José Darío Gutiérrez is a Colombian entrepreneur, publisher, and art collector. He currently runs Proyecto Bachué, a management platform meant to promote contemporary Colombian art in a range of expositions and events in cities like Bogotá, Medellín, Mexico City, Madrid, New York, and Örbero.
The Politic: You’ve said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El País that you value shocking or unpleasant art rather than conventionally beautiful pieces because the former are more likely to prompt serious thought. Among the Proyecto Bachué’s exhibitions, which pieces do you consider the most successful in this regard and why?
Gutierrez: Yes, it’s an interesting contradiction. One of the longest and most important discussions in the art world is precisely whether art should be pleasant, whether it should please the senses, or whether it should raise questions. Those are roughly the parameters of this discussion. I personally prefer thought-provoking art because it indicates that there are still concerns to be resolved—importantly, concerns that I must resolve. One of the greatest challenges for those of us who approach the art scene with curiosity is to break down the barrier of those who ask, “Why is this art if it’s so ugly?” rather than ask themselves why they don’t like what they’re seeing. It’s a methodological decision rather than an aesthetic or artistic decision.
It seems that one piece that captures that concept really well is Horizontes 1999, from the Borrador 1 exhibition, the one with the coca leaf eradication plane flying over the Colombian countryside. I imagine that it isn’t pleasant to you, but that you value it because it raises questions about the War on Drugs.
Yes, that painting in particular is valuable because it plays on a very important, classical piece of Colombian art from the Antioquia region, kind of like Antioquia’s Mona Lisa. So the visitor begins by recognizing the image they’re familiar with, only to find it subtly subverted. It very effectively opens the space for reflection without being aesthetically harsh. For example, it challenges the narrative of the early 20th-century settler—going into the jungle with his axe in search of opportunities for his family—by juxtaposing it with the unsatisfied aspirations of the farmers who, almost a hundred years later, find themselves excluded from the socially accepted ways of seeking opportunities and are accordingly fought by the State. It also questions the axe as a symbol of patriotism—can we really hold on to it in a world where we no longer see the knocking down of a mountain forest as a sign of progress? That’s why I love this piece—it’s very didactically effective and can take you in a lot of other directions.
That makes sense. We could contrast this piece very effectively in that regard with the Lengua, from the same exhibition. Unlike Horizontes 1999, it doesn’t look like any conventional piece; it’s especially aesthetically jarring, and yet it seems to have a similar purpose.
Exactly! And that’s why the statement you quoted earlier from the El País interview shouldn’t be taken so literally but be interpreted as a challenge to the way that most people assess art. It’s not that I prefer aesthetically displeasing art itself, but, rather, people should value the extent to which a piece makes them think—regardless of its aesthetic qualities. Any intelligent, civically responsible member of society should wonder why they find a piece displeasing.
Some people go into the art scene because they want to please the senses, gain social visibility, or make friends. I’m much more interested in promoting critical thinking and active citizenship. And I think that art is an often under-appreciated way of achieving that. Sometimes people see contemporary art, and they make irresponsible claims like, “I could have done this on Photoshop at home” or “what’s this thing doing in a museum” or “why doesn’t someone explain this to me?” And the truth is that the artist, by virtue of their work as a means of communication, is already giving the observer everything they need to know in order to interpret the piece and their own feelings about it. By way of analogy, if you read a book and don’t understand it, your first assumption shouldn’t be that the author doesn’t know how to write. That’s definitely a possibility, but if it’s promoted by a major publishing company, then maybe you should assume that it’s your responsibility to understand it.
One could even argue that providing additional explanation for a work of art diminishes its value by reducing the potential scope of its interpretations, right?
It’s an intervention, exactly. Almost by definition, intervening in a work of art is an unhealthy approach. And that’s why I place the responsibility almost entirely on the observer to make a socially reflective, critical interpretation rather than receive a mediated, easy answer from an ideologically biased third party.
That makes sense. In alignment with the goals you’ve laid out, tell our readers a bit about Romulo Rozo’s Bachué, the piece your project is named after. What was the intention behind it, and what does it represent for Colombia?
In its time, the Bachué represented a similar concern to the pieces we’ve been talking about so far. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, it completely changed the way art was conceived of in Colombia,—even though it essentially disappeared after being the protagonist of Colombia’s pavilion in the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition in Seville.
