In 1983, Cuban curator Gerardo Mosquera (La Habana, 1945) completed a long essay devoted to the attempts to socialize art on a large scale during the early years of the Soviet Revolution. The book was published six years later in Havana, under the title El diseño se definió en octubre (The Design was Defined in October.) In the context of 1980s Cuba, Mosquera’s reading of the Russian avant-garde addressed issues related to the prevailing cultural policy, and advocated for a more active role of art in society. The book was, as Mosquera wrote in his prologue to the 1996 Colombian edition, “pre-perestroika” and “pro-perestroika.”
Russian Avant-Garde intended to socialize art via three basic strategies: bringing it to the streets, using it as political propaganda and integrating it into material production. The efforts for bringing art into the streets had a limited scope due to the hermetic character of the works of art and the paucity of contact with the popular masses. Many avant-garde works had a utopian dimension. They were projections toward the future, often without any reflection on present-day conflicts. Art in the service of political propaganda would enjoy a greater vigor, with actors recounting the news before crowds, numerous topical skits, and political commentary spoken in verse, elements of circus, cabaret and musical revue, among other forms of communication.
The “culture of the abstract” was another means of socializing art. Productivist Constructivism had recourse to abstraction to create industrial objects that were both useful and sophisticated. Through this deployment of the abstract aesthetic in industrial design, art helped to palliate the material privation endured by the populace.
In his prologue to the Colombian edition, Mosquera noted that in many ways his book suffers from a certain naïveté. The unexpected turn of events leading to the fall of the Eastern European socialist countries demanded a profound reexamination of history and of the present. Still, after the demise of the Soviet Union, and almost a century after these Avant-Garde artistic experiments, the utopia of socializing art at a large scale is still alive in our Post-Utopian societies. It posits new challenges but also opens new horizons. Last December, I did interview Mosquera by email. He talked about two concrete ideas -what he calls “secant areas of communication” and the “Museum as Hub”- from which he sees promising opportunities for socializing art at a large scale.
Ernesto Menendez-Conde: Two decades ago, the notion of “socialization of art” could have been related to the need to redefine and eventually criticize art institutions, taking art to the streets and making participatory art or art in the fashion of the relational aesthetics. How would you define the socialization of art in today’s world, where internet and mobile devices are drastically changing our everyday lives and the ways we socialize with one another?
Gerardo Mosquera: Digital communications have started a new era in terms of scope, vastness, accessibility, speed and interactivity of distance communication in every field, including the arts. They have very much contributed to socializing art. Moreover, biennials, art fairs, exhibitions, museums and galleries proliferate, while there is an increasing internationalization of art that reaches zones of silence in countries and regions traditionally left outside the circuits.
All these events produce a strong online presence, while expanding the art that is specifically created to be performed on the web. Generally speaking, this type of art is still at an investigative stage, in which relishing and exploring the media and its immense technological possibilities prevail over creating artistic meaning.
Nevertheless, the remaining problem is the high degree of specialization achieved by contemporary art and its tendency to solipsism. Art has reduced its social communication skills by virtue of the specialization of its language, the inherently cryptic, ambiguous and subtle way in which it builds its meaning, its self-reference, its rejection of serialization and of the massive market.
Its sophistication circumscribes art to a field of connoisseurs, and to a sumptuary market of minorities. This smallholding of experts and collectors has grown without breaking the barriers imposed by art, which still remains happy in its endogamy. The projects that aim to go beyond these institutional frameworks frequently only address and represent the attempts to act beyond that of the individual projects’ own fields, to which artistic projects go back in order to exhibit and legitimize the results. The actual goal is usually the artistic field, as a closed circle, and not what lies beyond it. The online presence of museums, biennials, etc. aims to replicate this pattern. On the other hand, museums’ educational departments usually operate a posteriori, directing their teaching towards what curatorial departments have already done without truly participating in a joint effort. The general education system doesn’t prepare students to relate with art.
The massive audiences visiting the big art events do so from a superfluous and touristic approach, led by curiosity, the spectacle, and the party. This is better than nothing, but the capacity for decoding the artworks is very limited, not to mention when the pieces are incomprehensible, or a laughing matter.
