A curator, professor, art critic and cultural promoter, Ticio Escobar (Asunción, Paraguay, 1947) is also President of the International Association of Art Critics in Paraguay, President of the Association of Support to Indigenous Communities of Paraguay, Director of Culture of Asunción and Minister of Culture of Paraguay.
He was the author of the National Culture Bill and co-author of the National Heritage Bill of Paraguay.
He has carried out countless curatorships in Paraguay and worldwide, has penned a dozen books on art theory and culture, and received various distinctions in Argentina, Brazil and France, Honorary Doctorates from Universidad Nacional de la Artes and Universidad de Misiones, Argentina, and several international awards. He currently works as Director of Centro de Artes Visuales/ Museo del Barro.
Although the scope of my work is fairly diverse, its different lines intersect at various points in an attempt to connect, however briefly, their various focuses and thus further underscore the issues they raise and assert certain lines of thought. Art, and specifically contemporary art, is one of those areas whose very diversity opens it to different fields situated beyond the confines delimited by aesthetics.
The starting point for this exposition is the intersection of art and contemporaneity. Given that these concepts are also shaped by the different disciplinary loci that have conformed my trajectory, they are marked by their singular theoretical origins and conditioned by their varying epistemological and hermeneutical frameworks as much as by their different reaches. And when I speak of ‘concepts’ I am referring to the endeavour to provisionally discern units of thought that are always in a process of change, interaction and reformulation.
My current work is strongly conditioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, but in this short text I will leave this perspective aside for questions of time (ironically conditioned by my own Covid situation, from which I am beginning to recover).
The lack of definition of art
The starting point, or the main point of intersection, is the concept of contemporary art. The basic ambiguity of the concept is generally taken for granted: not even the most pretentious theories of Western philosophy can avoid running up against a dark area that forecloses all categorical clarity. The Western model of definition based on genre and specific difference is rocked by a dark object marked by desire and estrangement, off-centred, lacking in fixity or bounded limits. Art always contains an empty void, speaks of a je ne sais quoi and problematizes its own object: more than offering answers it poses new questions. Enigma, which is its highest value or charge, does not depend on the inscrutability of its contents but on the very possibility of continuously multiplying these questions. That is to say, the fact of underscoring not the settledness of significations as much as the unsettling horizon of meaning. These uncertain operations intensify the experience of the world, heighten sensibility and open new paths for the imagination at the cost of producing unease and puzzlement.
Discourses on art have flourished in the Western tradition in a territory divided by metaphysical dichotomies that split matter and spirit, sensibility and intelligibility, subject and object, matter and form; and form and content. Thinking on art, inscribed from the eighteenth century onward within the discipline of aesthetics, has been awkwardly placed within the realm of philosophy which is continuously forced to ignore a subject matter that never fully assembles its parts into a logically acceptable unit. Art always ends up in a place that does not fit, in a question that is never formulated, at a door left ajar to the dangers lurking on the other side of the threshold.
The figure of art as a superior instance of the spirit, in other words, the idealist (metaphysical, romantic) model of art which gatecrashed its way into aesthetic theory, can no longer be sustained in the face of the emergence of forces contaminated by their material conditions, technological devices and ethical dimension or their commitment with power and their submission to the hegemony of global markets. It is not a case of throwing overboard essential conquests for the understanding of different manifestations of art, but of cultivating rapprochements to such manifestations by incorporating perspectives different to those monopolized by traditional Western thinking. This proposal opens up to the consideration of epistemologies and regimes of thinking and interpretation other than those of aesthetics. On one hand, art criticism, which accounts for a wide range of positions and approaches, is indispensable: generally speaking, philosophical aesthetics is based on pure reflection developed in closed circuits, regardless of the individual work and its specific conditionings. (Just to give one example: when Kant and Hegel, the founders of speculative modern philosophy of art, speak of artworks, they look for correspondences in classical Greek culture). On the contrary, art criticism incorporates very diverse methodologies, theoretical perspectives and regimes of thinking; it freely combines unequal approximations to the work without claiming to decipher its contents, to conciliate its conclusions or to explain its reach. Critique, basically hermeneutic, addresses specific productions of art by examining their individual conditions of enunciation: considering their times and spaces; or reflecting on the subjectivity of their creators. On the other hand, the challenge to the monopoly of Western aesthetics comes from decolonial thinking, with the contributions of different cultures and with other alternative forms of considering art production removed from the heteropatriarchal regime and institutions governed by financial capital. This path immediately leads to the field in which art meets politics.
