- Historicism, Nihilism, and the Chilean Neo–Avant-Garde
Recent proclamations of the “end of art,” along with a series of endings that would have transformed the modern world (the end of politics, history, ideologies, etc.), might correctly be interpreted as a confirmation of the victory and total preponderance of neoliberal globalization and its consequent “parliamentary capitalism,” to use Alain Badiou’s critical denomination.1 It is as if with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transitional processes in Eastern Europe and in Latin America, the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the so-called post–Cold War period we were witnessing the exhaustion of all political and critical traditions related to Western modernity. Modernity itself, as a category and as a historical period, seems too general to capture the particularities of those nations—beyond Europe—that claim their own historicity. Post-modernity, postcoloniality, and post-Marxism are just a few of the many new names that organize critical thinking in these times and, of course, the very notion of avant-garde, with its aesthetic and political connotations, seems a mere archaeological remainder of the past. The end of the avant-garde, it has been said, marks the [End Page 362] radical collapse of the political vanguardismo (whether Leninism, Maoism, Guevarism, or any other “ism”) as well as the revelation of the overly general and abstract condition of a category intended to capture the specificities of art practices during the twentieth century. More than a general history of art and politics, we seem to need ethnographic approaches to art and political movements, as if the alleged universality of art and politics were a mere chimera, an ideological misunderstanding of another time. In short, the very notion of the avant-garde seems useless for dealing not only with the history of art in the twentieth century but also with art practices and movements today as well as with the always complex relationship between art, history, and politics.
In the following pages I deal with la avanzada, the specific name of an artistic and political movement that emerged in Chile between the late 1970s and the early 1980s as an oppositional practice against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. I will not deal, however, with the works grouped under this name, nor will I present a close reading of a particular artist, performance, or intervention. My goal is to make some remarks on the so-called debate on la avanzada, a debate that has been taking place since the very inception of this movement and that involves positions relevant not only to the local scene of art and politics but also to the general context in which contemporary critical thinking could benefit from a genealogical approach. What is at stake in this debate, in fact, is the relationship between art and politics in general and, more specifically, the very problematic question of how to write the history of the neo–avant-garde without falling into either the historicist account of Chilean exceptionalism or the supplementary fetishism of cultural practices.
The Constitution of la Avanzada
The first problem regarding the Chilean neo–avant-garde is therefore to establish its historical relevance. We need to determine if la avanzada was merely a late effect of the internationalization process that began in mid-twentieth-century Latin American visual arts with international expositions, triennials, and sub-regional exchanges and if this movement actually differs from other regional manifestations of oppositional art and politics in that time. These are no doubt difficult questions, because in order to answer them it is necessary to deal with the relationship between art and politics beyond their conventional or disciplinary definitions. What makes art become political? Is it just the [End Page 363] historical context in general or its inherent configuration? More cogently, we need to know if the postrepresentational and conceptualist art manifestations in contemporary Latin America were actually triggered by the historical development of this region or were due to art’s immanent logic.2
This is one of the problems addressed in Arte y Política, a volume based on an international seminar held in Chile in 2004 and focused on...