When I hear of nations exchanging art exhibits, ballet companies, symphony orchestras and theater groups, I can't help remembering another kind of cultural exchange as well: the one-on-one exchange of attitudes and aspirations among individuals from different countries within the larger world of art.
Consider a drive through the Bolivian jungle early in the morning from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, traveling south along a dusty road fringed with tropical greenery and brilliant flowers. We were headed to Las Horcas to visit the studios of three artists drawn to the isolated village by its affordable working space.
One hour later, we arrived, layers of dust sticking to the sweat raised by the jungle heat. Our hosts offered coffee and semisweet tangerines with a few tentative smiles. I introduced myself as an ambassador of the visual arts, traveling under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency. At first this drew little reaction, but after continued questions, the artists began, haltingly, to talk about their lives and work. It wasn't easy -- I was the first American who had visited them in 10 years.
They were the only artists in the area. With no formal training, sustained only by old books and magazines, they had started painting, slowly developing their own techniques and antiquated but true methods of perspective. As they described their art, they became almost passionate and proud of their accomplishments. As one said, "To be self-assured, a man must journey in search of his own cultural roots, his place in a tradition." The search for their own indigenous culture had made them artistically self-assertive.
Bolivia was but the first stop of my six-country tour of Latin America. For five weeks, I gave slide presentations and participated in group discussions on the work of more than two dozen contemporary American artists, including second-generation Abstract Expressionists, Neoexpressionists, Superrealists and Visionaries. In most cases, my audiences were being exposed to such works for the first time. But I returned with as many new perceptions as I hoped to impart.
As I continued through Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay, I heard how difficult life is for Latin American artists. Dreaming of something less severe than the present poverty, corruption and governmental upheavals in many of their countries, many artists have migrated to foreign soil. Those who stay behind feel isolated from the international artistic mainstream. They get almost no information about new directions in art and are deeply concerned about getting foreign marketplace exposure. Their great fear is that they would end up in an artistic backwater bypassed by more vital traditions.
In the late '60s and early '70s, American dealers and collectors showed great interest in Latin American art, swooping in and taking works off to the North. Interest waned, however, and many of the artists I talked with remained resentful and bitter toward this fickle form of "Yankee exploitation."
It is all too natural in Latin American intellectual circles to castigate the "capitalist system" with one hand, and yet hold out the other for its rewards. Such attitude is very much a part of a love/hate relationship perceived as a dichotomy between "Latin American creativity" and "Norte Americano commercialism."
Art, however, has an ability to penetrate beneath such superficial assumed differences. In El Salvador, a well-known artist and popular university professor came incognito to the first of my lectures. The next night, he reappeared with all of his students -- he had hired a bus to bring them. Later, he explained his initial suspicion of my lecture as political. There is a political side of his work, he said, inspired by the pathos of his people's condition. But he was a painter and I was talking about painting, and it was art that transcended politics and brought him back with his students.
The trappings of art that we take for granted -- magazines, contemporary galleries, lectures -- are still too rare in Latin America; yet they are vital if one is to keep up with the latest art world trends. Even art materials are becoming a luxury -- and in some cases, obtaining them is contingent on one's political stance. In Nicaragua, all artists must belong to the official union to have access to materials. The long-range effect is already visible. Nicaraguan painting is restricted from moving beyond a politically encouraged "primitive" direction. While this mandated back-to-the-roots movement reinforces traditional cultural values, it also carries a terrible cost. Nicaraguan artists appear trapped in a maze in which all the mirrors face each other.
In countries where Marxist regimes are being imposed on the local population, I heard questions about personal development and individual artistic achievement -- questions, too, about the meaning and true purpose of social struggle. Artists are in the forefront of such searching. It is they who call for philosophical reorientation, religion and greater individualism as they seek out the foundation, source and diversity of their creativity.
In this quest, America -- however depicted politically -- often is viewed as the promised land. Sometimes naively, many Latin artists share the belief that riches and fame wait just north of the border. Few will believe that thousands of artists struggle daily in the States, hoping for a break. Time and again my attempts to say so sounded like the Voice of Reality intruding in a beautiful dream. But nearly everywhere people said they were glad to learn that the United States cared enough about their country to send a lecturer who talked about something other than politics, finance and economics. Even in besieged El Salvador and in Marxist Nicaragua, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The message was clear: Art can introduce ideas and break down barriers raised by too much rhetoric and too little understanding.
I came away convinced of the need for exchange. At one level there is a clear need for the exchange of art itself. Latin audiences are hungry to view examples of American art, while I also found beautiful work by artists virtually unknown outside their own countries -- and even within them. Carlos Canas is one of these. Salvadoran, he creates powerful pieces that are aesthetic compositions. In Uruguay, working in isolation, Jorge Damiani creates glowing, metaphysically tinged landscapes. The primitive work being made in Nicaragua is superb, comparable to the best to be found today in museums around the world.
At a higher level, Latin American artists, like artists everywhere, seek the exchange of ideas across national and cultural borders. We can offer new understandings of diversity and pluralism, but we can expect to be understood and appreciated only to the extent that we ourselves are open to the richness of their own history and culture.
At a time when Latin-American writers have gained a tremendous respect and recognition in this country -- I think of Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes -- Latin American artists still live in the shadows of the international art scene. Yet they share the call to creativity and the hope for a transcendent experience that drives artists everywhere. Their work doesn't require translation to be understood. It just needs to be seen and experienced.