta in mind. Artistically educated in the U.S.A.
and interested in breaking into the mainstream, her memories and nostalgia
prevented her successful assimilation. It was a fact which she first resented
and, towards the end of her life, assumed. Pressed for examples, I would
further use the work of Juan Sanchez and of Alfredo Jaar. Sanchez is probably
the clearest example of sophisticated New York/Puerto Rican expression.
He tries to get to his roots, but finds them layered under neighbourhood
experiences and interpretations. The independence of Puerto Rico becomes
a solution to all the levels of discrimination and humiliation, a way
of leaving rather than staying. Jaar is, among these artists, the one
who visually fits best into the mainstream. He shares the impeccability
and the immaculateness of hegemonic presentations. In part this is the
product of his own education and taste, but for him it also becomes a
manipulatory device to get his points across and understood within the
So, the notion of "Spanglish" art becomes more of a tool for understanding
than a neat form of classifying. It provides a helpful vantage point to
re-consider art that has simplistically been lumped together under the
ethnic label of "Hispanic."11The label
puts the so classified people in a dilemma, even when they are um-related
to art. In my own college I am faced with the choice of being undeservedly
classed as part of a "protected segment of the population" (the college's
language) and therefore used to pad some quota, or with reneging on my
own culture and background in order to free a slot for other people in
need of protection.12
Lately, the designation "Hispanic artists" has been used to classify
and neatly group together artists who have some connection with Latin
America. It is a classification spun Off by the mainstream culture which,
in effect, posits a distance between these artists and the mainstream.13
At best, this ascribed distance reflects their poor fit within the parameters
of the mainstream, their deviation from the hegemonic norm. At best because,
while distance may mean economic disaster for the artist, it can also
mean that at least some room is reserved for the development of an authentic
and powerful identity. At worst, the ascribed distance serves to promote
the devastating condescension of "look, they too can make good art." In
economic terms this may create an opportunity for survival, but it can
also lead to a precipitous assimilation into the mainstream in which a
freedom not yet fully achieved, is lost. In both cases. the label provides
no unifying idea beyond that of vague ethnicity or vague geography; the
artist remains separate, on his or her own, distracted from fully exploring
the construction of a larger cultural community.
Meanwhile, the viewer, influenced by mainstream values, will observe
this art with interest. To the degree that viewers' values are shared
by the artist, the presentation wild be understood as belonging to some
form of art, but at the same time, the distance ascribed to the artist
will suggest the possibility of finding something "exotic," something
belonging to the unshared culture that will explain and justify the ascription
of distance. If, by mainstream standards, there is anything intriguingly
exotic it will be applauded as a contribution to the mainstream audience
and coopted. If, on the other hand, the artist has found something interesting
in mainstream art and has adopted it for use in personal art, the results
will run the risk of being condemned as derivative. It is interesting
to see how the work of Wifredo Lam suffered from both pressures at the
same time. He is accepted as both bringing mysterious rituals into Western
art and as a derivative product of Picasso. As Cuban critic Gerardo Mosquera
points out, the result of this ambiguity is that his "Jungle" decorates
the coat room in the Museum of Modern Art.
The "gourmet Wonder Bread" appreciation of art therefore serves as a
long range tool to achieve assimilation into the hegemonic culture. Not
only is the artist sidetracked from the pursuit of a new integrative authenticity,
but it is the creation of an audience fitting this work which is also
hindered. The artist is led to address the wrong audience, while the intended
audience can not develop to become a proper interlocutor. It is clearly
a natural dynamic of any hegemonic culture to attempt to reduce phenomena
such as "Spanglish" art to an expression of one first and passing generation.
However, it is less clear if, given the conditions generating emigration
towards the center, this reduction serves the interests of "Spanglish"
artists and their real and potential audiences.
Adhesive Labels, 1966-67
The Cake, 1988