Art is radically affected by the contemporary horizon. Contemporaneity is conceived not as a period, which would have taken over from the modern era, but as a stance opposed to certain modern positions. It is basically a question of a focus of diversity: a diversity of times, of cultures, of disciplines, of techniques and methods, of sensibilities and of different theories. By questioning the linear and evolutionary modern model, contemporary temporalities point in different directions: they retreat, they pause, skip order of sequence, repeat already produced movements, disrupt the direction of the future. For this reason, whereas it is inappropriate to speak of ‘modernities’ (as it is presumed that there is just one model of modernism: the Eurocentric one, following an ideal of progress, accumulation, rupture and improvement), it is however possible to speak of ‘contemporaneities’ in plural, insofar as these adopt different positions to the current moment: they mobilize heterogeneous and unstable presents. The contemporary perspective involves distinct cultures, styles, logics and subjects conceived individually in light of their own temporal horizons, adopting variable and plural approaches to the issues they raise. As such, there is not one single way of being contemporary nor just one way of conceiving contemporaneity in terms of perpetual novelty, rupture and transgression. Many works which have been repeating patterns for centuries will remain contemporary as long as they maintain their currency; as long as they continue to engage with social significations and maintain the vitality of their expressions.
Contemporary is defined in opposition to modern in another fundamental issue: the critique of the autonomy of the aesthetic form. The whole modern saga unfolded on the premise of the disjunction of form and content and was consolidated on the predominance of the former over the latter. The beautiful form was enclosed within a self-sufficient realm, governed by its own rules and more attentive to the coherence of its language than to the effectiveness of its discourses.
Once the modern hegemony of the aesthetic form had collapsed, the once well-defended frontiers of art were breached by artistic, thematic, discursive and contextual contents coming from outside. This led to an invasion of narratives and images from diverse sources, while the intersections of alien disciplines and remote sensibilities gain traction, and pressure begins to be felt from social contexts and historical frameworks, and expressions of the energy of creative drives from outside the logic of forms. This is when extra-aesthetic realities and disturbing signs of the ‘return of the real’, impossible to be symbolically inscribed, make their entrance onto the stage of art. And, finally, this same stage is also invaded by reflections on the very circuits of art itself, its institutional devices and the economy of its distribution and consumption.
This invasion of contents and issues that have managed to breach the walls of form is responsible for the core paradox of contemporary art. Once the distance safeguarded by its closed circle has been broken, art runs the risk of losing its specificity and of dissolving in a plateau of one thousand disperse meanings: a flat plain lacking in any formal contention capable of fencing off, however provisionally, a singular field, a place of individual characteristics. On one hand, it is unable to do away with all work with representational form that regulates the distances of the gaze and impels desire. On the other, it cannot lock itself away once again in the model of autonomy that had been so difficult to renounce in the first place. It cannot do so because it would be caught in the trap of a self-sufficient sphere, removed from ideas, imaginaries and techniques that might condition the contemporary sensibility and link it with what is happening outside the realm of forms. This dilemma is based on the tension between autonomy and heteronomy, located at the centre of art’s practices and reflections. This tension is intrinsically irreconcilable and undecidable: the play of its terms is contingent and depends on specific situations, on circumstantial times and spaces. While art cannot discard the moment of distance marked by the form, it can disregard its idealized (metaphysical, transcendental, romantic) jurisdiction and make this form the provisional product of historical constructs, of negotiations with matter, technology, subjectivity and politics. It is no longer possible to argue the form in terms of arabesques of the spirit, consecrated taste and conventional models of beauty: formal configuration, provisionally forged by the gaze, is the product of contingent disputes with matter, technology and historical and subjective contents, as well as with the urges of desire, the unknown reasons of the creative drive and the threat or promises of the impossible real.