Miscommunication worsens in the underdeveloped world, in which most of humankind lives, due to the low level of education and weakness of institutions. A considerable amount of people go to biennials and art fairs as if they were visiting a zoo.
Nevertheless, paradoxically, the formal and methodological freedom of contemporary art enables it to get out of the “art circle” and to expand its ability to communicate with the public. If by blurring its morphological frontiers, art has assimilated everything, it also bears within its structure a centrifugal potential, which is inherent to its own vastness. It would be a matter of taking advantage of it –of establishing secant areas of communication between the art circle and popular and vernacular areas, and the public sphere in general. It is very difficult, or perhaps impossible to achieve a more complete coincidence, due to the break off of visuality in differentiated aesthetic-symbolic systems since the 18th Century. But it is possible to find common areas between art and the public sphere. It is possible to satisfy both spheres at the same time, without falling either into populisms, didacticisms, or simplifications. This is the challenge for both analogical and virtual art.
EM: I’d like to add it is also a challenge for curators. Tell us about curatorial projects in which you have tried to take advantage of these “secant areas of communication.” If possible, please include specific examples of how you have used them in order to socialize art, and to satisfy these different levels of communication you just mentioned.
GM: My latest curatorial work has been an attempt to moving in this direction. It is not a matter of working with artists in a sociological line or in social activism, but working with more traditional artists whose work has the potential to open up to a wider communication through art’s own visual and tropological strength. A quite successful project in this respect was ciudadMULTIPLEcity. Art>Panama 2003, co-curated with Adrienne Samos, in (and with) Panama City. Unlike other forms of urban art, in which people work mostly from the city towards the art –in which the city is a material, a subject or a scenario for artworks that could even be very subjective and closed– the ephemeral public projects for ciudadMULTIPLEcity were conceived in a circular manner, namely, both from the city towards the art and from the art towards the city. Whether or not they were participatory, both the artworks and the artists’ working processes generated a multiple dialogue with the place, its people and its imaginaries. By involving Panamanian artists, students, professors and graphic designers with artists who were participating and their projects since the very stage of conception of the project, ciudadMULTIPLEcity also functioned as an informal workshop. Young people were able to work with colleagues with a longer trajectory or coming from other spheres, who brought in other experiences.
The artworks, which were rich in artistic meanings, addressed critical points and dynamically communicated with each other. In certain cases the pieces functioned “too well”, as it happened with the public banners realized by Ghada Amer together with local painters, and placed in buses. The banners were removed by the City Hall authorities, due to their critical content against corruption. Artist Brook Alfaro managed to convince two rival gangs to be filmed in two videos, which he projected together over the facades of buildings in the marginal neighborhood they live in. The main public was the people in the neighborhood, who reacted with enthusiasm. These kinds of works would satisfy the art world while at the same time having a strong impact out of the artistic field.
EM: You just mentioned the public banners by Ghada Amer, censored by the City Hall authorities. This is not the only case when ciudadMULTIPLEcity provoked tensions with the authorities. On the other hand, Alfaro’s videos seem to give voice to social groups that are divided, and not enough represented, or misrepresented, in the mass-media. Thus, we would have the criticism to the institutions of power on one hand, and on the other, the possibility for viewpoints that have occupied a subaltern position to emerge. Could this be one of the social functions of what you have called “secant areas of communication”? Is the activation of those political spaces what would differentiate projects such as ciudadMULTIPLEcity from the exhibitions that take place in museums and art galleries, and even from other forms of public art?
GM: Indeed, the criticism to the institutions of power and the opportunity for subaltern voices and standpoints to emerge are some of the possibilities that the secant areas could offer. It is also true that such real political actions differentiated ciudadMULTIPLEcity from many other artistic projects that have taken place both in the urban environment, as well as in the art spaces. The event suffered it in bare flesh, while repression was also an indicator of its success, by proving to effectively operate in sensitive areas. I was not talking about this, but simply about the possibility to achieve a space of communication, in which contemporary art could be de-codified by audiences beyond the elite of connoisseurs and experts. As I said, art’s specialization and its luxurious market, based not in massive distribution but in collectionism, has led to reduce its audience. I believe this expansion of the communicative capacities of art is possible, and we should attempt to achieve it.