I found myself in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the official dawn of the post-truth era. I was there on that fateful Tuesday in November 2016, having gone to seek out artists and activists who might collaborate with me on a class exploring art as an engine for social change. In my early encounters the day after the election, I was struck by how few people seemed to share my frustration and despair. I misinterpreted it as indifference, the ambivalence of a postcolonial colony. I could not have been more wrong. Over the course of the day, myriad small acts of resistance and self-determination revealed a robust civil society working for change from below. Less than a year later, the artists I encountered would occupy the vanguard of Puerto Rico's do-it-yourself recovery following the federal government's unconscionable response to Hurricane Maria, accounts of which the president and his supporters had dismissed as “fake news.”
As an art historian and a professor, it is easy to feel professionally removed from such issues. Yet that would be misguided. On the one hand, charges of academic elitism underpin the Right's long-standing anti-intellectualist campaign, which culminated in a presidential election won on disregard for reasoned argument and empirical fact. On the other hand, despite the fundamental interrelation of art and politics, art history is particularly vulnerable to skepticism toward its “real-world” relevance, hampering diversity and reinforcing structures of exclusion. Art history's protracted Eurocentrism and the disengaged populism of MAGA, thus, intersect in a Janus-faced claim to the failure of multiculturalism.1 This essay looks at my efforts to redress my complicity in this epistemic turn and institutional stasis. Looking to Puerto Rico's artivism as subject of study and as a pedagogical and political model, I sought to horizontalize research and create a more ethical and inclusive classroom and curriculum. Our micropolitical experiment in shared knowledge production, conducted less by me than by my students in consort with the artists and activists on the island, suggests the possibility for a more holistic and heterarchical art history written and curated from below.
DESCHOOLING AS PREFIGURATIVE PEDAGOGY
The class that inspired this rethinking was a Latin American studies seminar at Tulane University entitled “Women, Community and Art in Latin America,” which I created in conversation with the director of Tulane's Newcomb Art Museum (NAM), Mónica Ramírez-Montagut. I designed the class in relation to the NAM's exhibition Beyond the Canvas: Contemporary Art from Puerto Rico (2017), which approached painting as a site of tension at the centennial of US colonial occupation. My class would explore the relation of art to struggles for social and economic justice, aligning culture-based activism with the particularities of Caribbean feminisms and issues pertaining to women's rights on the island. My hope was that an interdisciplinary approach and a broad definition of art as social practice would reveal the deeper relation of art and society to students with diverse majors and interests. Imagining a class that would not just consume content but would actively produce new knowledge, I went to lengths to cultivate a diverse student cohort, recruiting at events sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Office for Gender and Sexual Diversity, and the Center for Academic Equity, among others, and fund-raising so all students could travel regardless of financial standing. The result was an ethnically, racially, and gender diverse group, representing a variety of perspectives, nationalities, citizenship statuses, and gender expressions.
The distinguishing feature of the class was that it would travel to Puerto Rico over Tulane's spring break and collaborate with the artists and groups studied. When students returned to New Orleans, they would curate a small exhibition at the NAM based on their experiences. In Puerto Rico we worked with artists Jorge González, Chemi Rosado-Seijo, Noemí Segarra and Las Nietas de Nonó, sisters Lydela and Michel; with architect Marina Moscoso and citizen urbanist Sofía Unanue Banuchi of the nonprofit planning collective La Maraña; and Tara Rodríguez Besosa, an architect by training who cofounded the vegan restaurant and CSA, El Departamento de la Comida. While not commenting on or explicitly engaging with Beyond the Canvas, the student exhibition's active engagement with socially reparatory art represented a counterpart to the paintings in the exhibition and their evocation of crisis and frustration.
Given the polysemous nature of social practice art, the breadth of issues engaged by the Puerto Rican projects, and my students' paracuratorial role, I had already envisioned the classroom as a shared learning environment. This ambition was radicalized by the idea of “deschooling,” which I repeatedly encountered in conversations in Puerto Rico. The term was coined by Croatian-Austrian priest Ivan Illich, who served as the young vice rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico in the 1950s and 1960s. Dismayed by a deeply colonized public school curriculum, which naturalized US cultural superiority and the rigid racial and gender hierarchies of Jim Crow, Illich theorized deschooling as an alternative to compulsory education. He advocated “peer-matched” learning, where students would teach according to their individual or collective needs and abilities, with the goal of making education a tool of emancipation rather than indoctrination.
