Recent thinkers I admire have called for renewed attention to art and aesthetics as places “where one goes to think,” in the words of Néstor García Canclini, celebrated Argentine anthropologist.1 In his latest book, Art beyond Itself, a meditation on the intersections between the social sciences and the arts, García Canclini offers the idea that artists “are freer than social scientists to use metaphors to express condensations and uncertain meanings that we cannot formulate as concepts,” adding later, “Perhaps this way of saying things without pronouncing them fully, this imminence of an impending revelation, is the key to the nature of art.” I find García Canclini's observations compelling, because they suggest the distinct ways in which art produces meaning. By their nature, artworks evoke a wider, more complex range of interconnected ideas than texts do, allowing for an expansive array of affective, kinesthetic, and intellectual responses. Later, he suggests the political potential of imminence: “Literature and art give more resonance to voices that come from diverse places in society, listening to those voices in ways that others don't, turning them into something that political, sociological, or religious discourses can't. …”2 Due to their aptitude for condensation, suggestion, insinuation, as well as visual artists' aptitude for suggesting unfixed, evolving, even uncertain meanings, art can serve as a vehicle for diverse viewpoints—institutional barriers notwithstanding—giving voice to ideas deemed unfit for print. I think of the long history of how artists and images evade censorship.
In a different text, UC Berkeley scholar Stephen Best reminds us that “artworks perform … an intellectual or philosophical project.”3 Theorizing from the intersection of Black and Queer studies, he suggests in his recent book, None Like Us, that contemporary artworks model nonspatialized ways of thinking, an aesthetics of adjacency, perspective, and the intransmissable.4 He brings these ideas to life via artworks by contemporary African artist El Anatsui, born in 1944 in Ghana and working most of his career in Nigeria, and contemporary Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford (b. 1961). UCLA's Fowler Museum displays one of El Anatsui's signature works, Versatility, of 2006 (fig. 1), a glittering, sculptural wall hanging crafted of recycled materials. Best focuses his attention on the artwork's surface, with its reflective, shifting, unfixable effects, which he analogizes to the intransmissability of history. He introduces another conceptual tool in his reading of artist Mark Bradford, the notion of immurement (fig. 2). Bradford's works, in some ways, present an opposite view of aesthetics and visual arts practices. His multimedia works are crafted from layer upon layer of collage and paint, parts of which the artist then sands away. The viewer is left with, as in figure 2, glimpses of past images and words. Art historians have tended to read Bradford's work as palimpsestic in nature, a reading Best revises. Instead of preserving legible references to the past, Best interprets Bradford's technique as one of “immurement,” a walling off of meaning. While the viewer is tempted to grasp at and fix meaning in his multimedia pieces, a stable, defined meaning is ever elusive.5 In both cases—El Anatsui and Bradford—Best insists that all meaning in their creations must be found within the works themselves; these works, in fact, through their aesthetic strategies, stymie all attempts to find meaning in history or context. Inspired by Foucault, Best offers, “We must begin to think like artworks.”6
I find the coincidences between Best and García Canclini uncanny, particularly given that they write from such different theoretical perspectives. Like García Canclini, Best also values the visual arts for their abilities to suggest ideas that can't be voiced, thoughts that may be arrived at diagonally, adjacently, or in perspective. Both raise artworks to significant levels of importance, reminding us of their power.
