Richard: Before and since Donald Trump took over as President, Mexicans, women, Muslims, communities of color, LGTBQ communities, everyone that’s typically been on the margins, have been under attack, rhetorically and physically, and dehumanized in one form or another. How do we respond with the creative tools that we’ve been trained with? What are the lessons that we can learn from, based on your extensive research and publications, the Chilean muralists or the Latinx Artists? Whose own respective communities have been continuously oppressed, but they somehow find the will to place their own personal safety at risk in order to make some kind of critical creative statement. What can we learn from them to help inspire and embolden us at this urgently critical time?
Guisela: I think we can learn courage from these artists. Also, I gained from them the understanding that a lot of times you have no choice but to be courageous. What I’ve learned from artists is that you don’t have any choice but to be courageous because the option of staying silent or not doing anything is going to lead to your demise. So, a lot of times courage is just survival. We are living in a world where the fact that I exist can be seen as a crime. When you think of undocumented people in the U.S. or poor people, working class, indigenous or politically active people of Chile, their existence is also considered a crime. Knowing that you don’t have a choice is something really powerful. Remaining silent is not an option. That is the lesson that I learned through these artists’ work. I include you in this category, Richard, in terms of the various forms of courage that I’ve seen.
I don’t think we are in a place anymore where you can be an artist and not be engaged. I don’t want to impose a creative choice on artists, but it’s hard for me to take seriously or really consider an art practice that doesn’t engage in some social, political critique. I can lock myself in my studio as an artist and just do my own thing during these times; is it going to be meaningful? The other thing that I’ve learned – and this is through my work on public art – is the importance of public intervention, of taking art outside of the galleries and into public spaces. But it’s not just about taking art into public spaces, it’s about intervening those spaces. The artists I work with transform those spaces into spaces of denunciation, spaces of critique. Again, an example is the work you did with Nathan Forrest: that was an intervention, a critique of what became normative in that space, namely the celebration of a white supremacist.
So, I also see this with the Chicanx mural movement. What happened in Chicano Park in San Diego is really important. Interestingly, I shared the Chicano Park story with people in Chile and they were very inspired. They felt a real connection to what these artists have done in Chicano Park. This is not to say that gallery art or art in museums cannot be transformative. That could be a different kind of intervention in terms of how you, as an artist, can challenge the museum gallery spaces. Public intervention for me is so powerful, and I’ve seen it happen again and again. I think changing the ethos of public space, and the public spaces that are shared by different populations, for me, is really important. What happened in the Estrada Courts (public housing) in East LA, the ways in which those murals transformed the public perception of what public housing is, was very meaningful. I think it takes a lot of ambition and courage on the part of artists to rethink those spaces. I feel that public interventions are still powerful in this era of Trump, but I’m also a little afraid what can happen to artists now in this era, especially if you do something guerilla style and you’re a person of color. Just think about police brutality against brown and black people. My work would not be possible without all these artists who are doing this amazing work. So, I always tell people that my work writes itself because all I have to do is just put into writing what the artists are already doing.
How can we measure the ways in which art can transform society? I always get asked the following question: “Well, how do you know art changes things?” I don’t think it’s measurable if we think of policy and laws. We think those are the real things that affect our lives. But I think that you can’t change policy and laws without changes in cultural and social attitudes. That’s where art can play a very powerful role. You’re not going to convince anybody that these detention centers, these concentration camps that Trump is setting up for immigrants are a bad thing if you can’t change social attitudes. You have to convince art audiences and others that those policies are inhumane at the social, political, and cultural level.
I get asked the same thing, especially about my own practice. I also think about it on a personal level, how has art changed me as a person, which goes to the heart of what you’re saying. How has art changed other people or have influenced their lives? And as a trained photographer I think about Lewis Hine and his photographs that helped change child labor laws and Jacob Riis. When Theodore Roosevelt saw Riis’ photographs it started the urban renewal process in New York City at that particular time of the century. So, there are examples where image makers have made a difference. If it’s imagined for us, making the invisible visible, it can become powerfully persuasive. And I think that’s where it has to start. Change our hearts in order to push towards something more concrete and enduring, institutionalizing the hearts and minds of what the community desires.
There’s been a long relationship between artists and art historians. And those relationships can vary from being contentious to being symbiotic like the sort of relationship you and I have. And I have certainly learned a great deal from you. For practitioners like myself, reading your text is a way of co-creating a road map and finding yourself on the map regarding our own theoretical and/or aesthetic and/or historical lineage. And how important it is for young artists to locate their creative family and community within this very large and ancient map.
