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15 September 2013
Facts and dates, or quite the contrary. National identity, symbols, Catalonia, Spain, contemporary art and way too many other things

Martí Manen

When we talk about Catalonia/Spain there are always a series of codes that have been learnt rather than shared. And symbols that are no longer codes. Symbols: one of the reasons that everything has come to a standstill, with no future. For politics in Spain and Catalonia is “exercised” at a symbolic level. With Jordi Pujol climbing a mountain and calling elections, from the summit. Empty electoral slogans and the PP winning the elections, without even presenting an electoral program. By moving on a symbolic level there is no option for it to correspond with the practical. And the symbolic stems from the definition of the national identity of Catalonia, as much as of Spain. The creation of an identity in which art (in both cases) played a limited role, if we compare it with other European countries that made similar moves at the same time. France reinvents itself through culture, art having at this time a primordial position, in content as much as in its containers. The English are more interested in history, managing to make “their” culture go from Shakespeare to technology. Germany creates its own monster with thought and Finland gave a few artists carte blanche to invent an identity and grant them an image.

The current Catalan identity is “created” through poetry. The recovery of Verdaguer, as the one who lays the foundations, with Carles Riba precision and the longing for a historic past, J.V. Foix links into the modern, with the recognition of place and Josep Carner with the accepted everyday. And here we have it: a country that desires an ordered history, wanting modernity, buses and people. If you need a bit of “rauxa” (rage, drive, visceral, enthusiasm,) you will also find it, be it amidst the interstices of the aforementioned poets or in others who serve to introduce touches of sensuality, albeit without ever going too far. Joan Salvat-Papasseit is also a useful card in all games, Gabriel Ferrater in some. If the definition of Catalan identity is to be found in poetry –something that on the other hand is really quite nice– it is logical that we are on a symbolic level, where nothing is at seems and everything is interpretable. But that’s poetry for you.

In Catalonia, a look at history, -in terms of identity- stems as much from the noucentisme (the recuperation of classicism) as from modernisme (and its very German Wagnerism), always more as a desire than as a plan, always bordering on the mythical. The planning of an institutional past and future is left to secondary hands. Joaquim Folch i Torres, for example, constructing the future MNAC (Museu Nacional d’Art Catalunya) but endeavouring that nobody found out about the process. Figures who aren’t recuperated, as there’s no interest in the ins and outs of management seeing the light of day, when in other places they would be revered authors and would serve to explain the actual history.

Betwixt the symbolic definition of identity and the use of history, art was little more than artists as individuals. Not a sequence, nor a continuum, or even a cartography. If there are little groups it’s so they can be separated from each other. Catalonia doesn’t want to write a history of its art, and even less a history of contemporary art, as it doesn’t know what “Catalan art” is, nor does it want to. Better to have a series of individual names that can be moved around, every now and again, but without weaving a journey, a genealogy or a debate. The question of ancestry considerably limits the writing of a history that refuses to be written. The example of Picasso is an interesting one: he can be or not, at one and the same time, an artist of Catalan art. But he isn’t Catalan. Though he could be, as his presence in the city was important and his connections with the Catalan and Catalan nationalist cultural scene wide ranging. But there’s something not quite right about placing Picasso within a history of contemporary, Catalan art, so it’s better just to turn the page and not write that chapter. Or that history. He wasn’t really one of us. Miró yes, Torres García yes, even though he didn’t want to be, Dalí yes, but it’s better not to touch on Dalí… ¿how does one construct a genealogy when so much time has been dedicated to separating them into as distant points as possible, taking artists to the most remote layer of social reality and converting them into trading cards with which it’s easy to play? The same with Tàpies.

The texts, and the ideas, of these artists didn’t circulate they had no impact. It’s not that they didn’t write (some of them did very well) so much as over time there’s been no interest in a dialogue. Teachers don’t touch them, leaving them on their altar, celebrating them in their death, manhandling their cadavers. And, in parallel, the capacity, to weave an institutional fabric to establish whatever they wanted to establish, is forgotten. The Museu d’Història de Catalunya is an example of a late museum that no one believes in, not even its very founders. A museum thought up, in 1996, long after the construction of the Catalan identity, with the objective “to conserve, exhibit and raise awareness of the history of Catalonia as our joint heritage and to strengthen citizens’ sense of identification with the nation’s history” (Decree 47/1996, 6 February). Identification isn’t sought in art, history is nothing more than the previous generation (with a bit of luck) so best to leave the national history be, as we’re not going to get stuck in that quagmire.

Let’s think for a moment about Euskadi (the Basque country), this mirror. The genealogy, though in permanent discussion, is something that is accepted. A few referent artists, a generation that follows and afterwards another who respond to the second and the constant ideological recuperation of the first. With no reservations. With Basque artists in the 90s enjoying New York, thanks to an institutional belief that it made sense to be there, working with the international, and, what a surprise, with the symbolic. Without needing to reinvent themselves each generation, with embarrassment, so much as assuming what there is and working with it.