I also pair recent writings by García Canclini and Best because both boldly confront crises in their academic fields. Globalization and critiques of Eurocentrism have led to breakdowns in meaning in the arts and social sciences, and especially in anthropology, the occasion for Art beyond Itself. Cognizant of the negative impacts of Eurocentrism in academic research, scholars speculate about next steps: “A world ends not only when the answers have to be archived but also when the questions that gave rise to them lose their meaning.”7 Best's book is equally provocative, calling for an end to Black studies as currently configured, questioning the idea of history as redemptive in nature. Instead of melancholic longing for representation in the past, symptomatic of, in Best's assessment, a desire for representation in the present, he urges historians to confront the “failures in the archive,” the fact that archives only reveal or authorize certain stories, an observation that can be linked to other fields, of course, and a central tenet of postcolonial thinking. Inspired by the tradition of Black Radical thought, and writing against social historical projects committed to recovering the history of US enslavement, he offers: “I am inspired to craft a historicism that is not melancholic but accepts the past's turning away as an ethical condition of my desire for it. I try to reframe the jolt of the archive—its refusal, its rebuff—as a call to sacrifice, seeing no reason not to put such failure to some use.”8 Best suggests sacrificing the desire to recover Black history, since doing so only replicates structures of exclusion. Instead, he aligns himself with the incrementalist or minimalist turn in scholarship.9
As an art historian who endeavors to revitalize the study of art history through recourse to Chicanx studies, I find that these critiques of the social sciences and ethnic studies give me pause. In this editorial comment, I think through the critiques and suggestions for paths forward proposed by García Canclini and Best from my position as an art historian and Chicanx studies scholar, as I attempt to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of my two fields in the scholarly and real worlds. Although both texts fall outside of my areas of research expertise, I bring them together in an attempt to think obliquely or diagonally about my own work and to dwell on adjacent research fields, hoping that this juxtaposition puts my own research in new perspective.
The juxtaposition of these two texts also demonstrates my belief in the power of interdisciplinarity. García Canclini's strategy for replacing older Eurocentric questions in the arts and social sciences is to call for new transdisciplinary inquiries. He crafts a new combined approach by zeroing in on useful strategies from various fields, warning that while context is important to an artwork, it cannot tell us everything; we still must confront the artwork itself.10 He advocates that we combine “the rigor of science and the intuitions of artists,” mixing scientists' “logical supportable speech” with the “multivocal potential of metaphors” inherent to the ways artists think and create. His model for new ways of thinking is inspired by contemporary Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco's mobile workshop-studies, which are gatherings where artists focus on creating knowledge together (similar to schools), described as “platforms for thinking” by the artist himself.11 “Interdisciplinary and intercultural works place us in a more fertile era for reexamining what we mean by knowledge: how to join the rigor of concepts together with other modes of explanation, comprehension, and expression,” García Canclini concludes.12 Indeed, his book itself is arranged in such a way as to suggest new methodologies. Organized into chapters featuring a social scientist, philosopher, and artist, “we experience not propositions or conclusions, but the pathways and enigmas of knowledge.”13 Such an arrangement fosters readers' ability to perceive imminence, ideas coming into being, a goal that García Canclini advocates for and one characteristic of visual art works.
Best's equally radical challenge questions the parameters of Black studies and social history by asking us to consider “the possibility that the unforthcomingness of the past may be the fount of its deepest political (if not human) significance,” making a case “for the writing of a history of discontinuity,” à la Foucault.14 Current attempts at historical recuperation, he suggests, are influenced by a desire for representation in the present moment. By denying a redemptive approach to history, one in which scholars attempt to represent themselves, Best advocates for an approach that takes inspiration from contemporary aesthetics: “contemporary artists are in the process of enacting a kind of thought that literary critics are not yet willing to entertain, that they may be enacting a “style” of freedom: freedom from constraining conceptions of blackness as authenticity, tradition, and legitimacy; of history as inheritance, memory, and social reproduction; of diaspora as kinship, belonging, and dissemination.”15 In this regard, he singles out the works of El Anatsui and Mark Bradford.