Also, when I think about young artists, not in age but artists that are starting out, I have observed that many, especially young women artists, are discouraged to make art that is based on feminist theory, and the discouragement is framed through an art historical lens; that the work made by these young artists fit within a static chronology that has already passed. The danger, of course, is to reduce and essentialize a person’s struggle over questions of power into it being a purely aesthetic experience; that it becomes this aesthetic trope whose territory has already been labored over and there’s no need to articulate the struggle or work in that sort of modality. As if this sense of urgency, regarding people responding to what is occurring to their lives, is based within some kind of artistic structure rather than it being a response as a human being to our world. So, what would you say to those young artists, not just women artists but artists from all marginalized groups – that are discouraged because “this work has already been done.”
First, I would say that the argument that it’s already been done can be used against itself. There is plenty of proof that feminist-inspired art has continued. It has not stopped. I can use chronology to show you a myriad of examples of feminist art that continues to be. It’s different from the feminist art of the seventies because there has been growth; there has been development. So, the whole argument about innovation and not repeating things can be turned on its head. Basically, we need to be educated on how feminism has transformed Modern and contemporary art all over the world. I would recommend to that student, if they’re undergrads, to minor in gender studies or ethnic studies. If you’re a graduate student, try to find mentors who understand these fields. I could not have written a dissertation on Chicanx murals with only art historians on my committee. I had to have other people on my committee who were not art historians but who were sensitive to social issues. Feminism is a social justice movement that is ongoing.
I know it’s hard for a student to push back against their mentors because of the power disparity. I would not have convinced a lot of my art history mentors if I had challenged them on my own. That’s why I needed other mentors who come in and legitimize me. So, I understand that for a student this is very hard and that there are some real structural inequalities that do not allow them to push back against their mentors. That’s why it is important to seek out other mentors and minor or double major in other fields of study. I just finished serving as a committee member for an MFA student. I think my presence was important because I was able to couch what the student was doing in terms of a feminist sensibility.
Feminism is also about aesthetics. The aesthetic decisions that we make are a lot of times about our political positions. You know this really well, Richard, because you are very thoughtful about the aesthetic decisions that you make and the materials that you choose. You know there is a political element in choosing that material. I think that there’s ways in which the student can think more critically and realize that the aesthetic decisions that they make can also be political decisions. You can be a conceptual feminist as well.
But I do think in terms of giving advice to students, I think that they need other mentors to help them out, that understand them. It doesn’t have to be someone in the arts. That person could really challenge and also decenter the power dynamics that exist between professors and students. The whole “feminism has passed” argument comes from a person’s lack of understanding feminism. As long as we live in this white supremacist, male-centered society, feminist art will be there. We may call it different names, we may approach it differently, but it is still a force to be reckoned with in terms of a challenging the status quo. I don’t quite understand how somebody can tell a student in the era of Trump that feminism is already done. How can you say that feminism is not relevant in our time? Are you saying that art should not respond to what’s going on?
I think some of it has to do with kind of a careerist approach to art making where you want to make sure you’re shown in the right gallery and create work that has a commercial entry point? The question becomes, how do you survive in the white patriarchal art market?
Right. It is the argument about having to be innovative and appealing to universal ideas. The thing is, though, that the universal ideas are often Western and white ideologies. There is no such thing as universal worlds; we’re always situated in a particular space. When Picasso was making his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon he was trying to be innovative and universal, but he was taking many ideas from African art. So, many ideas about universality and innovation are really just hoaxes to me.
About the move towards universal themes. We take aesthetic analysis and aesthetic choices for granted without really interrogating where they come from. Who they serve, etc. So, then, the conversation goes towards “make the work more universal”, right?
Absolutely. But it’s also so important – in particular for students of color, women, women of color in the arts – to see through the falseness of the universal, the objective. But there is also the element of survival that you pointed out. How can BFA and MFA students balance their need for survival with their need to express themselves through various media? That’s a tricky balance because I know the majority of artists of color that I’ve worked with are struggling financially. That’s a difficult thing. How do we tell young students how to achieve balance? Many of the artists of color that are able to make their work and still survive are the ones that have an institutional affiliation like yourself or Judy Baca who is at UCLA. But for the artists that are working in communities, it’s very tough for them. I wouldn’t minimize that, and I wouldn’t say “Ah, forget about it, do your thing.” Those are conversations I think mentors should have with their students. How do you make a living? How do you pay your bills? How can you do that while doing work that is significant to you and to society.
There’s this really wonderful quote from Guillermo Gomez-Peña going back to the late eighties. He stated that we are equidistant between Utopia and Armageddon. Where do you think we are now, Guisela?
I wouldn’t say equidistant anymore. I think we are a lot closer to Armageddon. Think about the extreme social tensions that we have. In terms of the environment, we’re in the era of the Anthropocene, a time where humans have now irreversibly transformed the planet, where our footprint is everywhere, even in the places we think are pristine nature. So, I think we are closer to that than we are to Utopia.