Bachué was the creator goddess of the Muisca people in central Colombia. The legend told that she rose from a lake with a child in her arms, that the two of them populated the Earth, and that, once the Earth was populated, Bachué returned to the lake in the form of two snakes. Rozo’s sculpture manages to tell that entire legend. Importantly, this was at a time when the whole world is concerned about national identity—characterized in Europe by the rise of fascism in Italy, of national socialism in Germany, and the preliminary tensions that would lead to the Spanish Civil War. Meanwhile, Latin America’s nationalists were more concerned with decolonization and the establishment of a unique regional identity.
In Colombia specifically, the Bachué was understood as a symbol for the calling of the native soil, and, like many of the pieces we’re exposing today, it didn’t abide by the aesthetic standards of its time. It’s a very syncretic piece, with significant Asian influences. But it represented very real concerns—also reflected in Brazil and Mexico, for example—all tending towards what José Vasconcelos called the cosmic race, grounded in the strength of Latin America as a melting pot in opposition to Eurocentrism. Coincidentally, the Europeans were talking about racial purity, emphasizing the opposite value but reflecting a similar assertion of one’s own perceived realities.
The Bachué was heavily criticized on the one end as being overly mundane or for excessively centering indigenous identity, while others supported it for providing a unique path to asserting one’s identity as an American and a Colombian. The controversy was even contaminated by anti-communist concerns in the Cold War, and, as with everything in politics, it took on the color that every observer wanted to assign to it.
In the meantime, the piece essentially disappeared until 1998. And when it did return to the country—by coincidence in the hands of a Spanish-Colombian couple that had moved to Colombia—historian Álvaro Medina sought to find a museum that would take care of it. Most institutions rejected the Bachué for its eccentricities, which is why I ended up buying it. So, going back to what I was saying earlier, this piece has been severely under-appreciated precisely because its observers were too irresponsible to consider its historical and symbolic significance. And my term here is irresponsible, civically irresponsible, because the position of a true citizen should be to try to understand, to the best of their ability, the situation of their society and how they can best react to it, rather than expect to have this understanding spoon-fed to them.
So, based on that, you could claim that understanding art is as important a responsibility as regularly reading the news or providing a good education to one’s kids.
Exactly! They’re different languages, and art has the social advantage that its message is broader and more nebulous—allowing it to more freely express the sorts of taboos that are socially censored in other spaces, such as the mainstream media. You’re saying it as it is! These are languages, and, as a citizen, you are [obligated] to understand these different languages. It’s as if you reached the age of 18 without knowing how to read, and you went over to a library and demanded that the librarian teach you how to read. That’s not the librarian’s responsibility but yours! It’s exactly the same!
This also applies to movies, to music, to theater, and even to a topic that’s much harder to understand for those responsible for managing society—that of graffiti. It’s easy to label a painted window in a mall as an act of vandalism. There, my response would be, “the deed is done, whether you like it or not, so why don’t you ask yourself why it was done?” That’s where you start to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Wouldn’t you also say, though, that the graffiti artist has a similar civic responsibility to find the right spaces to convey their messages?
Of course! But that’s their responsibility, not the responsibility of those who criticize it. What you need to understand is that, whatever you do, there will always be unresolved demands, and the success of the policymaker lies in their ability to ensure that these demands are addressed.
In many cities around the world, the graffiti artist is increasingly understood as a kind of protester, whose intention is to draw attention to a particular issue. And some of them, such as Bogotá, have experimented greatly with providing them with proper channels, spaces, and events for this expression. Wynwood in Miami also comes to mind as a success story—at least if you measure success in terms of building perceived security for the mainstream population, which is an open question.
But even after that’s been achieved, much more fundamentally, you’re still left with what I call “rayadas,” which are the kinds of scratches you used to see a lot in the New York subway, for example. Unlike graffiti, they are meant to establish dominance in certain territories. They usually aren’t aesthetically pleasing, and they can only be understood in the context of subversive subcultures because they insist on transgressing and doing harm. So even after the policymaker has “tamed” the graffiti artists, they still have a duty to pay attention to this other more destructive phenomenon and see how they can address the social issues at the root of these transgressions. Above all, they should never fall into the delusion that they can repress these symptoms by force.