Grassroot campaigns toward greater self-sufficiency provoked by the island's intensifying financial crisis have animated a revival of Illich's philosophies. The nonprofit arts center Beta Local, established in 2009, for instance, founded an “open school” named for Illich, which provides the physical space, material resources, and outreach for any class or workshop a community member proposes, in an effort, in their words, to “break the binaries between teacher-student, artist-spectator, expert-amateur, and instead propose flexible structures that allow for mutual learning and produce collective knowledge.” Beta Local is the primary network on the island for artists and cultural producers working outside the commercial gallery system. Codirector Sofia Gallisá Muriente introduced me to Las Nietas de Nonó, who created Patio Taller, a community center in the city of Carolina east of San Juan that similarly frames its work as emancipatory education. Patio Taller supports any teaching of interest to the community, offering classes on dance, theater, art, and most notably indigenous ethnobotany. In the same vein, Jorge González created his Escuelas Oficios (trade schools) to preserve local knowledge by organizing collaborative workshops that teach artisanal techniques, such as ceramics, furniture construction, lacemaking, and basket and hammock weaving.
The significance of the deschooled pedagogies inscribed in these practices is twofold. On the one hand, they undertake an anticolonial recuperation of local knowledge. On the other hand, they enact a “prefigurative” politics that models the cultural autonomy and social equity these artists/organizations imagine for society within the operations of their own projects. For my purposes, it prompted me to contemplate what peer signified in the classroom, in research and in exhibition practices. In the university context, creating a peer cohort required a plurality of identities representative of Tulane and society. In Puerto Rico it meant developing empathy with the island's struggles, which would require situated knowledge of the conditions that framed cultural practices. And in the museum, it signified speaking with rather than speaking about Puerto Rican artivism, horizontalizing relations among artists, curators, and institutions.
These three principles—diversity, empathy and horizontality—are the building blocks of a prefigurative academic politics that I, as an art historian and professor, endeavor to practice. In recent decades art history has made significant inroads toward decentering the canon, adding “global” modernisms to the standard curriculum. University faculties and research methodologies have been much slower to diversify, however. Boasting comparatively few public intellectuals and little activist research, the discipline often seems irrelevant to students from underrepresented demographics, despite the long-standing dedication of art to political struggle within marginalized communities—and in the history of art in general. This failure to diversify is not just a challenge to operational ideals of “inclusion” but, more urgently, it stymies the theoretical advancement of the field by leaving Eurocentric research paradigms uncontested, no matter how inappropriate to the subject matter and research objectives. Theory becomes a means to legitimize art that is unfamiliar to the mainstream, rather than a hermeneutic tool toward its deeper understanding. So what are the alternatives? How do we begin to craft methodologies able to adequately acknowledge and respect difference?
TOWARD A HERMENEUTICS OF COLLABORATION
In initiating our inquiries, we looked to our subjects. We approached the artist-initiated proposals not through normative evaluative frameworks but on their own terms. As a research strategy, active collaboration subsumed ethnographic observation. Sensitive to the asymmetries embedded in ethnographic field work and, moreover, institutionalized by university “service” and study abroad, we decided the meaning of participation would be determined in consultation with our host organizations, according to their needs, desires, and capacity. Because our “collaboration” may have been more subdued than students had hoped, it allowed us to assume a shared perspective from within the projects.
Despite our diverse and politically engaged cohort, the students struggled with our understated form of collaboration, having rarely ceded the positions of authority that Western ideals of knowledge production have taught them to value. With time, however, they began to prize the opportunity to assume a shared perspective within the projects. We, thus, “occupied” Casa Taft 169, talking to neighbors and organizers from La Maraña, a grassroots citizen urban design collective, about the transformation of the once-blighted house into a makeshift civic center, itself a work of art (fig. 1). We lunched at El Departamento de la Comida, the vegan restaurant founded by Rodríguez Besosa and Olga Casellas Badillo that functions as a storefront for a network of urban gardeners and rural farmers collaborating on issues of agricultural sustainability and food security. Touring a community garden in another of San Juan's thousands of abandoned properties, Rodríguez identified indigenous herbs and vegetables that El Departamento has been introducing into local cuisine through commerce and education. And with Jorge González we participated in what amounted to a spontaneous performance. Discussing the power of collective memory as we walked through the streets surrounding the derelict residence of architect Henry Klumb, the father of Puerto Rican modern architecture and a significant inspiration for González, we stopped to unfurl a curtain inspired by Klumb's wife that had been produced collectively with Escuelas Oficios. For some forty minutes we stood holding the curtain in the street, listening, contemplating, and offering our own personal memories in an experience that collapsed art, artist, public, and curator (fig. 2).