I also think about Chile, which is no longer in a dictatorship that I grew up in. But, at the same time, a lot of the neoliberal reforms that took place during the dictatorship are still in place. The legacy of the dictatorship is everywhere in Chile. Chilean politicians still believe that maintaining these extreme social structures is a viable way to run a country. That is very much the culture in Chile right now. The artists that are challenging the dictatorship are important to me. Maybe Guillermo would agree that the distance to Armageddon is a lot shorter than to Utopia right now.
So, that is your assessment as a feminist Latinx scholar from the “Heartland?”
Yes, I think it is. I know it’s very pessimistic. I think that we are closer to what I think is going to be a very destructive path as human beings and non-humans as well. Non-humans are, of course, continually victimized by humans. But then you think of social movements like Black Lives Matter and trans activists of color who are no longer afraid. If you think of undocumented people who are deciding to not be in the closet anymore. If you look at those communities in terms of their practice and in terms of their ambition and their world, they’re a lot closer to Utopia. Utopia as I would define in my own Latinx terms as decoloniality. I think that a lot of activist groups, like #NiUnaMenos, not one woman less, fighting gender violence in many parts of Argentina and Chile; that’s a strong movement. I think social movements are in many ways ahead of the structures of power, but the structures of power are still determining our state of being as human beings right now. So, yes, I would say that I think I would update Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s question. We are definitely closer to Armageddon than we are to a decolonial world, which is what I think Utopia should be.
Reflections after interviewing Dr. Guisela Latorre
As two Latinx informed by our psychic borderlands, we recognize that we occupy positions of resistance within a system of dominance. As marginalized people, occupying a conflicted and conflated territory, where it is seen as a contravention when we assert our desire for respect, our hope is a transgression, and to seek dignity is an act of disobedience. Two weeks after this interview our country had been shaken as two separate white supremacists, in an all too familiar spasm of violence, terrorized and murdered innocent people in Gilroy, California, and El Paso, Texas, in their multiple attempts to start a race war, bullet by bullet. Within this frame of racialized violence our discussion regarding art and the urgency towards action becomes heightened as we negotiate our respective cultural and political environments, within the small progressive bubble of the university, within a larger space where the Latinx population are small, while our respective states are predominantly conservative.
Donald Trump’s presidency has been and is a seismic shock to our sense of decency but not a surprise to our understanding of U.S. history and the Dominant Culture’s great and furious panic over the changing demographics in the U.S. For People of Color and other marginalized groups, racialized violence and creating and implementing strategies for dehumanizing the Other is our shared heritage in the United States of America. It is who we are but not who we aspire to be as a nation. In some 20 plus years, Whites will be the numerical minority and People of Color will be the numerical majority, and the integrity of our representative form of democracy is currently at stake. Fear of moving closer to our brutal history is just a couple of reactionary legislative and/or executive acts away where our past could easily become our future. It has literally taken us two and a half years under President Trump to bring us back to the brink of the 1950’s, moving us towards a subjugated status through the erosion of the Voting Rights Act, direct threat to Roe, the transgender ban, rolling back policies that protect our environment, obstructing the basic human right to asylum, whittling away the ACA, the separation of families seeking asylum at the U.S. Mexico border, and the subsequent imprisonment of children. U.S. conservatives continue to debase our democratic ideals with their strategies of dominance: Rat-packing the courts; gerrymandering voting districts; thinly populated states having disproportionate power in our U.S. Senate; executive fiats by the current president; and the Electoral College all stand in the way of our representative form of government and the ability for our future new majority to set the agenda for all. U.S. Conservatives are radically retooling our system of governance in their own image to march our nation towards a contemporary form of apartheid.
In the end, I am a 60-year-old man of color, with a position of privilege, afraid of living in my own country. My only hope is that, within the acts of bearing witness to Trump’s cruelties, that thousands of Gloria Anzaldua’s, Malcolm X’s, Dolores Huerta’s, Martin Luther King Jr’s., Cesar Chavez’s, Emma Gee’s, Amalia Mesa-Bains’, Margo Machida’s, bell hooks’ and other unnamed human monuments are awakened and radicalized, including my Quetzalli, my Black, Chicanx, Chinese, Indigena granddaughter, born January 11, 2019. I am hoping that Quetzalli will find her rightful place along with the rest of her generation in a seemingly neverending struggle. If all goes well, Quetzalli will see in her lifetime the demographic shift from white majority to white minority, from male dominance to a radical feminist era of leadership, shifting the margin to the center. I hope that she will bear witness and fully participate in a peaceful and democratic transfer of power, appreciative of the giants of resistance that came before her, while unleashing the giant within her. Where we failed in staunching this disease of hate, Quetzalli and her generation will be our antidote.
Dr. Guisela Latorre is Associate Professor, Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, at The Ohio State University. Richard A. Lou is Professor and Chair of the Department of Art at the University of Memphis. All views expressed in this article belong solely to the authors and do not represent opinions of any entity whatsoever with which they have been, are now, or will be affiliated.