If the creation of the modern Catalan identity implies maintaining the status quo on a symbolic level, the Spanish identity is somewhat more chaotic. To start with, there is always the eternal doubt between unity and plurality. Right from the beginning and still today. With the army right in the middle (the Spanish flag was defined in 1785 as a naval tool), with the direct contact betwixt a costumbrista literature and a conservative idea of Spain, any attempts at modernity were totally suffocated with violence, with the use and abuse of El Quijote, with a colonial past that has glorified the crown, until now in post-colonialism the subject is hidden however possible, with constant –and contradictory- revisions of history, in school textbooks as much as those of universities, with alternative concepts such as “el Estado integral”, “Una, grande y libre”, “Café para todos”, “la furia”, “la Roja”1 and all the other linguistic endeavours aimed at avoiding a problem that resists knowing what it is. Without forgetting the power of names like Velázquez, Goya or Zurbarán, that are used to maintain the idea of highbrow culture as something to be nationally proud of. And, paradoxically, amidst these chaotic comings and goings, a series of state institutions are defined that still remain. The academies, the Museo del Prado, as well as the centrality of the capital -Madrid- that becomes a place where major ventures are undertaken, be it liberal positions of the left or totally fascist ones. The State, as an apparatus, becomes Madrid and Barcelona becomes Catalonia.

The Catalan institutions are born without Spanish might (the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, to give just one example, could be the equivalent of the academies, but its visibility and capacity for action is far more limited) and in Barcelona the construction of stable structures is left in the hands of the industrialists. Literature will be the publishers, drama in the theatres. And art? Art, without an industry, won’t have a museum in conditions and the opportunity to be another Paris will be lost. Even though the times have always been convulsive: the inauguration of the Museu d’Art de Catalunya was foreseen for the 7 October 1934. It couldn’t develop in the way it was hoped: the day before, Lluis Companys proclaimed the independence of Catalonia and the Spanish army occupied the institutions so the museum was opened under guard. A veritable party.

The Franco dictatorship annihilated all possibility of realizing an institutional labour for the future of Catalonia, and under Franco, the endeavour was to hide all the artistic material possible so that, at least, it wouldn’t be lost. However, something was destroyed, something like the belief and confidence in an institutional fabric, like the capacity for planned action. The creation of a symbolic identity passed to become the almost religious and secret maintenance of it. The codes ended up being hidden, silences places to be shared. The body riddled with fear.

Distrust and fear are the point of departure for everything that has happened in the peninsula from 1934 until now. The symbolic will leap to occupy meaning in the popular and identity will be emphasised -in Catalonia- through Barça, Els Pastorets and, later on, the appearance of TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio. In Spain the new identitarian populism will constantly remember, ad infinitum, the role of the king in 23F, the members of Real Madrid will wave Spanish flags as if they were their own, there will be a constant focus on external enemies and the “Catalan problem” will be debated passionately.

Adding to the symbolic discussion, the never-ending process of defining and establishing museums and artistic institutions in Catalonia will end up tiring and separating the artistic and cultural fabric of the institutions themselves, which, once open to the public, have a hard time becoming referents. But in the process of the opening up and institutional definition of the territory something happened: the associative tradition of Catalonia (a method of maintaining a sector “in contra”) amiably allowed a weak structure to arise, wanting to believe that everything now functioned, though nobody abandoned the symbolic terminology: museums open so that they form part of the symbol, not just to be. Afterwards, the politics and ideology of identity will be occupied by neo-liberal positions, with which the dismantling will be served. If Malraux constructed an institutional network in France, the Conseller de Cultura of the Generalitat, Ferran Mascarell will pass into history as someone who closes Catalonia, though it’s not all his responsibility. History and its simplifications.

The current crisis, on the other hand, is leading the control of capital into fewer hands. Hands that, in the case of art, clearly wager on a market that is in Madrid, not Barcelona. A market, that is not of the first order but when all’s said and done is a market. If we add the potential of the state tools, that continue to be in Madrid and not in Barcelona, it’s understood that the dismantling of a public cultural structure in Catalonia (of the Generalitat and other Catalan organs) involves leaping from an oasis to the desert.

Possibilities always exist. Options, capacity for action. If during the avant-garde there are great moments in Catalonia, if anarchism had been something that at some point someone had known how to take advantage of rather than being this irritation that is hidden away. If under something as terrible as the dictatorship it didn’t disappear, if the art institutions (as well as the self-organisation of the scene) have been models for the State –and beyond- in a few specific moments, if there are endless names of artists who could serve to compose a credible genealogy and if globalization makes it possible to recognise ways of doing things that are applicable for local improvement, then it seems even logical to overcome the mental depression that an economic and ideological crisis like the current one supposes. Without forgetting that the “little people’s” capacity for action is, sometimes, much more effective than that of the bigwigs. One example (recuperating a sideways glance at the Basque country): the Institut Ramon Llull could be a much more effective entity for internationalization than the institutional injustice generated by the Spanish state which nobody really knows how it functions. But, once again, the tradition of maintaining objectives (however confused they might be) and state structures in Madrid counters the contemporary institutional fragility of Barcelona. There can be changes in Madrid, but in Barcelona the changes have already arrived and there’s been no time to negotiate.

Director of Index Foundation, Stockholm, exhibition curator and art critic. Yes, after Judith Butler it is possible to be several things at once. He thinks that questions are important and that, sometimes, to ask means to point out.

"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)