Just as plastic arts, cinema, literature, and poetry are all manifestations of the language of art and should be interpreted carefully, the same is true of graffiti and even “rayadas.” Of course, our intention is for these expressions to be increasingly harmonized with the social interest, which is why fine art is considered a symbol of civilization. But the fact of the matter is that it all comes back to the same desire to express social dissatisfaction, whether on the part of the majority or by specific groups. The solution is not to stop at complaining about vandalism but to ask oneself why this happens and what one can do to change society for the better, as well as to make these expressions take on increasingly constructive forms.
Evidently, if there are accumulated angers causing these “rayadas” to take place, it makes sense that a responsible government should look into the roots of these angers and try to solve them. On the other hand, though, it would seem that some works of art, even under the same social circumstances, promote a sense of public spiritedness that makes these destructive expressions less likely. The Bachué comes to mind as an example of a piece that contributes to a more robust and inclusive national identity for Colombia, particularly as a mixed-race country. Don’t you think that this is another reasonable criterion for selecting which works of art to promote—in contrast to your established criterion based on which works of art are more likely to raise interesting questions?
Well, notice that the most successful policymakers, and those whose effects on their communities have been the most redeeming, have been those who have invested the most in the management of subcultures. Bogotá, for example, has invested unbelievable amounts of money in its arts budget, and one important initiative has been its “Conciertos al Parque”; the government spends millions of dollars to hire a range of international rock bands, offer free tickets, concentrate 70,000 or 80,000 people at the Simón Bolívar Metropolitan Park—a lot of them high on weed—and nothing bad happens! The cost-effectiveness of this money is much greater than that of any attempt by the city government to tamper with the tastes of these subcultures.
Medellín, also in Colombia, stands out as an example in terms of reducing its levels of violent crime, and it’s largely achieved that by this dynamic. Their modern public libraries for poor neighborhoods are well-known, but what’s less well-known is that every library comes with rooms and expensive equipment for the development of hip-hop. This gives all of these kids a sense of belonging, a sense that the government is protecting what they care about rather than punishing them for it. So when policymakers are wise, they allow these songs to say whatever barbarities they want to say. When the policymakers are dumb, they try to censor them, and that’s when you start accumulating social pressures again. Are you starting to understand the Machiavellian sort of logic to this?
You could say that it’s better to be loved than to be feared.
Exactly. Well, there’s another form of “social taming,” as I think it should be called, which is that of gentrification—especially prevalent in the United States and Europe.
When you have a strong enough economy, you can take a neighborhood that is absolutely lost, where the police doesn’t dare to intervene, where no one goes to visit, and the first thing you do is bring in some investors to start buying these properties at a very low price because they’re in untamable areas. Then, you can start to bring some artists in, because artists have the ability to adapt to nearly any situation, normally without even charging them any rent. As the artists start to tame the area, you start seeing the rise of art galleries, and so people start returning to these neighborhoods—maybe a little bit scared at first, but then things start to gradually improve. Maybe next to the gallery you’ll get a cafe, and next to the cafe you’ll get a clothing shop, and then maybe next to that a major brand will want to set up shop in the increasingly cool part of town; within 10 years, you’ll have domesticated the area and established territorial control over it. That was how the authorities in Miami made Wynwood the thriving art district that it is today.
Now, I’m giving you this example so that you can see the capacity of art to “do its job,” so to speak. I personally don’t believe that art should be instrumentalized—as you’ve probably noticed, my intentions are higher than that—but these examples are definitely worth taking a look at. At the basis of it all is this quote from [John F.] Kennedy, that you should “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It’s this same philosophy, that the civically responsible citizen—who wears citizen’s shoes and carries the citizen’s coat—must be someone who asks what their obligations are before imposing obligations on others. Both Medellín in the past few years and Bogotá under former mayor Antanas Mockus have made progress following this principle.
Of course, and what you’ve been saying also reminds me of another quote from Kennedy, whereby “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” That is to say, those who make the expression of art by socially integrated means impossible will make subversive graffiti and “rayadas” inevitable.
Of course, and notice that both of those quotes, and everything else we’ve been talking about, have the same starting point: the idea that you cannot lead based on what you think but based on an understanding of how others think. The great challenge is to fully recognize the value of the other. If I don’t recognize the value of the other, I will never be part of the solution, I will always be part of the problem. It’s a teaching from my mentor at Proyecto Bachué, Doris Sommer, who has really helped me synthesize the core of my thought into this basic expression. She’s an absolutely wonderful person, and she runs an organization called Cultural Agents. You should definitely look into her work.