Are contemporary Latinx or Latin American artists articulating a similar freedom from the confines of identity politics? Best's call brings to mind for me recent essays on the newer generations of Chicanx and Latinx artists, artists who, instead of being motivated by “resistance and affirmation” are inspired by “select disclosures, suspect absences, and insidious suggestions,” in the words of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) curator Rita Gonzalez.16 She includes among them Salomón Huerta and Victor Estrada. University of Southern California Professor Josh Kun adds others, including Mario Ybarra Jr., Artemio Rodriguez, Marissa Rangel, Shizu Saldamando, Camille Rose Garcia, Ruben Ochoa, Juan Capistrán, and Sandra de la Loza—artists whose work, in Kun's estimation, go beyond identity and representation.17 Instead, their creations suggest ambiguity, metaphors, resonances, perspective, and adjacency, in the process freeing Chicanx art from past expectations about what it should look like or should communicate.
Allow me to present two examples, an evocative house painting by Salomón Huerta and a recent portrait by Shizu Saldamando, as salient paradigms (fig. 3). Huerta's Home painting describes in precise blocks of saturated colors a simple suburban home of the type found in Los Angeles. His absolute suppression of extraneous detail prevents the viewer from identifying a specific neighborhood or speculating about the home's inhabitants. While certain of Huerta's visual strategies seem suggestive of Chicanx art or culture—such as, perhaps, the colors of the homes—no specific cultural messages or identifying iconographies are directly communicated here. Saldamando's works similarly escape being contained within a specific category such as “Chicanx portraiture.” Her pen, ink, and multimedia portraits depict members of the arts community of which she is a member. Her precisely detailed drawings communicate the individual essence of each person, many of them artists, not stereotypical representations meant to bring Chicana/o/xs to visibility. In their articulation of imminence, ambiguity, and resonances, works such as these may provide us with new ways to consider art, the present, and even the past.18
How does Best's critique of Black studies translate to the realm of Chicanx studies? Comparable in some ways, Chicanx studies similarly longs for representation in the past. It is, arguably, a melancholy project built on the double colonization of the conquests of Mexico and the United States. On the other hand, it brings an inherently different and much-needed perspective to academe, and for me, to art history, encompassing vital analytical frameworks and critical tools. These viewpoints foster greater understanding of the past by recovering important but under-studied perspectives. Such voices often bring a unique perspective on the US experiences; without them, our history is incomplete. Perhaps such knowledge may even encourage better anticipation of the future or allow us to imagine new trajectories. I'm reminded of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.” In Orwell's words, “He [each member of society] must be cut off from the past … because it is necessary for him to believe that he is better off than his ancestors …”19 Dare I envision a more just world where ethnic studies is no longer necessary?
As a Chicana art historian I am sensitive to Best's radical questioning of communal identities, his skepticism of true history and objective truth. I wonder about my own investment in crossing chronological borders as well as my draw to contemporary artists whose work is in dialog with the art of the past, particularly historic religious art. I think deeply about the risks of reading ourselves back into the archive so that the past simply becomes a mirror reflecting us today. The brilliant work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past reminds us of the complex and varied manners in which historical silences are created and maintained, whether in the construction of archives, narratives, or histories, and the strategies for deconstructing them.20 For that reason (among others), I do not capitulate to the belief that recovering the past is impossible. The lessons of the past could not be more urgent than today.
What can we learn by contemplating a particular image's longue durée?
I thought about this question while writing about portrayals of the iconic seventeenth-century nun and literary genius Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in the process joining together the disciplinary tools of art history and Chicanx studies—close reading, primary sources, plus feminist and decolonial methodologies.21 My consideration of contemporary Chicana portrayals of Sor Juana in comparison to twentieth-century Mexican artists' renderings has allowed me to perceive the radical, activist tone of their portrayals, in contrast to the more intellectual approach of Mexican painters longer ago. This facilitated my interpretation of colonial painter Miguel Cabrera's famed 1750 portrait (Mexico City, Museo de Historia) as encoding a gendered warning about the dangers of intellectual desire.
