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Latin AmericaThe Origin Of "modernism" In Latin America, Modernism And Postmodernism, Conclusions, Bibliography

Modernism (sometimes referred to as modern art or, even less precisely, as modernity in the arts) is a term for various experimental languages in the arts with multiple meanings and conflicting aims, and was ascendant from the 1880s to the 1960s (although certain artistic techniques and tactics of early modernist art, such as collage and photomontage, have enjoyed a potent afterlife since the 1960s, especially in Latin America at moments of social insurgency).

According to one of the most famous versions of the history of modernism, associated especially with the writings of critic Clement Greenberg from the 1930s through the 1980s, modernism is an essentially Euro-American phenomenon; but this was never an accurate story about modernism and has been decisively overturned by the debate around postmodernism since the late 1980s. Greenberg has been a very prominent voice about modernism in the United States, with a certain following among Latin American critics like Marta Traba. In perhaps his most well-known definition, "Modernist Painting" (1965), he tried to limit modernism to little more than an engagement with the "essential" material properties of the medium by linking it to Western positivism. (Revealingly, positivism was the prerevolutionary ideology of the dictatorship of Portfirio Díaz in Mexico, even as this school of thought enjoyed considerable hegemony in the West long after the "postcolonial" Revolution of 1910.)

The unduly reductionist view of modernist painting championed by Greenberg was then qualified by a whole series of noteworthy scholars, including Dore Ashton, Thomas Crow, Rosalind Krauss, and Charles Harrison in the West. They respectively demonstrated how modernism from the beginning had carried on a dialogue at once both positive and negative with mass culture as well as popular culture, how modernism was less about a literal focus on the brute materials of a given medium and more about a self-critical look at the inherited languages with which modernist artists had to work, and, finally, that modernist art's activation of the spectator's faculties is meant "to confront the occasions of fantasy and distraction with the requirements of imagination and critical self-awareness" (Harrison, p. 154).

The historical coordinates for the advent of international modernism between 1880 and 1940 have been incisively plotted in a paper by Perry Anderson entitled "Modernity and Revolution." In it he noted that "modernism … flowered in the space between a still usable classical past [of official academicism], a still indeterminate technical present [when the 'machine age' was still replete with radical possibilities], and a still unpredictable political future [when the prospect of revolution was more proximate than it had ever been]" (p. 105). Indeed, this triangulated field of forces—a contested academic art representing the old regime; the possibility of technological innovation, not necessarily along capitalist lines; and an insurgent political movement that called for revolutionary change—is precisely what spawned the "epic modernism" of the Mexican Mural Movement from 1922 to 1940 and thus inaugurated modernism as a potent force in the visual arts throughout the Americas.

In contrast to Greenberg's assertion, modernism does not emerge in a linear artistic progression along national lines; instead there are several different multinational conceptions of modernism (and with them, divergent views of its relation to postmodernism) that have arisen within several geographic regions (including not only Latin America, but also Asia and Africa). Modernism's trajectory is more accurately described as a delta with numerous destinations around the globe, rather than as a one-lane highway with only one stop terminating in the West.

At once international in character and yet also unavoidably regional by nature, metropolitan modernism has been paradoxically linked through the arts either to cultural forms of marginalized groups in the West (such as those of Eastern European émigrés, Latinos, African-Americans, and Native Americans) or to so-called peripheral nations in the Third World, as in Latin America. For Raymond Williams in The Politics of Modernism (1989), it was in "a generation of 'provincial' immigrants to the great imperial capitals that avant-garde formations and their distanced, 'estranged' forms have their matrix" (p. 14).

An adequate description of Latin American modernism, then, must begin by considering the various definitions of modernism that have arisen within specific contexts, as well as by distinguishing modernism as a cluster of renovative and self-reflexive languages in the arts from modernity. The latter is instead a social experience that has been generated by modernization, which is a globalizing economic program centered in the West. All three of these historic phenomena have existed in complicated, asymmetrical relation to each other.

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