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Magazine

19 June 2012
A matter of prestige

Andrea Pacheco

What is known as “Brand Spain” is losing clout in Latin America. If traditionally cultural relations have been marked by a colonial past, at this point in time the situation is even more complicated, if that is possible, with strong positions that define the future of culture and the arts, as well as many other possible schemes.


If for a moment we forget the authentic drama presupposed by the economic crisis that is currently affecting Spain it is possible to watch as a spectator, the breakdown of the so-called “welfare state”, which this country has enjoyed for more than two decades.

The exercise is without a doubt, gruesome. If we take a step back and assume the condition of the public before the debacle, everything that has occurred since the word crisis slipped into our daily vocabulary, transformed into a mantra repeated some thirty times a day, is a spectacle. Not unlike a cheap operetta, where the actors are out of tune, the scenography is vulgar and the script so ridiculous that it borders on the absurd. In this pathetic scene, for a few years now, the words, Latin America, when uttered seems to have a balsamic effect. The words Latin America provoke liberation within the scenario. Coming from the mouths of monarchs and politicians of all colours, as well as those of businessmen, and of course, museum directors. Latin America is a “capital priority” for the current President of the government, a “rising region” for investors and the main “objective” for the director of the Museo Reina Sofia. El Dorado reappears once more as a metaphor for the grand fantasy of this region on the other side of the Atlantic.

So, what are they referring to, when today in Spain they talk of Latin America? We are not going to enter into the debate about the term Latin American or America Latina. A term of European origin, coined in France in the 19th century, the current meaning of which has little to do with the geographical unity of the countries of which it is made up, nor even the linguistic unity that excludes the original populations of the territory. We’re not going to enter into this opportune debate about the aims in the nineties of the “Proyecto Modernidad/Colonialidad” –Mignolo, Quijano,Dussel, amongst others-, as the aim of this text is to focus on the harsh reality/actuality of Spain in crisis. In this country, petrified by an uncertain future, Latin America is above all an economic opportunity, a “rising/capital/objective” region where money continues to be made: all of what was abundant in the Spain of excesses which, according to what they say, has shifted to this part of the world. Undoubtedly, there are also other interests, intellectual motives, proposals for cultural exchange, however, in the background that is, as a consequence of the former.

It ends up being almost tautological the idea that Spain profits from its quality of Motherland with regard to its ex-colonies, for the enrichment of public and private coffers. As is the aim that uses all possible strategies, including those that are generated within the sphere of knowledge, in the ambit of culture and the arts. What does seem to be a new phenomenon is the possibility that this manoeuvre could fail. There is a variable that is underestimated by the authorities of the kingdom in order to win this particular round and it can be resumed in one word: prestige. The relationship that the Spanish crown initiated over 500 years ago with the southern half of the American continent is a link that is damaged from the outset, one that remains even today an open wound. Whoever places in doubt that we are dealing with a minefield in this relationship should take a look at the reaction of citizens and governors, on both sides of the Atlantic, regarding the nationalisation of YPF in Argentina. If from here the subject could be resumed with “Let’s go get’em, hey ho, let’s go get’em”, as commented in the recent article by Marti Manen, from there, the war cry would be even more violent: “Get out, thieves!”.

It is not just the motives that linger on since the colonies that are the base of this hostility. The recent migration of South Americans to the peninsula has been plagued with xenophobic and racist situations, as have been denounced by numerous organisations and the work of some artists focussed on the phenomenon of contemporary migrations. Spain’s loss of prestige, not for all but for many of the inhabitants of this much talked about Latin America, has been compiled in a study published recently by the Reputation Institute, an international consulting firm dedicated to investigating the security of international investments. This report, directed basically at the business world, alerts to the “worrying decline” that Spain’s reputation is experiencing in South America. A deterioration that they qualify as worrying, given the third wave of investment by Spanish companies, now not by larger companies but by smaller and medium sized ones. “The image of our country, its economy and values progresses in Brazil and in Mexico, the two large regional economies and two foci of interest for Hispanic firms, however, it is flagging in Colombia, Peru and Chile and is in free fall in Argentina, the country where the reputation of Spain worsened most in 2011, ahead of Germany and France” alerted the magazine Capital Madrid a few weeks ago.

The analysis of the Reputation Institute is tremendously clarifying with regard to the disturbing reality that the resentment of some of the inhabitants of this region towards what is Spanish, might overturn the agenda that Europe is endeavouring to lay out. The agenda of politicians and businessmen, but also of cultural institutions. According to this study, the reputation of the Spanish “brand” is formed by a selection of variables that include rational criteria (technology, known brands, institutional quality, pace of the economy…) and emotional-perceptive attributes (lifestyle, warmth or friendliness of the people, feelings about the treatment of immigrants from the area, stereotypes…) It is perhaps these latter attributes that count most in the cultural terrain and if they are at a low ebb it is important to bear this in mind: as it is not the same to propose objectives from hegemony as from decadence.

Towards the end of the nineties, cities such as Madrid and Barcelona were authentic poles of attraction for South American artists. Today the situation seems to have changed. Even though London, Berlin and, as ever, New York, are the favourites for emigrating or carrying out short residencies, a movement is beginning to gain force within the continent itself. A few months ago, one of the artists participating in the Solo Projects of ARCO, the Honduran, Adán Valdecillo, called for people to take advantage of the favourable moment in Latin America, however within the continent itself. “It is important that as Latin American artists we become more aware of strengthening regional ties, because it is a growing market (…) What unites us doesn’t have so much to do with the art world, that continues to be very Eurocentric, as the societies where we come from.” he said. It is also interesting to revise the curatorial text of the last SIART Biennial 2011 (Bolivia), by the Chilean, Justo Pastor Mellado, who considered the strengthening of the local scene fundamental for its international recognition; fidelity to one’s own context in order to achieve universality. The state of things suggests that, though Europe is still a legitimising entity, if the “south-south axis” gains in strength, it could transform in the next decades into an authentic cultural phenomenon. In this scenario, where would Spain situate itself and what role would it play?

If we return to the text “The Queen of the Americas”, regarding which this article aims to bring another point of view, the subversive tone in which it was written is interesting. More than a few artists have coincided in the subversive character required in their work, one should translate this spirit to the rest of the protagonists within the art scene: curators, critics, cultural managers and of course, museum directors. It is more likely that one can carry out a real contribution to this cultural transatlantic exchange, if the cultural discourses don’t look for unity or similarity but for difference. Setting off not with consensus in mind but with dissent that dimension of antagonism to which Chantal Mouffe refers. Any strategy that today calls for a supposed Spanish-American “brotherhood” is out of date and condemned to fail. The conciliating tone that is assumed within Spanish institutions with regard to Latin America is not just naïve. To carry on thinking that the imposition of a culture and a language upon a territory provokes bonds of union and fraternity is just downright stupid.

Andrea Pacheco was born in Santiago de Chile, lived 14 years in Madrid and returned to her hometown not long ago. Her interest in the work of contemporary artists is sincere and profound. When she writes about any of them, she always has in mind the famous phrase of Salvador Dalí: the important thing is that they speak of you, even if it is well.

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