This post is the second part of my conversation with critic, curator and art historian Cuauhtémoc Medina. You can read Part 1 here.
Mariana Aguirre: What is the role of private collectors in Mexico?
Cuauhtémoc Medina: The Fundación/Colección Jumex has been a significant force of change. Jumex should be credited for challenging, during the mid-nineties, the outlook of the upper class in Mexico, which had refused to engage with contemporary culture. It needs to be credited for understanding that they had to aid the public sector, museums and artists besides building the collection, in order to produce the ecology and environment in which their project could have a significant weight.
The contrast between what Jumex has done and what has happened around Carlos Slim and his museum, which has not significantly contributed money for other operations and reinforces a completely backward, disorganized and intellectually contentless offer, is stark. [Slim is the richest man in Mexico, and the Museo Soumaya, which he has financed entirely, has been criticized due to its design and collection.] Jumex is a space that has allowed for its own development but has also proven to be the right model, it is the only collection that has had a role in building social taste.
As you know, in countries like the United States, collections become public institutions because otherwise they become incredibly expensive tax-wise, but there is nothing like that being done with collections in Mexico. I believe it is necessary to do so because otherwise collecting will not be productive in the long term.
MA: At the same time, now there is a gallery from Belgium that has an office in Mexico City…
CM: Jan Mot, who is a really interesting gallerist, has a gallery here, but it is not the only one: both Luis Adelantado and Massimo Audiello have also opened venues locally, and it is likely that others will follow. Actually, there was a previous attempt that didn’t take off that involved Peter Kilchman, who tried to settle here. He has continued to represent local artists and organize exhibitions, and is a local participant to a significant extent.
MA: How would you describe art criticism in this particular country? It seems to be one of the spheres that is lagging behind the most…
CM: It is one of the weakest spheres, we have a problem. Independent art criticism is becoming very hard to perform in magazines because they are compromised.
First of all, the bulk of art criticism in Mexico has been published in newspapers. That space has shrunk dramatically; it is a disaster that the sections devoted to culture in newspapers have almost disappeared, since art criticism and other fields of criticism are disappearing with them.
Besides this, there are more people writing on the internet in a non-organized way, people that just keep their blogs, try to inform, define opinions and mobilize people to attend exhibitions and events. There are also guerrilla operations that are interesting though not fully realized, such as the so-called Comité Invisible Jaltenco, which is an anonymous page that has been attacking artistic activities on the basis of a repetitive argument regarding the neoliberal logic of contemporary art. They would do better if they actually signed their names, since this would strengthen their argument and make them part of a proper conversation. Other than the fact that they tend to be particularly dogmatic and unable to involve artworks per se in their arguments, the way they abuse of the idea of anonymity is a stunt that, in my view, does not help to create a complex cultural scene and has reduced their audience to a very small readership.
Secondly, the new arrivals to that scene have unluckily been people that oppose contemporary art in stupid ways.
MA: I know!
CM: Two of them are idiotically backward in their interests, and they are actually battling the idea of contemporary art as a whole. Avelina Lésper is somebody that claims that we should go back to painting like the Old Masters.*[See footnote at bottom of post]. She is not part of a cultural dialogue, but a frightened and hysterical despot that mobilizes a backward clique of painters whose work is unable to convince others of taking the risk of providing them with a curatorial or intellectual framework. Therefore, they have resorted to base misrepresentations to try to seize a figment of social attention and to terrorize institutions into paying attention to them.
I am in an uncomfortable position because I monopolize one of the very few newspaper columns that has survived, and sometimes that gives my opinion too much weight, more than it should. I would prefer to live in a more complex environment, but it has become purely dichotomic, since there are the enemies of contemporary art and those that, like me, are trying to advance a discussion about it, but it is not a healthy public sphere. The question is whether we will be able to change the space where we debate; I thought for a while that it would be good for me to leave that newspaper just to open space for others, but now I am convinced that I am not going to do it. Besides, just to speak about centralism, my articles in the newspaper are only sold in Mexico City, so I don’t even know what is happening in other cities in Mexico….
