Memories of a Lost Culture, Part II

National Identity, Artistic Praxis, and Neo-Colonial Transformation in the Art of Puerto Rico’s Division of Community Education (1952-68)

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Read Part One here.

Redefining Artistic Practice in the DivEdCo (1952-1968)

The predominance of the serigraph as the medium of choice within the Division of Community Education (DivEdCo) had a practical function, allowing for the mechanical reproduction of specific images ad infinitum to then be distributed throughout the island. But, as Nelson Herrera Ysla points out, was also charged with radical social implications, “[breaking] the long-establish barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, art and design, ‘good and bad taste’… ‘cultured’ and ‘popular’ expressions.” [1]

Given the cross-cultural origins of the DivEdCo graphic arts movement, there can be no doubt as to the conscious practice of this iconoclastic form of art production. Greatly influenced by the WPA and Mexican social-realist models, the DivEdCo came about through a series of transnational migrations whereby WPA artists such as Edwin Rosskam and Jack Delano—who were eventually commissioned by Muñoz Marín to found the DivEdCO—came in direct contact with Puerto Rican social reality through government assignments. And alternately, Puerto Rican artists such as Lorenzo Homar and José Torres Martino experienced the vibrant melting pot that was New York’s modernist artistic milieu.

memories-culture2-mediumAccording to Shifra M. Goldman, Homar and Torres Martino’s time living in New York—early practitioners of brincando el charco, that spirit of ni aquí, ni allá that embodies the movement and cultural exchange between the city and Puerto Rico—put them in direct contact with the subversive aesthetic strategies that were then being developed at “several important New York art schools and workshops staffed by former New Deal artists, European Refugees, some Latin Americans, and several abstract expressionists.” [2] Noteworthy among the schools and individual artists that exerted a direct or indirect influence upon the early generation of DivEdCo artists (beyond Homar and Torres Martino, who were of primary importance to the Division, Goldman lists four members of the group who also had their artistic beginnings in New York) are the Pratt Institute, the Art Students League, the populist Brooklyn Museum, Georg Grosz, Rufino Tamayo and WPA artist Ben Shahn. While Tufiño was born in New York, his artistic education was carried out at the San Carlos Academy in México where he was under the tutelage of Leopoldo Méndez and Alfredo Zalce. A radical workshop ethic developed in New York was carried over to artistic praxis in the DivEdCo, and individual artists submitted their works to the criticism of their collaborators, placing notions of aesthetic quality on equal footing with questions of public reception (the public being, in the case of the DivEdCo, mostly rural jíbaros).

Decolonization, Symbolic Displacement, and Neo-Colonialism

Despite the tremendous formal and practical innovations effected by DivEdCo artists from 1952 to 1968, the fundamental question remains: what is the relationship between the artistic production of this defining epoch in Puerto Rican history and the profound social upheaval and displacement carried out by the colonial regime and a complicit populist government? How did the cultural project of these artists, who vehemently denounced the status quo as a “society where commercialization and dehumanization run rampant, creating a confusion of values and mediocrity” [3], fail to contribute to the creation of a viable alternative? To what extent where they complicit in sustaining it?

Frantz Fanon begins his chapter “On National Culture” with a quote by post-colonial African writer Sekou Touré: “Outside the single struggle,” he insists, “there is no place for either the artist or the intellectual who is not committed and totally mobilized with the people in the great fight waged by Africa and a suffering humanity”. [4] Fanon expounds on this idea, suggesting:

“When the colonized intellectual writing for his people uses the past he must do so with the intention of opening up the future, of spurring them into action and fostering hope… We should not therefore be content to delve into the people’s past to find concrete examples to counter colonialism’s endeavors to distort and depreciate. We must work and struggle in step with the people so as to shape the future… National culture is no folklore where an abstract populism is convinced it has uncovered popular truth… National culture in the underdeveloped countries must lie at the very heart of the liberation struggle these countries are waging.” [5]

Seen in this light – and indeed it almost seems as though Fanon is speaking directly to the situation of the DivEdCo artists – the failure of this popular movement was precisely its lack of direct engagement in the project of national liberation. As a paragon of this ‘mobilized’ cultural production, one need only look as far as Puerto Rico’s neighbor and one-time partner in the antillanista struggle for national liberation: Cuba. While the intellectual father of the Cuban nation, Jose Martí, extolled the virtue of his island’s burgeoning national culture in his poetic and journalistic work, his rhetoric never reverted to fixed conceptions of culture, preferring instead a dynamic image of Cuban identity. In his thorough analysis of Marti’s rhetorical strategies, Diaz Quiñones points to an “apocalyptic tone” espoused by Marti, couching his mythic construction of Cubanidad in a biblico-teleological vision of liberation as the natural destiny of the Cuban nation. [6] That every subsequent political regime on the island of Cuba has had to, in some way, engage and appropriate the legacy of Martí as their own is testament to the tremendous power of his literary production. [7]

