‘MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT’ @ Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

November 15, 2017



The San Diego Contemporary Museum of Art currently has an exhibition which is an assembly of meditations on the emergence of Latin America from a third-world backwater of the globe, to something on par with a middle-class society. But before exploring the works in depth, we must discern what a third-world-in the artists’ own words-is distinct from one constituting middle class. And what is often neglected when speaking in terms of socioeconomics is the relativity of the wealth of nations. Middle class in one country is a term measured against the wealth in possession of its own nation; yet it shares in similar lifestyle across different countries. And this, primarily, is the balance of leisure with labor.


Wherein a lower class is constituted with those who only have the daily energy to exert it in the direction of work for subsistence, and the upper class has the luxury of indulging in an abundance of leisure, the middle class is a hybrid of both opposite poles. Thus, a “third world” country is composed in the majority by those who have no taste of leisure, of freedom from labor. Never mind the fact that some individuals thrive through labor, and is a constant which perturbs most economic and sociological analyses, it is however generalizable to say most would prefer leisure over laboring for subsistence. It is logical then why the trajectory of any impoverished society is, not toward redistributing the availability of leisure within society, but in the creation of this freedom, conjointly or consequentially with the creation of wealth.


Yet how is wealth created? It’s a surprisingly vexing question. If it were answerable, the havocs of the business cycle would be tempered, and it is clear, if the year 2008 is any indication, it has not. The artistic statements on display, however, are not concerned with this question of creating wealth. How can they be? They are artists. And yet, they found it obligatory to be socially critical with the burgeoning efforts at wealth creation in the southern hemisphere of the Americas.


The exhibition was incredibly helpful in understanding why there is a vast discrepancy in the wealth of former European colonies. And it was answerable with the division within Western Christianity. The orthodoxy of Catholicism and its top-down hierarchy was a transference of European feudalism onto the South American continent, creating barriers for individual self-determination that is historically the boon of Protestantism. With this basic, albeit simplistic, historically materialist condition affecting every nationhood, it’s fascinating the artistic reactions toward the enervation of the Church as a political actor. The vacuum of power, in other words, created a flux of instability over the course of the 20th century, where the Latin pseudo-aristocracy fought to control its power as the majority of the population fought back.


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Firstly with the artists, there is this acerbic outlet against the Church. Contextual with the exhibition piece, the affiliation of colonialism is with the religion the Europeans brought. There is, in other words, no efforts on viewing any veracity the Church may hold, it is wholesale rejected through mockery of its highest symbols. Birds in a cage discard bird feed and likely defecate on categorically Catholic symbolism which lay on the floor. We may interpret such a piece not so much as animosity against Catholicism as it is an expression of the imprisonment the religion institutes upon the people. Indeed, despite the variegations in Catholic spirituality, with the most estimable reaches providing utterly providential combustion in progressing civilization, there is a severely large element of the population which does not employ critical thought upon its religious institution it is nurtured in. It, in other words, is blindly devout. The artist here may believe upon this interpretation that it is the work of the Church, yet surely blind devotion and lack of critical thought plagues many a people. May it be simply a universal truth that humans which to live a life with least resistance? Why then question and cause uproar? That is mainly the fodder of a creative minority in human history. Because we do not see anything edifying in this piece, we have to find it wanting.


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There is also mock paganism, celebrated not so much purely from a Marxian revolutionary perspective, as it is simply another jab at the Church. A ritual celebrating the golden calf is quite petulant, reminiscent of an adolescent excited to discover his boundaries are further extended than he imagined; that he can do things which he thought there would be repercussions for, and because there are none he finds excitement. We may be patient and reason that these individuals are expressing cathartically a release from religious bondage, but why the need to negate in order to lift one’s spirits? If only because the talent to accomplish anything higher is lacking.


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Once the Church’s tide had ebbed, i.e. “decolonization”, there emerges what can only be described as the trend of secular progressivism after the second World War which the artistic ensemble reacts to. Disregarding the heavily involved central planning of society ironically adopted from the West, there also is the introduction of Western consumerism.


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We may argue this to be a second wave of colonialism experienced most sensitively by the artistic class. There is a bitterness, to be sure, for Latin American children drinking coke, for imbibing further in Western practices. Poetically we have the best artwork to represent the aims of the impoverished in fulfilling their escape from despondent poverty. As if, acting Western will make them richer. And if by becoming richer, they will be happier.


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Surely, becoming wealthy does not make one happier, but it makes living easier. And from an ease of the burden of each day being a struggle for survival, happiness can be sought after easier. It is tasting just this, the ease of enjoying life, that all have-nots crave for. Why is it wrong that the path towards accomplishing this follows in a Western Capitalistic mold? Is this paradigm not the one which has discovered this attainment for so many in their societies?


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The artists repudiate the model primarily because its genome is “colonial”. Their radical belief is that it is better for their culture to generate an organic political economy, not one which is emulative. But clearly this reasoning is fallacious – is it better to be original and enslaved by subsistence or to adapt to methods which have been found to be successful in breeding prosperity, i.e. wisdom?


I personally find striking how a Christian moralistic society such as the one depicted in South America reacts, even germinates, the master-slave dichotomy, compared to an Oriental culture. We do not see Chinese, for instance, retaliate against the encroachments of Coca-Cola. We do not see the Japanese disdain for wearing Western attire. We do not see the Indians weep for using Western scientific units of measurement. There is comfort in embracing what simply works, rather than interpreting this action in a context of domination and submission. Such a phenomenology can only arise out of the New Testament’s codex and fumigated through the eons reach of believing virtue in meekness. It provides a strength among the poor but then finds justification in treating violence as ennobling. This is fervidly not Christian, but a concoction of Marx who called for revolution to be necessarily violent.


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No doubt there is a cry among the artists for cultural ingenuity, to cast away being historically sheepish. But one must first learn how to be masterful before becoming worldly independent. This exhibition then is a good time capsule in the vibrational shocks during a whole peoples’ transition away from their staid historical position.


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