By Kaira M. Cabañas, author of Immanent Vitalities: Meaning and Materiality in Modern and Contemporary Art

This guest post is part of our #CAA2021 conference series. Visit our virtual exhibit to learn more.

In a recent interview for Utopia: Revista de Crítica Cultural, art historian and curator José Falconi inquired about my critique of the “global contemporary” paradigm within academia in the United States and Europe, as it relates to research on art in Latin America. To me the biggest blind spot in the 2010s of the expansion into a so-called global modern art history is that it mainly operates within an assimilationist logic.

Whether it is “global pop” or “global surrealism,” English-speaking scholars and curators impose names and strategies from avant-garde movements in Western art history on singular practices that emerged in the Global South. In doing so, aesthetic similarities trump differences, generalities triumph over specificity. In the specific case of surrealism, I always remind my students of how Frida Kahlo confessed “I never knew I was a surrealist until André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” Filmmaker Glauber Rocha also once wrote, “Our surrealism is not the surrealism of dreams but that of reality.”

In my previous book Learning from Madness, my conception of “monolingualism of the global” related only partly to linguistic competency. The concept diagnosed a condition: the intellectual failure to reckon with how aesthetic categories and movements are neither neutral nor natural containers of information. From an ethical perspective, I find it important to remember that hegemonic constructions and power relations have not disappeared with the emergence of the global contemporary. They subsist, but in a new guise.

Integrating work from Latin America into a global art history abandons one type of epistemic control and inscribes the work within a dominant language that retains the privilege of making the art of “others” legible and knowable, even “global.” Knowledge production is revealed as a one-way street of appropriation and reassertion of discursive power. Consequently, I often say that today “global” is just a veiled way of saying “non-Western.” Modernist art history in the United States mainly upholds a division between modernism and global modernism. The first unmarked term imputes authenticity and primacy to modernism in the West, while maintaining a cultural hierarchy by deliberately casting “global” in a secondary position. No scholar in the United States uses “global” to designate Western modernism, and precious few scholars in the Global South describe their work on modernism as “global.” (As is true for academics in Brazil, which I am most familiar with). Global modernism is the product of a Western episteme that belatedly discovered and felt responsible to modernisms that were already there. In short, global modernism is a Western category.

I often say that today “global” is just a veiled way of saying “non-Western.”

Kaira M. Cabañas

In Immanent Vitalities: Meaning and Materiality in Modern and Contemporary Art, I confront other types of implicit academic biases in the United States. For example, when one writes about the modern and contemporary art of Latin America, one needs to provide extensive cultural context (often geopolitical), while theoretically informed art history seems to remain doggedly within the purview of (Euro-American) modernist art histories. When producing idea-driven books about modern European or postwar American art, art historians (myself included) are rarely asked to further unpack the shifting geopolitical horizons of art in order to legitimate its meaning. Instead, such horizons are assumed familiar to the English-speaking readers in question. One must deliberately engage a strategy Walter Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience,” so that the expectations of the dominant language (be it in art history faculties, editorial boards, publishers, etc.) are not continually reinscribed through intellectual accommodation.

We must interrogate prevailing Western expectations and implicit bias regarding the types of scholarship that can be produced about specific regions of the world and about non-hegemonic communities. It is a key scholarly responsibility, and one that has been intensifying recently with urgent calls to examine the inequities and colonial histories that subtend the discipline. In my own scholarship, what has been largely nonnegotiable has been my refusal to perform what would be recognized as scholarship by a Latina. I trouble essentialist assumptions that would tie my ethnic identity to the content of my scholarly output. Even so, I am always amazed how many colleagues ask if I am Brazilian or Venezuelan. None have ever asked me if I am French.

In Immanent Vitalities, I historicize changing perceptions of art’s agency while prompting readers to remain attentive to the ethical dimensions of materiality and of social difference and lived experience. The book expands the discourse of new materialisms by charting how artists, ranging from Gego to Laura Lima, distance themselves from dualisms such as mind-matter, culture-nature, and human-nonhuman in order to impact our understanding of what is animate. My aim was to show that geopolitics alone should not define the meaning of art from Latin America, and to instead allow aesthetic, material, structural, and theoretical analysis to inform the discipline’s and art’s purchase on social worlds. Such an approach produces a different materialization of art’s histories. Broadly conceived, the chapters shift from modern to contemporary art, from the aesthetics of color to the aesthetics of care. Key here is that Immanent Vitalities is a critical take on modernism and contemporary art. In short: theoretically innovative and critical modernist art history can be produced in, of, and from Latin America.

Immanent Vitalities is part of our Studies on Latin American Art Series.

About the Author

Photo credit: José Falconi

Kaira M. Cabañas is Professor of Global Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Florida, Gainesville. She is the author of The Myth of Nouveau Réalisme: Art and the Performative in Postwar France; Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde; and Learning from Madness: Brazilian Modernism and Global Contemporary Art.