Conversely, the DivEdCo’s project can be seen as a reactionary gesture; a response to colonial hegemony produced within the bounds of colonial discourse. The artists’ celebration of a culture more genuinely popular than the national identity formations of the Spanish elite earlier in the century nevertheless denied the possibility of that culture to transcend its colonial limitations. More appropriately, the production of Puerto Rican visual artists during the transition to the Estado Libre Asociado [8] can be seen as both a cultural expression of what Nancy Morris has termed “the fear of symbolic displacement”, and a further consolidation of elite and popular Puerto Rican cultures necessitated by the dominion of a new hegemonic power: the United States.

Nancy Morris’ “Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics and Identity”, attempts, through historical and interview data, to evaluate the persistence of Puerto Rican national identity in the face of the constant threat of Americanization. “Displacement is perceived as a threat when imported culture brings potentially competing symbols,” she concludes. “Puerto Ricans demonstrated clear awareness of which symbols derived from their own culture and which came from elsewhere, and they responded to perceived threats by defending the cultural elements that they considered their own… Deliberate efforts from without to change cultural symbols tend to induce resistance.”[9] While it was likely not her intention, the author here reveals some of the cultural mechanisms sustaining the global practice of neo-colonialism. In the face of cultural imperialism – seen in the omnipresence of fast-food establishments, North American media outlets, and multinational corporations such as Wal-Mart – Puerto Ricans have clung to hollow, immutable symbols of a perceived national identity amongst which Morrison includes traditional alcoholic beverages, the coquí frog indigenous to the island, and native musical genres. While the complex dynamic of domination, resistance, and cultural exchange between the island’s traditional elites and subaltern population surely continues within insular society, the coalescence of a multiplicity of cultures drawn along class, gender, and racial lines into a collection of popular symbols believed to encapsulate the essence of puertorriqueñidad [10] further entrenches the process of elite identification with the margins initiated with the jibarista ideology of early-twentieth century old-guard elites. As Guerra maintains,

“Latin American elites were caught up in frenetic attempts to appropriate the identity of the Other; redefine the concept within the ambivalent, inward-looking framework of the Self; and thereby neutralize the radical dimensions of consciousness that vibrated under the facades of passivity and backwardness that they ascribed to the popular classes.” [11]

With the redefinition of Puerto Rican national identity that accompanied the populist ideology of the PPD and ultimately facilitated the transition to the Estado Libre Asociado, this process of neutralization was further extended to include the elite classes, reducing the dynamism and liberatory potential inherent within Puerto Rican culture to an agglomeration of unproblematized, static symbols. As the cultural vanguard of this transition, the artists of Puerto Rico’s Division of Community education can be seen as having codified the boundaries of this symbolic identification by their appropriation and celebration of a disparate series of popular cultural phenomena; a gesture which, according to Díaz Quiñones, also served to create an archive of national memory in response to the imminent social transformations that would characterize Puerto Rican society in the late twentieth century.[12]

[1] Translation my own. “[rompiendo] las barreras interpuestas entre “artes mayores” y “menores”, arte y diseño, “buen y mal gusto”…expresiones “cultas” y expresiones “populares”.  Herrera Ysla, Nelson. Una poetica de la grafica insular. <<>>
[2] Goldman, Shifra M. Dimensions of the Americas. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. P. 421
[3] Diaz Quinones, p. 156
[4] Quoted in Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 2004. p. 145
[5] Ibid., p. 167-8
[6] Diaz Quinones, p. 263
[7] “Marti is the seminal figure in the history of Cuba’s nationalist struggle; his reputation has been appropriated by successive political generations and his ideas remain central to political discourse.”
Lievesly, Geraldine. The Cuban Revolution: Past, Present and Future Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. p. 70
[8] “Free Associated State,” the official Spanish-language designation of Puerto Rico’s status rejected in its literal translation by the United States congress.
[9] Morris, Nancy. Puerto Rico: Culture, Politics, and Identity. Westbrook, Conn/London: Praegus, 1995. p. 166
[10] Roughly translates to “Puerto Rican-ness”
[11] Guerra, p. 271
[12] “Se iniciaba así una complicada de la memoria: una práctica que consistía en la creación de un archivo cuyos materiales serian obras de arte.” Díaz Quiñones, p. 167

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