The critique of aesthetic autonomy involves a questioning of the ideal model of art able to certify the ‘artisticity’ of works according to fixed categories, normative criteria and canonical precepts. The contemporary artwork is no longer endorsed by superior ideas and transcendental principles: it must conquer its ‘artisticity’ in specific spaces and times, randomly: it must challenge the gaze here and now. The radical contingency of contemporary art forecloses the existence of its own definitive outlines and pushes art outside itself. In consequence, contemporary art is characterized by the instability of its own limits: its strength lies in trespassing them in continuous back-and-forth movements. This fluctuating character faces it with the challenge of preserving provisional spaces or, rather, of opting for transitory positions that enable it to operate with its singular mechanisms (aesthetic distance, irony, critical self-reflection, poetic play, certain rhetorical devices, etc.), and, simultaneously, to open up to images and discourses extraneous to its hermetic traditional spaces.
Starting out from this vocation of contemporary art, which we might call ‘expanded’, to use a practical concept of theory today, one can work with certain figures that imply crossings, intersections, conflicts and alliances of contemporary art: those of politics, technology, technique and cultural difference.
Art / Politics
The very characteristics of artmaking, calling its own object into question, prevent politics from being dealt with in terms of subject matter, theme or reference. If art questions the persistence of its certainties, it is evident that ‘political art’ cannot be characterized by means of the linear representation of power conflicts, of popular demands or critiques of injustice and social violence; expressions that will be subject to a critique of art itself. It is not a matter of disqualifying the political value of such expressions, but of debating the possibility whether mere condemnation in terms of image can effect change in the social structure, at least from the perspective of art (however much it may be useful in terms of aesthetics applied to communication, propaganda, advertising or dissemination). The political potential par excellence of art lies in dissidence: in its possibility to question accepted truths to drive a flow of significations that would reinvent the profiles of the visible and intensify its experiences. Art critiques, brings under suspicion and calls into question whatever it deals with: reality and its illusions, the established social order, forms of representation and, ultimately, its own regime. What is conventionally called ‘self-reflection’ in art expresses the ironic contortion art must execute over itself to sow doubts about its own ontological statute, its very legitimacy and its scope.
In a stricter sense, art challenges the hegemonic, financial capitalist regime of representation which distorts the ethical mandate of creation in order to leverage it as a source of accumulation, speculation and profitability. The main task of political art is to activate disobedient plays within the only system proposed by the global market: to contest the system of complete transparency that endeavours to level the meanings of the world in the interests of greater consuming; in pursuit of the omnipotence of instrumental reason that aspires to level, explain and understand everything. Safeguarding the place of unanswered questions is a much more radical gesture of resistance that illustrates situations, points out the evils of the world and searches among them for conciliatory responses, although they may challenge the legitimacy of the establishment.
Bringing politics into the realm of art (or vice versa) poses another two questions. The first has to do with institutionality, which is particularly important as an endorsement and condition of art today. The character of art is no longer defined by ideal categories nor by the enduring qualities of the object, but rather by the inscription of the works in institutional framings that dictate their creation, circulation and consumption. When beauty is no longer a criterion to determine the character of the artistic and when any event or thing can hold this category, it is the powerful political, cultural, financial and communicational machinery of the ‘art system’ (museums, fairs, collections, criticism, galleries, biennials, publications, etc.) that confers this title. Obviously, this gigantic machinery is committed with the interests of transnational capital, yet in the field of creation, institutions should not be understood as homogeneous unities: the art system comprises more than a few disparate, dissident forces that outline paths disinclined to a one-way direction. On the other hand, the conformation of the artistic is also at play in alternative circuits unconcerned with the pure interests of the market though partly running in parallel to hegemonic institutionality. This ambiguity ensures that a part of critical, ethical and political art comes from institutions nourished by the mainstream or within its orbit.
The second question engages with a different artistic-political level: the micro-political dimension. Politically-inflected art is not based as much on the direct denunciation of objective situations of domination as on an attempt to contest the capitalist requisition of the vital energy of creation. This resistance, as important as that taken on by macro-political positions (focused on reverting the schema of dominant power), must mobilize the creative imagination, affects, desire and the unconscious. The art/politics bond therefore demands the involvement of subjectivities able to invent new forms that require art to fight against the enforcement of dominant forms of subjectivization.