In other instances, I've considered the longue durée of contemporary representations of the female body. Foundational Chicana artist Judithe Hernández, a key figure in the Chicano Movement and important feminist voice, revises traditional representations of the female body in Western art to offer her Chicana feminist perspective. Photographer Laura Aguilar similarly engaged with the role of the female nude in the canon of Western art history, queering traditional representations. Examining the work of Hernández and Aguilar in transhistorical perspective makes visible the radical nature of their artistic engagement with the past.22
My belief in the importance of history and the desire to bring ignored narratives to the fore also motivates my long-standing interest in religious art in the early modern Iberian world. At the beginning of my career, I conceived of religious art as a kind of public art; now, I struggle with rectifying my objects of study with decolonial methodologies. I think about censorship controversies involving the work of Chicana artists Yolanda López in Los Angeles in 2001 and Alma López in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2003, in terms of historical precedents. Often, the concerns that motivate these current protests have a long history in the Hispanic world: anxieties about the humanization of sacred female bodies and fears of Indigenous influences infiltrating Catholicism. Allow me to note another example, the sculptures of New Mexican artist and santero Luis Tapia, which draw upon and revitalize traditional religious art to make Hispanic spiritual practices visible as they offer pointed critiques. In his 2016 series of sculptures Corazón Negro, he boldly addresses the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church, his choice of historic representational strategies suggesting the long institutional history behind current headlines. Bringing contemporary and historic art into dialog argues for the importance of history for current understanding. Finally, the recent work of LA-based artist Sandy Rodriguez, in particular her pieces on amate paper commenting on US child detention centers along our borders, powerfully argues for the importance of bringing our past to consideration of current events.23
There are two important takeaways for me from thinking through García Canclini and Best. I attempt to translate Best's concerns to art history, contemplating the perils of approaches that flatten the historical field as they elevate some cultural productions over others, approaches that tend to be nationalist in nature. These writers' insistence that we truly engage with artworks' aesthetics is compelling. What can artworks' complexity, their imminence, their surfaces, their very materiality inspire in us? Once again, these contemporary currents bring me back to earlier times, to colonial art in New Spain, where archival gaps cause us to read artworks adjacently, encourage engagement with visible surfaces, and contend with the folds of hybrid cultures. I'm thinking of the challenges of interpreting colonial works such as enconchados, hybrid creations of shell mosaic and oil paint, whose artistic inspirations are so complex (with sources in Asian, European, Middle Eastern, and pre-Columbian art) as to make a model of stylistic influence untenable (fig. 4). Alessandro Russo, in her most recent book, suggests the term untranslatable to describe such objects, building on Aby Warburg's “difficult objects.” She borrows the term from French philosopher and philologist Barbara Cassin: “to speak of the untranslatable does not signify that these terms … are not or cannot be translated—the untranslatable is rather what one never stops (not) translating.…”24 The difficulty of tracing these lines of influence led me to Gilles Deluze's The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, which employs the great mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's theories of folds, pleats, curves, twisting surfaces, curvature, and movement for emblematizing the challenges of thinking about the complexity and interconnectedness of the early modern global world. I can't help but link this model to Mexican enconchados and to the mollusk shells employed in their creation from layer upon layer of lustrous calcium carbonate. But additionally, the creation of enconchados—with so many potential sources of inspiration, so many layers—shows how the early modern world was folded, unfolded, and refolded, how the whole world was connected, and how time and space can become compressed. Yes, these are contemporary concerns, one could argue, but concerns that allow us to see not just ourselves but to perceive a different world in our past.
I thus close with an appeal to value history, and I assert again the usefulness of harnessing the power of being between fields and disciplines, between art history and Chicanx studies, the humanities and social sciences. Representation continues to be important, as witness the recent Dialogues focused on diversity in Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture, as well as within history, Best's warnings about presentism in the archive notwithstanding.25 Let me add the importance of aesthetics, inspired by both authors' calls to consider how the visual arts model new and more complex ways of thinking. I conclude this short reflection by recalling García Canclini's warning about the dangers of rejecting entire disciplines and methodologies: “What do we gain and what do we lose when we declare the end of the disciplines, as some cultural and visual studies have? One risk is that we will turn our backs on pieces of knowledge and methodological strategies that remain useful.”26 I hope engagements with past and present foster in us the ability to see both differently.