For the most part, the students listened and bore witness, becoming allies and advocates rather than experts and authorities. At Patio Taller, Michel and Lydela have mounted widely acclaimed experimental theater pieces that blur the boundaries of actor and audience and that probe critical issues confronting the community. Our participation was more prosaic, consistent with the quotidian rather than spectacular functions of Patio Taller. We kicked around the gardens, idled in hammocks, drank tea Michel made from local herbs and flowers, and chatted with children and adults who passed en route to other destinations. At one point we dropped in on an aging neighbor who offered an impromptu tour of the flora and fauna of the neighborhood, pointing out, among other things, breadfruit trees, one planted to feed each slave, he told us.
All of this would have seemed ordinary and unremarkable, were it not for a densely situated understanding of the complex historic and sociological context that framed Patio Taller. In addition to discussing and debating the history of art as social critique in our class at Tulane, we also undertook a self-reflective exploration of US colonialism and Puerto Rico's subaltern histories. We knew how genocide, slavery, and forced dependency had altered the island's demographics and culture, sacrificing Indigenous and vernacular knowledge and art to exploitative economic designs. Efforts to develop ethnobotanical knowledge insinuated the legacies of sugar's monoculture and residents' frustration with a forced dependence on imported produce (canned, frozen, shrink–wrapped, expensive). We could see the consequences of Operation Bootstrap's failed attempt to exploit and Taylor-ize the island's labor in the postindustrial landscape being gradually reclaimed by the rural, and in the leisurely pace of economic informality. We could position Patio Taller's small acts of self-help relative to the debt crisis and the ease with which fifteen nonnative legislators appointed by the US Congress could impose austerity on the struggling population through devastating social welfare cuts. We knew how such reforms disproportionately affected women and people of color and how brain drain—the conscripting of artists, engineers, physicians, university professors to massive out-migration—hindered the ability for Puerto Rico's professional class to solve its own problems. Despite this, we also witnessed how these problems gave rise to a critical recuperation of popular knowledge that promised to address them on local terms.
Not only does a deep understanding of the local contribute to a sense of empathy essential to genuine collaboration, but it also resists misinterpretations of cultural production based in pseudomorphism; that is, the visual or conceptual resemblance to something that went before. Growing interest in global art, be it modern or contemporary, has brought artists from the vast “periphery” to international notoriety. Yet inclusion is too often determined by paradoxical perceptions of either resemblance to mainstream art or difference from it, obscuring the complex realities of the art's origins and significance, while reinforcing ethnocentric hierarchies that continue to elevate the West over the rest. Institutional structures within the academy mirror these value-laden tendencies passed off as ideologically neutral, as senior faculty and peer reviewers evaluate research according to conformity with disciplinary conventions, making change from all this difficult if not impossible. Free from these impediments, my students undertook a sort of coauthorship that imagined the possibility for greater inclusion and change from below. Attentive to the perils of speaking for the local, they sought to enter into conversation with the local in what, according to Illich, promised to be a mutually emancipatory process of colearning. The student-organized exhibition, in turn, aimed to be a transcript of this reciprocal dialog conveyed through visual and material forms, a call to question rather than answer.
CURATING AS CONVERSATION
The small exhibition organized by the students, “Culture, Community and Civic Imagination in Greater San Juan,” on view at the NAM during April 26–July 9, 2017, reflected its collaborative genesis. In their role as interlocutors, the students both claimed and troubled authorship, inadvertently engaging the increasingly entangled functions of artist and curator. To capture the spirit and mission of Las Nietas de Nonó, for example, they assembled their own installation that echoed the intimate, domestic aura of Patio Taller. Using discarded furniture and rigging an old television to broadcast video of the neighborhood; its flora and fauna; rambling conversations with Michel, Lydela, and neighborhood children; and the meandering tour of local wildlife, the students designed the space to invite participation along the lines of their own experience, while doing their best to let Las Nietas speak for themselves (fig. 3).
