Critic vs. artist: What “Latino art” means

My Oct. 25 review of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” ignited strong reactions from some Latino artists. Several participants in a conversation on Facebook took particular exception to my claim that the show’s lack of focus was “a telling symptom of an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category.” I asked the author of the original post, digital artist and filmmaker Alex Rivera, best known for his Sundance award-winning feature film “Sleep Dealer,” if he would like to have the conversation more publicly. He agreed, and what follows is a shorter, edited version of an e-mail exchange over a two-day period.

ALEX RIVERA: Can you explain why you used your review of this show to make a pronouncement about the entire concept of “Latino art”? It seems to happen over and over again: When a group show like this one is mounted, critics attack the fundamental notion of looking at the work as a group. Why?

The problem is that, while critics raise doubts about categories like “Latino Art,” there’s never any discussion of the absence of that work in show after show that keeps groups like Latinos on the margins or excluded entirely from the American conversation.

For example: The 2012 Whitney Biennial featured exactly zero Latino artists. How can that be a survey of “American Art”? It seems like the absence of Latino artists is normal, not newsworthy, but the organizing of our presence causes questions about our existence.

PHILIP KENNICOTT: I called Latino art a meaningless category for two reasons. First, I think it is so broad as to be meaningless. Is all of the art [by artists of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage] in fact linked by some essential unifying thing? Is the art made by a Cuban exile educated in Paris somehow similar to street art made by a Mexican American in Los Angeles? Maybe, but then tell me what the link is.

The second reason I said it was that the curators seem to argue exactly that: They insist that the show isn’t about labeling, isn’t about defining anything essential about the category of Latino art. As a critic, you begin to wonder why bother doing these group shows if the ultimate intent (and a desirable one) is to place the focus back on individual artists, and individual artworks, rather than the group identity that everyone seems to resist?

I take your point about the absence of Latino artists in many exhibitions, though one of the best shows I’ve seen recently that attempted to negotiate the idea of group identity, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” devoted to gay artists, had a robust representation of art by Latinos.

AR: I should have mentioned in my first message: I wish you’d had a better time at the museum!

Reading your comments, a question comes to mind: Do you find “Latino art” meaningless, or do you find the notion of “Latino” meaningless?

I ask because I understand your observation that there’s a lot of diversity within the imagined community of “Latinos.” What big grouping of people doesn’t embody diversity and conflict within itself? I imagine you regularly review shows in museums of “American art” but never spend the review space critiquing the concept of “American.”

In terms of what unites Latino artists, well, it might be aesthetics that one way or another trace back to distant Spanish and Indigenous influence. It might be an engagement with questions of assimilation in the U.S. or of migration or exile. It could be none of these.

But one strong glue that unites the community of Latino artists I know is awareness that we’re still “outsiders” in spaces which claim to speak for the nation. Isn’t long-standing absence enough “glue” to make this survey of Latino art at the Smithsonian a worthy endeavor?

PK: You ask if it’s Latino art I find meaningless, or “the notion of ‘Latino’ art”? Emphatically the latter. What I grappled with [in my review] is the use of the label — “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” — in a show that doesn’t seem to want to even accept the validity of that label.

You give one possible avenue for finding meaning in the category: the origins of some of the visual material in the “distant Spanish and Indigenous influence.” And I gave some other possibilities: One would be looking at the wonderfully provocative and visually incisive Chicano art movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

But you see, we’re already whittling a big category down to smaller ones. That’s a healthy thing, I’d argue, forcing people to think about real connections, not simply labels. Again, I point out that my problem with the label has a lot to do with how many Latino artists resist it, just as many African American artists resist being labeled, and so, too, gay artists. “30 Americans”

AR: Apologies for any confusion. To be clearer, you explained that you find “Latino art” a meaningless category because it is broad (encompassing Chicano, Cuban, Puerto Rican artists, etc.). So, I was curious if it was not “Latino art” that you had trouble with, but the simpler notion of “Latino” as an identity category at all.

That’s what I meant to suggest — that perhaps you don’t find grouping together tens of millions of people in this way helpful. And if you don’t see the commonality of experience in that imagined community, then of course a survey of our artistic output would seem a fruitless exercise.

And so: Do you think “Latino” is a useful category for thinking about people? Does it illuminate anything about history or just confound? If not, what do we call ourselves? If so, why can’t we have something called “Latino art”?

PK: As a demographic category I’m sure Latino is useful, and I don’t want to suggest that the category isn’t meaningful for people who embrace it. Identity is deeply personal and something we construct. But demographic categories aren’t necessarily useful for explaining habits, preferences and behavior. “Latino shoe preference” or “gay driving habits” don’t really refer to useful ideas, do they?

As for your argument that “there needs to be a presence of something called ‘Latino art in a museum like the Smithsonian” I would agree if we insert one word: “Great.” There absolutely needs to be a better representation of great Latino art in a museum like the Smithsonian. And many of the pieces in the exhibition I reviewed qualify for that inclusion.

AR: Well, for starters, I agree that “Latino shoe preference” is not a meaningful category. (But I bet readers involved in marketing shoes would disagree.)

I also agree that how we identify is a personal decision. And that “Latino” is a big, unruly way to categorize people. Like “American.”

But here’s the rub: We’re very used to reading reviews like [yours].

Take this review in the New York Times of “Phantom Sightings,” an exhibition of post-Chicano art, which starts with the line: “Is it time to retire the identity-based group show?”

Time and again, reviews of shows that feature work of “minority groups” (who are in many instances majorities in cities where the art world thrives, but whatever) become the occasion not to talk about the show at hand, but to attack the fundamental gesture of curating shows featuring our work.

In your review, you took an angle which attacked not the show at hand — but the entire meaning of “Latino art” as a category. A good portion was also spent on critiquing the general direction of the institution of the Smithsonian.

I don’t doubt the show is imperfect, and worthy of critique. But in the future I hope to read reviews that take me into the show, on the show’s terms. And reviews that accept as a starting point that presenting the work of people who inhabit big categories like “Latino artists” is vital and urgent.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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