The old relationship between art and technology is completely overturned in a context saturated by the digital image and in the course of an agenda driven by the financial interests of cybernetic society. How can one think the possibilities of the artistic (the poetic, the critical, the aesthetic) in a scene grounded outside the tradition of art and completely removed from its traditional circuits? In the face of this situation it is interesting to trace possible encounters between audiovisual creation today and the practices and debates in contemporary art. The new scenario, affected by the expansion of Internet, social media and smartphones, advances the uncontrollable metastasis of images that exceed all prior historical experience and demand a rethinking of the meaning of the imaginary, the mechanisms of fiction and the validity of conventional symbolic codes. The accelerated intermedial fusion calls for reformulations in terms of sensibility and of thinking and posits new judgments on the value of creation and the pragmatics of visual culture. Once the very mechanism of representation is altered, the rules of its institutionality changed, the boundaries between its various supports broken down, subject to the vagaries of technological obsolescence, art is forced to continuously negotiate new positions and spaces from which to try to continue intensifying the experience of things and the purview of its bonds. This endeavour calls for the action of certain instances of art: its critical, conceptual and creative dimension, the regulation of distance and the old dissident, political vocation of art that makes it question all certainties and disbelieve all categorization that seeks to assign hierarchies and to freeze the perception of reality in privileged models. The concept and the image are indispensable mechanisms of art: the tension between the two must continue driving the momentum of creation, even at times overdetermined by the logic of the techno-market. This tension must continue driving politics of the gaze able to declassify and reorder, always provisionally, the categories that deactivate questions. Heidegger says that questions concerning technology should be posed on a plane other that technology itself: in a field in which its future is not foreclosed by definitive replies. This space, which could well be the space of art, ought to be safeguarded at the centre of a scene befuddled by too many banal figures.
Other forms of art
The final question has to do with the emergence of different ways of experiencing, thinking and expressing the world. This question is also tied to a critique of the modern Western model, self-sufficient and self-centred, and dovetails neatly with decolonial thinking, enhanced with different figures, world-views and discourses, whose irruption has violently shaken up thinking on art defined by the thinking of Western aesthetics. Accordingly, feminist practices and thinking, dissident sexual and gender movements, as well as anti-patriarchal and anticolonial conquests, have healthily altered the outlines that constricted the traditional concept of art. Take for instance the case of indigenous cultures, which are the cultures I work with specifically. They are free of the metaphysical charge that splits aesthetics: they are not based on ideas of substance and essence nor do they advance in one single direction by means of dualities that definitively separate matter and spirit, logic and sense, the sign and the thing. The becoming among different (not dichotomically opposed) terms enables a continuous flow among images that naturally intersect the limits of representation and single out certain events and things to make them exceptional in certain situations (not once and for all). The regime of the institutionality of art is challenged by other systems of “the distribution of the visible” to cite Rancière.
Decolonial critique contests the hierarchical distinction (based on Kantian thinking) between the grand art system (hyper-valued, the product of enlightened geniuses, the superior expression of the spirit) and the regime of applied arts or ‘minor’ genres (articles in craft fairs, the product of dedicated manual work, objects of superstitions). This distinction has produced a historical hierarchized and colonializing opposition between the ‘pure’ realm of great works (supposedly exempt from material contamination and productive endeavour) and the prosaic production of objects destined for ordinary uses or obscure rituals. This distinction corresponds to an overlapping legacy of Kantian thinking: the autonomy of art, still disputed in contemporary terms, continues to draw the cartographies of privilege and exclusion.
The lack of knowledge of formal aesthetic autonomy on behalf of indigenous art (and other alternative systems of art) does not mean a lack of forms. These are present, pushing from within dense sociocultural wefts, identified with the various forces that mobilize social tasks. Although they do not act separately from the workings that conform each culture, beautiful forms drive from within the learnings, certainties, beliefs and ways of feeling that keep its social bonds alive and renew its rationale. In indigenous societies, the ritual mythical imaginary, social codes and ways of expressing or reimagining reality are highlighted by means of the work of sentient forms, which never act autonomously.
Paradoxically at this point, there is an unexpected, though perhaps brief, coincidence between the forms of indigenous art and those of scholarly Western art. The former’s way of positioning themselves towards the present (towards its variable presents) brings them closer to the critical positions of enlightened contemporary art, reluctant to follow the one-way road signposted by the globalized cultural hegemony. Untethered from the circle of formal autonomy, different cultural models intersect in the wasteland populated by a thousand forms trying to maintain the force of their arguments without refusing to open to the heterogeneous realities that bustle beyond the confines drawn by Western aesthetics.