Even in the case of better-known projects, such as El Cerro, the students approached the proposals on their own terms. Well-known since the 2002 Whitney Biennial, Chemi Rosado's social sculpture involved working with residents of the financially challenged neighborhood in Naranjito—some thirty minutes from San Juan—to paint their homes any of a variety of shades of green. Rosado's interest concerned issues of social and political visibility. The neighborhood's informal architecture, which conformed to the organic contours of the hill, was a metaphor for the working-class community's political invisibility despite its deep cultural roots. Paradoxically, as the physical gradually blended into the background, the societal advanced to the foreground. Not only did the collaborative labor involved in Pintando el Cerro forge greater attachment to place and community, but the project attracted national and international visitors, inspiring a sense of pride among its inhabitants.
As an environmental sculpture, El Cerro is best viewed from a distance (fig. 4). Our student curators, however, positioned themselves in close proximity, privileging function over form. In recent years El Cerro's renovated community center has become the site of intergenerational workshops dedicated to making soles, lace rosettes traditional to the region, the technique of which had nearly been forgotten. With the support of Beta Local, Jorge González has helped to revitalize the craft as part of his Escuelas Oficios. Many of the students spent an afternoon learning to make the soles and swapping stories with community members. For the exhibition, they displayed their rudimentary efforts as a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of El Cerro's traditions and as the product of a collaborative experience. Moreover, reading against the grain of the art world, they chose not to feature Rosado or González in the exhibition, but instead recognized the women of the community, distinguishing community leader Jossie Serrano as the main representative of El Cerro. In a way, their collaboration became an extension of Rosado's project, redressing the invisibility his proposal critiqued through the recognition of El Cerro's residents as citizens and individuals.
Part of the perceived irrelevance of art history that I contend challenges greater inclusion is the problematic place of politics relative to the discipline, which conservative scholars believe threatens both empirical objectivity and “great” art's requisite ability to supersede time and place. If the transdisciplinary nature of social practice art necessitated a more socially engaged art history, scholars, nevertheless, too often leave the heavy lifting to the work itself, removing themselves and their research from the struggles at hand. Such gestures celebrate inclusion while failing to promote equity through the dismantling of the structures—in academia, in the art world, and in society—that perpetuate exclusion. It would be a vast overstatement to say our little project redressed these concerns in any substantive manner. The students do deserve recognition, however, for their support of the broader social movements that informed the artistic social work on the island, suggesting a more dialectical understanding of the relation of art, oppression, and political struggle.
We happened to be on the island when University of Puerto Rico (UPR) students decided to strike in response to a $450 million cut to the university budget mandated by the congressional oversight board. The strike preempted a planned movement workshop with Noemí Segarra on the UPR campus. Segarra is the author of PISO proyecto (2011–), in which she performs improvised movement in public places on a small wooden platform the size of her living room. The ongoing project collapses oppositions between public and private and symbolically repopulates neighborhoods decimated by out-migration. My students' response to the aborted workshop was to join Segarra and her students in the streets, an experience that enacted a reclamation of public space closely related to PISO proyecto. The “transcription” of this conversation exhibited in the NAM projected video footage taken at the march onto Segarra's protest banner, hung on the wall, which bore a version of the quote attributed to Emma Goldman, “If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution.” (The sign read, “¡Si no puedo bailar, no es mi revolucíon!”) Below the banner a recreated piso (dance floor) invited viewers to improvise their own movement. For the opening of the exhibition, the students brought Segarra to campus; her steps on the floor relocated to the NAM and to various places on the Tulane campus extended and transformed the intercultural, intercommunal dialog initiated in Puerto Rico.
Our project sought to shift relations of knowledge and power from museum to faculty, from faculty to students, and from students to communities. Each locale offered opportunities to think and engage differently, to experiment with rebalancing power, and to contemplate the restrictions that our institutions place on these efforts. Reframing the exhibition from a contemplative to a collaborative experience pointed to the limits of top-down “inclusion” and the promise of equity from below. Inclusion itself is a fraught ideal. Involving the act of either including or being included, it reinforces hierarchies of exclusion that necessitate such machinations, invoking the failures of multiculturalism. Diversity will not result from multicultural dispensations that merely index difference for quotas and due diligence to the “global.” On the contrary, genuine equity requires intercultural institutional reform; that is, mutual transformation on all sides to expand the essential culture of the discipline. Exploiting contested in-between spaces, intercultural practices produce new collective knowledge. In art history this means advancing methodologies better able to accommodate the complexities of difference and integrate alternative epistemologies. In our efforts to counter the epistemic challenge of “post-truth” we cannot relent in the interrogation of our own institutions' claims of superiority. Reason is a vital practice, but it cannot claim a monopoly on truth.
MAGA refers to the president's campaign slogan, “make America great again,” here used a metonym for his supporters.