Conflict on a Bridge

Notes from Buenos Aires

The University of Buenos Aires Law School is an imposing white-marble structure fronted by a broad colonnade and perched above the city’s busiest traffic artery, the Avenida del Libertador. Each day 25,000 students arrive for classes there, deposited by buses on the opposite side of the avenue. A few students, perhaps late to an exam, dash across five lanes of honking, shouting, middle-finger-extending porteño drivers lurching forward in the morning rush hour. But the vast majority chooses instead to shuffle 100 meters down the Avenida, where they funnel across a colorful bridge to the law school.

In doing so, they create Buenos Aires’ most congested venue for political artwork. The bridge—an ever-changing canvas, painted and re-painted on an almost nightly basis with partisan insignia and slogans—has become the front line in a constant battle among the law school’s dozens of tireless political groups. A week ago, an anarchist fist, defiant against a blood-red sky, covered the bridge. Two days later, a communist group had whitewashed the surface, stenciling an outline of the Falkland Islands—over which Argentina has unsuccessfully claimed sovereignty for decades—where the first work had been. With each new incarnation of the bridge, one senses the parties’ hope that if they just use the right image, the right color scheme, the right slogan, their art will mobilize the legions of followers they have long sought.

Mingling art and politics is nothing new in Argentina, as a new exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires demonstrates. Titled “Claridad: La Vanguardia en Lucha” (“Clarity: The Vanguard in Conflict”), the exposition brings together art, literature, and film to explore the art of the vanguard in 20th-century Argentina, particularly through the magazine Claridad, a well-known publication from the twenties and thirties that reflected on the political and social responsibilities of art. Claridad’s editors and contributors were explicitly devoted to the development of an art that would foster social justice and create a uniquely proletarian culture.

The exhibition, though, is concerned with more than just Claridad the magazine. “Vanguard in Conflict” asks important questions about the relationship between art and society everywhere. Claridad’s contributors—who called themselves the Peoples’ Artists—went into the streets to try to understand the transformations taking place in Buenos Aires during the first half of the 20th century: the frenetic industrialization, the massive influx of immigrants, the growing urban sprawl along the banks of the Rio de la Plata. It was all captured in the essays and illustrations of the magazine.

Claridad was also distinguished by its openness to new technologies, and its editors had a particular fascination with the potential for film to serve as medium for mass communication. As a result, Claridad was among the first Argentine publications to solicit film reviews, and the exhibition accompanies those original reviews with projections of films that documented the travails of the working poor in the twenties and thirties.

In their efforts to link art and social change, however, Claridad’s contributors were not unopposed. Indeed, the twenties represented a time of disagreement among Argentina’s artistic vanguard—hence the “conflict” of the exhibition’s title. Most notably, the artists at Periodico Martin Fierro pursued aesthetic innovation and complete detachment from social conflict. “Art for art’s sake,” was their motto, and they frowned on the work in Claridad’s pages, sullied as it was by politics and poverty

For its part, Claridad viewed the art produced at Martin Fierro as devoid of content: its contributors insisted that art should communicate the revolutionary needs of the oppressed poor. Inspired by German and Russian realism, the essays and drawings published in Claridad unabashedly documented the sorrows and torments of daily life for the working poor.

The exhibition ends in the forties, with early artistic responses to World War II, but the question of art and politics in modern Argentina lingers over the entire affair. Who, the curators seem to ask, has taken up the mantle of protest art in 21st-century Argentina?

The answer, at least in part, seems to be no one. As recently as the seventies, Argentina’s dictatorship produced the unforgettable music of Mercedes Sosa, whose songs documented, from exile, the struggles of the oppressed. But it is easier to create compelling art about malevolent dictators than it is to document the horrors of persistent inflation and slow bureaucratic decay. In the 21st century, Argentina is still looking for artists who will take their art off the ephemeral canvas of a bridge and make a compelling case for social change.

—Columnist Benjamin B. Wilcox can be reached at bwilcox@college.harvard.edu.

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