Marta Traba: Internationalism or Regional Resistance?

By Bazzano-Nelson, Florencia | Art Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Marta Traba: Internationalism or Regional Resistance?

Bazzano-Nelson, Florencia, Art Journal

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. …

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