Then there is the phenomenon that has been dominant in the past years, the failure of the field of specialized magazines to open space to a new brand of hybrid publications. The most important example is Código, which involves a combination of fashion, advertisements for high-end consumer products, and news about artistic activity. Although it has recently become a little bit more serious, I am not particularly passionate about that combination. Neither am I particularly hopeful that those magazines will become the site of emergence of significant critical writing. Curare used to be a journal that at least maintained an in-depth debate about the contemporary art world, but it is not doing well and might not continue in the future. However, the quality of museum publications has improved a lot. They are no longer publicity catalogs with small poetic essays.
I believe that there will be a need to rethink the place where artistic debate might be possible given the decadence of cultural journalism as such. It is interesting that one of the roles of museums in Mexico in the last years has had to do with creating publications and spaces of debate and learning which involve the development of art critical practices, and I think a lot is going to happen through that. I also believe there will be a chance to develop arguments that are not simply a matter of reviews and critical pieces, that there is a new flux of opinion, that “twitterism” is art criticism of a very interesting kind. The buzz around activity has to do with that presence, but I don’t know, I need to confess that sometimes I feel that we haven’t been able to work out the formula to do that.
MA: Can you tell us more about your involvement in and the development of arteporlaizquierda.org? Why did this group arise, and what do you think is going to happen?
CM: Arteporlaizquierda.org is a platform with an organized political activity of artists, curators and other agents of contemporary art that is part of the increasing political mobilization building up all around Mexico at this point in history, in reaction to the manipulation and fraud of the 2012 presidential elections. This social mobilization involves, for the first time in many years, a significant mobilization of the middle class, intellectuals, and professionals that are developing a different kind of civil society. The student movement coalescing around the #132 group is growing and has a specific dynamic, and it is just natural that we are part of it. The concern about the irresponsible and backward electoral practices, the disgust regarding the complicity of television networks and newspapers in developing an authoritarian power around the PRI [Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Peña Nieto’s political party], creating a new form of political domination that I would like to call “tvcracy,” and the horror of knowing that the next president is a soap opera B-movie production, somebody that is a dangerous authoritarian politician and publicly illiterate, has coalesced into the development of different social initiatives and groups that go beyond regions, ideologies and classes.
The contemporary art scene has been a politicized arena that has also been very distant from the mainstream of the left wing political parties’ arguments and cultural identities, but at this time the choice was very clear. More than 2000 people endorsed our statement, a significant number in our milieu. However, arteporlaizquierda.org is not an organization as such, but a group of people that intervenes with its own resources in the public sphere and has a network of supporters. We are trying to work democratically, involving artists such as Claudia Fernandez and Cesar Martinez Silva in public interventions, and hopefully creating visibility with respect to the problems. We are also working actively in defining a shared position in relation to issues of cultural policy.
At the same time, up until now, we try to differentiate our role as activitsts from our specific professional, poetic, and cultural activity in our own fields. All this, however, is very recent and still unfolding. It would be wrong, but also counterproductive, to make an assessment of it, given a fluidity that, also, has to do with the way public life in Mexico is undergoing a deep moment of crisis. Hopefully, the intensity of the current times will be another factor of the significant cultural and political role of contemporary art in this place in the future, but to even try to sketch where we will be in a few months would just prevent the arrival of unexpected possibilities.
1 *Avelina Lésper has recently expressed herself against contemporary art and the institutions that seek to legitimize it: “Contemporary art is the Academy. To rebel is to say what is evident to the naked eye, to negate that this is art only happens at the margins. Institutions, museums, art schools, criticism, everything is directed towards officializing, legitimizing and divulging these unintelligent forms as art. […] Those outside the Academy are painters, sculptors and printmakers, they are excluded from the “salons.” The same [kind of] painting that was exiled from the salons is still exiled. Back then, it was due to aesthetic disagreements, it is currently due to an ideological imposition. Artistic forms whose intelligence and talent are evident are outside of the Academy.” See https://www.avelinalesper.com/2012/07/el-peor-argumento-posible.html. Translation mine.