Tom Cummins is also fantastic, he’s also a mentor for the project; he’s a lot more anthropologically-minded than culturally or socially-minded, which goes to show how both of these approaches are important and complementary parts of our work, as is the more strictly artistic approach of our other mentor, José Luis Falconi. They’re all experts in their fields, and I feel very fortunate to be able to work with them.
But I do recommend you take a look at Doris Sommers’ book, Foundational Fictions. It’s a close look at the romantic novels that have long been the basis for Latin American national identity, like María or Doña Barbara. It makes sense that they’re romantic because at the end of the day the foundation of the nation state is romantic, right? Her analysis is very useful to understand our regional realities. Most of the early presidents in Colombia, for example, after the liberating generals like Bolívar and Santander, were highly educated men of letters, you know? Many of them were the authors of these sorts of novels. Our countries were, in a sense, built on a kind of romantic dream.
Given that you’ve said that there’s a civic responsibility to understand and interpret art meant to shock or challenge the status quo, do you ever worry that we’re also losing the responsibility to understand the romantic basis for national identity itself?
No, and I’m really glad that our conversation is basically returning to where we started, to where we were talking about an example from 2014, and then we went on to discuss examples from the 1920s; the dynamic and the concerns we’ve been addressing are all the same.
We constantly think we’re debating systems of government and other abstractions related to power when we should really be concerned about a personal reflection as to how we should exercise power and what we should exercise it for. When you talk about liberalism or conservatism or any other kind of ideal, you’re talking about the exercise of power for an absolute end, typically abusively enforced against those who don’t follow your conception. There hasn’t been a single ruler fair enough to entirely avoid these abuses in pursuit of their ideals, maybe because there aren’t enough fair men in a given country or territory.
The effort we should invite people towards is not a political effort but an individual effort grounded in personal, critical reflection. In the United States, for instance, you’re seeing very aggressive reactions to members of the citizenry that don’t align with the ideals of the president; so we should wonder whether this is a general paradigm to live by, regardless of whether we agree with the ideals or not. In my opinion, the challenge is to accept society as it is, in all of its diversity, and find ways to channel its dissatisfactions in as civilized a manner as possible— avoiding vandalism, or more appropriately, destructiveness and harmful intent.
So one way of summarizing your position is the idea that the content of the art matters less than the cultivation of a citizenry capable of observing all art with the same critical eyes?
Exactly! And this is also related to the different theories of art we discussed at first. On one end of the spectrum, you have comfortable, aesthetically pleasing art, and, at the other end, you have aesthetically displeasing, uncomfortable art. These are the two extremes, and while I understand that both positions are valuable, I hold that the former position is comfortable, whereas attending to the latter requires much greater commitment and is therefore more deserving of my attention.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about the role of artists surrounding the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America.
Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten that question pretty repeatedly as of late. My answer has always been and will always be that the artist has never been in a comfortable position, and the pandemic may not even be the greatest of its problems. And this applies not just to art —all sorts of intellectuals aiming to contribute something different to their societies find themselves in uncomfortable positions all the time. Their responsibility, their intentions, and their social role, ultimately, do not depend on external circumstances for that reason.
Yes, some of them will lose their jobs where they would have otherwise been able to keep them, but as far as the masses in the art world are concerned, virtually no one ever has a guaranteed life plan, and this has always been the case throughout human history, regardless of any contingencies. And, as a society, we need to value those people who are willing to undertake this uncomfortable life and keep their reflective capacities alert for any social ills.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we should solve that for them, as some European countries have done, because once artists are guaranteed stability, the uniqueness of their position is eroded. Universal subsidies for artists have not existed for most of human history, and yet we’ve had great artists throughout said history.
So it’s important to you that artists keep a separate perspective from that of, say, business owners or salaried workers?
Exactly! And that’s part of their social value, which needs to be recognized with greater opportunities and broader recognition. But they must keep a unique role because otherwise we would be undermining the creative and intellectual diversity of our societies. That’s part of why I like the example of graffiti artists, where policemen should, rather than chase someone down for painting on a bridge, ask them why they’re so angry and diagnose social ills. I know it sounds utopian and romantic, but there is really no other route than that of listening to the other.