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"Their owner, the rain, is still around." I/III
Review: Contemporary Latin American Art at the Museum of Modern Art
“Chosen Memories.” Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond. Museum of Modern Art. through September 9, 2023. https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/5528
On August 20 there just might be a presidential election in Guatemala. I say might because one of the candidates is a social democrat. Bernardo Arévalo is the son of Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president who, armed with a unique set of social and economic theories, attempted to move Guatemala toward a semblance of social equality. As President, Juan José Arévalo developed a theory of “spiritual socialism” which he called Arevalismo, and which can be interpreted as both an economic system and a movement for the liberation of the imagination.
Now Bernardo Arévalo has come in second in the June presidential primaries, and the Guatemalan narrative has unfolded like one of those Stand and Deliver flicks where somebody decides the ghetto kids can’t possibly have won the competition because ghetto kids don’t win. That somebody is the Guatemalan judiciary, which tried to challenge the results of the first round and is now raiding Arévalo’s headquarters and attempting to dissolve his party. Meanwhile, the courts have allowed the election to proceed. By the time I’ve completed this review everything will have changed as usual.
When I was young I met an elderly man, a friend of the family. His name was Carleton Beals, a man who’d known everyone and done everything in radical politics in Latin America, from protesting the attempted destruction of Diego Rivera’s murals at the Preparatoria in the ‘twenties to interviewing the Nicaraguan guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino. In 1954 Beals was with Juan José Arévalo’s successor Jacobo Árbenz when the Guatemalan Government was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup. By the time I knew Carleton nobody wanted to hear from him, maybe that’s why he’s my role model. It is better to fail at saying what must be said, than to succeed at telling lies.
Which brings me to the New York Times and its recent review of another, yet another, survey of recent Latin American Art at the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA’s interest in Latin American Art is as deeply rooted as Dracula’s teeth in your carotid, and for much the same reason: the Rockefeller Family, and in particular David Rockefeller, a longtime MoMA trustee, long shared a fascination with Latin American assets of all sorts: art, artists, copper mines or countries.
Here’s my initial question after reading a review: who speaks through the critic? Exhibitions are never single, unified statements: the curator or curators, the organizers, the PR Department all have their own idea of what the exhibition means. That’s more than I can say for the critics at the New York Times, who usually content themselves with picking up points from PR releases.
I mention this because the New York Times review of Chosen Memories doesn’t come from a PR release, or chatting with the curators, let alone trying to figure out what the artists themselves are trying to do. Like an artworld Cabot to Lodge, the Times’ critic communicates only with the trustees, and what passes for a review is a long, shallow, and inaccurate narrative of the reception of Latin American Art by MoMA, a theodicy of Gringo Wokenness. Trustee confessionals are a big thing these days, and big bonanza: crying all the way to the Virtue Bank.
I’m thinking meanwhile of that two-page passage, “Examination Paper,” in which the literary critic Malcolm Cowley addresses the tensions between what the critic is required to say, and what he or she feels needs to be said, and for what purpose:
“He will say certain things he believes to be accurate: they are not the things lying closest to his heart. […] The great living authors […] are a series of questions, an examination paper compiled by and submitted to himself:
What problems do these authors suggest?
With what problems are they consciously dealing?
Are they my own problems? Or if not, shall I make them own?
As an artist you might ask yourself: what are these people, say, in Guatemala, trying to work out? And in what way is their struggle, my struggle as an artist? You can say this as an artist; or you can say it as an artist with the veneer of a political pose because that’s the winning card today. Or, if you’re lucky, or aware, or maybe the product of a certain Latin-American way of thinking about art, evolved over decades, you might be able to confront your loss and the loss of your people and the meaning beyond loss. This is the show I’m seeing.
August 9, 2023