Identity, aesthetics, objects

Journal of Aesthetic Education 40 (4):65-76 (2006)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:The Journal of Aesthetic Education 40.4 (2006) 65-76 MuseSearchJournalsThis JournalContents[Access article in PDF]Identity, Aesthetics, ObjectsGustavo GuerraIn September 1990 UCLA's Wright Art Gallery opened an exhibition entitled Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation 1965-1985 (now usually referred to as CARA). While CARA was one of several national events displaying nonmainstream art, it was also distinctive in its politics of self-representation. The artists participating in CARA insisted that they be described as members of a Chicano art movement. With the term Chicano they hoped to step beyond labels preferred by the dominant culture—labels such as Mexican American, Latino, or Hispanic. For these artists, the word Chicano was appealing because it represented a complexity of meanings that they understood as being integral to both their identity and to the art they produced. The word Chicano, as Alicia Gaspar de Alba discusses in Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master's House,1 embraces multiple meanings and axes of cultural identity; it derives from the Nahuatl pronunciation of Mexicano, often referring to a person of Aztec descent but including, as well, Native American heritage, Mexican roots, and Catholic faith. The CARA artists also embraced the label's association with a politics of liberation, popular protest, and working-class creativity. From the outset, then, the CARA exhibition was more than an art exhibition.By some lights, however, CARA was too much more than an art exhibition. When the organizers realized they needed funds, they applied for a National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) grant and were initially turned down. While an NEH rejection might mean a number of things, the language of the rejection reports in this case narrows the possibilities down [End Page 65] to an issue that I mean to consider in this article. One rejection report states thatThe panelists understood that Chicano art arose from a variety of political movements and social causes, and therefore the political aspect of this proposal is appropriate to the subject matter.... Even so, the panelists worried that the project makes a political statement, that it is politics masquerading as culture, and that the proposal contains jargon and rhetoric and reads like a manifesto. 2Other reviewers objected to the general language of the report along similar lines. While Chicano artists made a point of representing themselves in complex, multidimensional terms, the NEH found such complexity and multidimensionality perplexing and thus their art not worthy of funding. One referee, for instance, claimed that the terminology used in the proposal was too narrow; he complained that defining Chicano in terms of struggle was too restrictive and excluded other Chicano artists for whom struggle was not a major concern. But later the same reporter objected that some of the concepts in the proposal were not inclusive enough, as they failed to include issues and topics that are central to the Chicano community. Thus the complexity and cluttered characterization that the artists felt was central to their sense of identity was dismissed as either too excessive or as too restrictive. According to the NEH, Chicano artists failed not because of their art (which the referees did describe as "visually compelling") but because of the way in which they chose to identify themselves—because, in other words, of their "rhetoric and jargon." Whatever it was that the NEH found compelling in the Chicano art they found uncompelling in the description of the Chicano artists' lives.After the organizers revised their proposal and reapplied for the grant, they were once again turned down. This second rejection highlights even more clearly the nature of the problem. This second report argues that "[T]here is a disjunction between the organizers' intentions and the exhibition. The proposal does not differentiate clearly between Chicano art and Hispanic art and, in its dependence on self-referential analysis rather than a comparative perspective, the exhibition does not place art in the bigger picture." 3I would like to consider what is at issue when descriptions of identity are said not to work, or when descriptions of art are likewise accused of failure and...



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