Néstor García Canclini, Art beyond Itself: Anthropology for a Society without a Story Line (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 10.
García Canclini, Art beyond Itself, pp. 16 and 26.
Stephen Best, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 34.
Best, None Like Us, 22–23 and 59–61.
García Canclini, Art beyond Itself, 10 and 12.
Best, None Like Us, 20.
For the list of scholars whose work has influenced his thinking, see Best, 61, n. 108.
García Canclini, Art beyond Itself, 11–12, 24.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Orozco, Gabriel” in Interviews, vol. 1, ed. Thomas Boutoux (Milan: Charta, 2003), 648, cited in García Canclini, 49–51.
García Canclini, Art beyond Itself, 28.
García Canclini, 28.
Best, None Like Us, 24.
Rita Gonzalez, “Post-Chicano,” in Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Jennifer A. González et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 54. Her article was originally published in Poliéster 25 (spring/summer 1999): 40–47.
Josh Kun, “The New Chicano Movement,” in González et al., Chicano and Chicana Art, 58–65, originally published in Los Angeles Times Magazine, January 9, 2005.
For examples of her work, see the recent article about her current exhibition: Carolina Miranda, “Painter Shizu Saldamando Puts a Face to L.A.'s Latinx Art and Punk Scenes,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-02-18/painter-shizu-saldamando-latinx-art-punk-scenes.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (PlaneteBook.com), 95; George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Plume/Harcourt-Brace, 2003), 218–19, quoted and discussed by University of Chicago scholar Frederick A. de Armas in “Futurities, Empire, and Censorship: Cervantes in Conversation with Ovid and Orwell,” in Renaissance Futurities: Art, Science, Invention, ed. Charlene Villaseñor Black and Mari-Tere Álvarez (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), 75, https://www.luminosoa.org/site/books/10.1525/luminos.79/read/?loc=001.xhtml.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 26–27.
For example, see Charlene Villaseñor Black, “A Chicana Art Historian Contemplates Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 42, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 1–16; and “Miguel Cabrera's Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Dangers of Intellectual Desire,” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works, Critical Edition, trans. Edith Grossmann, ed. Anna More (New York: Norton, 2016), 213–30; and “Sor Juana as Feminist Icon in Contemporary Mexican and Chicana/o Art,” in More, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 292–303.
Additional thoughts of mine on their artwork can be found in Charlene Villaseñor Black, “Founding Artists and the History of Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies,” Diálogo 20, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 87–96; “Art and Migration,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 44, no. 1 (spring 2019): 1–16; “Reflections on Laura Aguilar,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 43, no. 2 (Fall 2018): 1–16; and “Art as Reconquista: Sandy Rodriguez and the Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón,” Sandy Rodriguez: Codex Rodriguez-Mondragón (Riverside Art Museum, 2018), 3–5.
My thoughts on Luis Tapia can be found in “Past, Present, and Future in the Work of Luis Tapia,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 42, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 1–14; and “Artist in Between,” introduction to Borderless: The Art of Luis Tapia, ed. Carmella Padilla, exh. cat. (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 15–16. On Sandy Rodriguez, see Black, “Art and Migration,” as well as Black, “Art as Reconquista.”
I discuss these issues in my essay “The Iridescent Enconchado,” Iberian Empire and Roots of Globalization, ed. Anna More, Ivonne del Valle, and Rachel O'Toole (Nashville: University Press, 2020), 233–69. Also see Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500–1600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 6.
See Ananda Cohen-Aponte and Elena Fitzpatrick Sifford, eds., “Dialogues: Addressing Diversity and Inclusion in Latin American and Latinx Art History,” Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture 1, no. 3 (July 2019): 60–100; as well as my editorial comment in the same issue, “Diversity in Academia in a Post-Truth World,” 3–7.
García Canclini, Art beyond Itself, 18–19.