Until the 19605, MartaTraba (1923-1983) was a key figure in the consolidation of international modernism in the visual arts of Latin America. But when the cultural influence of the United States began to spread throughout the hemisphere-along with the most experimental artistic modes-Traba became one of the most resolute critics of this homogenizing process. She understood better than most the potential danger such influence could represent in the semideveloped and semidependent context of Latin America.1 In this regard, the now-dominant concern regarding the effects of globalization on subaltern cultures demands of critics a new consideration of Traba's critique of the cultural imperialism of the North.
Traba left an important legacy in her writings primarily because they addressed many pivotal cultural events in the history of Latin America from the 19505 through the early 19805. Moreover, she was among the first scholars to consider the art of Latin America as a whole, thereby transforming her texts into fascinating documents of the theoretical horizons existing at different moments of Latin American art criticism.
Traba's forty-year art-critical practice began in her native Argentina in the mid-1940s when she joined Jorge Romero Brest's influential art magazine Ver y Estimar and continued throughout the 19505 and 19605 in Colombia, her adoptive country, where she became a national celebrity and the leading arbiter of the arts. Then, at the very moment when her power was at its peak, she took an unexpected public turn to the political Left that ultimately resulted in a life of political exile in various countries, including Uruguay, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the United States, and France.
Until the late 1960s, Traba's support for high modernism aligned her with colleagues such as Jorge Romero Brest and José Gomez Sicre. In Colombia, her aestheticism-shaped by her readings of European scholars like Benedetto Croce, Herbert Read, and René Huyghe-encountered strong resistance from the very beginning. She considered art an autonomous practice and the artist a "genius" who was, as she wrote in 1956, "eminently apolitical, asocial, disinterested in the contingent, a being that is in the midst of history as a disquieting island and for whom words like progress, civilization, justice, have no meaning whatsoever."2 Her articles were a forceful attack against those who believed art should "express" a local and regional identity or a political stance. She was particularly critical of Mexican muralism, which had served as a conceptual paradigm for the first generation of Colombian modernists. Her internationalism lent support to young modernists like Alejandro Obregon, Eduardo RamirezVillamizar, and Fernando Botero. However, she irritated well-established nationalists such as Gonzalo Ariza and Ignacio Gomez Jaramillo, who made themselves heard through a number of heated but revealing public debates. Traba always seemed to win these battles, but her aesthetic project only prevailed as long as it remained politically neutral and supported the modernizing discourse of the Colombian elite.
In the late 19605 and early 19705, in an exile marked by political persecution, Traba turned to Marxist theory and the work of cultural critics such as Herbert Marcuse, Henri Lefebvre, and Umberto Eco whose writings were becoming increasingly influential among Latin American leftist intellectuals. This shift resulted in her formulation of a theory of an "art of resistance" in her best-known book, Dos décodas vulnérables en las artes plasticas latinoamericanas 1950-1970 (1973). Inspired by Marcuses One-Dimensional Man, Traba argued that industrialized nations were dominated by an ideology of technology that resulted in the fragmentation and loss of meaning of general communication codes. In the field of culture, the ideology of technology supported on an international level an "aesthetic of deterioration" that fragmented cultural systems and neutralized specific local meanings, a strategy necessary to assure the continued technological domination of all forms of communication.3
For this reason, Traba profoundly distrusted experimental art, such as Pop art, Conceptual art, and Happenings, which she considered examples of the "aesthetic of deterioration" and associated exclusively-and erroneously-with the United States. She believed that these art modes could only critique culture in an explosive manner, creating cathartic experiences that satisfied artists but were powerless to stop the tyranny of technology over industrial and nonindustrial societies alike. Furthermore, for Traba, these experimental art modes could neither fit into nor express the underdeveloped context of Latin American societies. Ironically, she found in the experimental approach of the prestigious Instituto DiTella of Buenos Aires, directed by Romero Brest, a leading example of the aesthetic of deterioration in the Americas.4
For Traba the only way Latin America could overcome its status as a cultural colony of the United States was to resist all artistic modes that weakened the signifying and ideological functions of art, as well as its permanence and uniqueness. While she never abandoned the primacy of the aesthetic, she began to favor the work of Latin American artists whose ideological edge and ability to produce critical meanings required stronger links to their communities of origin. She found the best examples of the art of resistance in the works of Obregon, Botero, and Beatriz Gonzalez (Colombia), Fernando de Szyszlo (Peru), Enrique Tabara (Ecuador), and José Luis Cuevas (Mexico).They had rejected what she saw as the errors of muralism and shared an important emphasis on mythical and atemporal elements that she found comparable to the mythification and cyclical time in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. These artists had shown, in Traba's words, "the capacity to pull the national reality from its underdevelopment and transpose it to a magical, mythical, or purely imaginative level, which is considered far superior to ... the imitation of tasks proposed by highly industrialized societies."5 She also considered important aspects of the art of resistance the reemergence of drawing as a viable artistic medium, the exploration of humor and eroticism in art, and the "nationalization" of Pop art, which tied this art mode to specific contexts.
While Traba discussed artists from different countries, she seemed to find the most definitive examples of the art of resistance in Colombia, the country she knew and loved best. One might even argue that she constructed an artistic model that privileged Colombian art as the paradigm that the rest of the continent should follow. The fact that radical artists elsewhere in Latin America, such as Leon Ferrari, Hélio Oiticica, and Diamela Eltit, could successfully combine a powerful aesthetic with the critical articulation of community voices suggests that Traba had an incomplete understanding of how experimental art could be meaningful to the communities that had generated it.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the value of Traba's writings is that even "mistakes" such as these are often more interesting than many critics' truths. Far from rendering her theories irrelevant, such errors demand a more critical reading of history.
1. Marta Traba, Dos décodas vulnerables en las anes plasticas latinoamericanas 1950-1970, ed. Andrea Giunta (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2005), 65.
2. Marta Traba, "Critica de arte. El genio antiservil," Intermedia (Bogota, June 26, 1956): 5. All translations of Traba's writings are my own.
3. Traba, Dos décodas, 57-63.
4. Ibid., 63-70.
5. Ibid., 99.
Florencia Bazzano-Nelson is currently an assistant professor of Latin American art history at Georgia State University in Atlanta and was a 2004-05 J. Paul Getty Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Art and the Humanities. She is preparing a book on Marta Traba's art criticism in the context of inter-American relations since the 1950s.…