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Nelly Richard

'The Political in Art' Names an Internal Articulation into Creative Practices


Nelly Richard

with Félix Suazo

The work of the Chilean critic and essayist Nelly Richard has played a significant role in the reflexive formation of artists and scholars of the arts in the Americas. Although not directly involved in teaching, she has authored numerous publications and directed several spaces for critical thinking. In this interview, her answers are reasoned and eloquent, especially those in which she addresses feminism, the political in art, and the globalized university. Altogether, her analysis outlines a panorama of important issues of great relevance.

Félix Suazo: Do you presently have any ties to art pedagogy?

Nelly Richard: No, I don't have any direct link with art pedagogy, nor have I ever had it systematically before; I never taught regularly at an art school. At the Universidad de Arte y Ciencias Sociales ARCIS (where I was Vice-Rector of Extension and Publications for ten years), I directed the Master's program in Cultural Studies between 2005 and 2013. The Master included a module on ‘Art and Politics’ that allowed us to review everything that had happened in Chile since the context of the military dictatorship and, particularly, the irruption, in the late seventies, of a set of practices gathered under the label "Escena de Avanzada" [Advanced Scene]. These were transdisciplinary practices (visual arts, video, cinema, poetry, literature, sociology, etc.) characterized by their neo-avant-garde experimentalism and their bold reconceptualization of supports and formats, as well as artistic production techniques, including the body (performance) and the city (urban interventions), to alter the regimented daily life of an authoritarian and repressive society.

Brigada Laura Rodig: Collective action at the 8M March (March 8, 2020), Santiago de Chile. Courtesy: Brigada Laura Rodig.

My most recent experience of a shared reflection around the problematics of art is the one I practiced with the Study Group of the Chair of Politics and Aesthetics of Memory, inaugurated in 2017, and which I directed for three years. It was a very valuable experience for several reasons. First, we co-coordinated the Seminar with Ana Longoni, who was director of the Museum's Public Activities Program at the time; she was a very close and valuable interlocutor, having done outstanding work on avant-gardes and politics in Argentina. The Study Group functioned like a Seminar (combining face-to-face and remote encounters) and was composed of members (scholars, theoreticians, artists, and activists) from Spain and different regions of Latin America. This diversity allowed us to review the issues of traumatic memory in post-dictatorship contexts and the elaborations produced through theoretical reflections and artistic practices, crossing different contexts that share similarities but also express differences. We reviewed many texts to share questions regarding the status of the body and the image as sensitive matter and its capacity to "affect" society in a world of capitalist undifferentiation that erases the value of experience.

We revised the function of registering and archives as mechanisms of conservation-reactivation of the traces of memory: transitional processes and their political-institutional logics of deactivating conflicts and past antagonisms in order to integrate the social body into a smooth consensus.

We questioned the tension between the memories of catastrophe (convulsive, latent, fissured, incomplete memories) and the neoliberal technologies to administer a flat present that seeks to dematerialize social historicity, and so on.

What relationships do you see between art, feminism, and education?

My first approach to feminism was in the 1980s. In those years, women's organizations played a very active part as a citizen platform for anti-dictatorial struggle, vindicating the role of feminism as a social movement. With the reopening of democracy in 1990, gender studies programs began to be formally implemented in Chilean universities, where feminism was approached mainly from the sociology and anthropology of women.

At the same time, the agitative force of feminism as a social movement was dispersed with the recycling of gender policies in terms of ministries and public policies. This silencing of feminism, cloaked by the neutrality of the term ‘gender,’ lasted more than thirty years until the feminist revolt of May 2018 in Chile. Since I began to work on feminism in the 1980s, I have always insisted—even today—on feminism being, on the one hand, a social movement (whose importance has not ceased to expand internationally in recent years, particularly in Latin America) and, on the other hand, a critical theory, that is, a body of knowledge and perspectives of knowledge that have reformulated contemporary thinking due to its unprecedented crossings between subjectivity, politics, culture, sexuality, and gender. Although prejudices against theory have always existed—and still do—on the part of some militant feminism (prejudices built on the—false—dichotomy between the abstract-masculine (the order of concept, discourse, and reason) and the concrete-feminine (daily life and the daily struggles against sexual oppression; the body and its sensitive world of affections) I consider theory an essential instrument for feminism.

The theory is what informs awareness about the discursive and representational character of the binary order that uses the signs 'man' and 'woman' to inscribe properties and attributions of ideological-sexual nature on the surface of bodies. Without the feminist theory, feminism would have no way to refute the metaphysics of the original identities and their sexual naturalism, nor would it know how to dismantle the representational artifices that program the roles of subjects tied to an essentialism of the body. Therefore, I believe that feminist theory and critique should be part of any academic program. Moreover, since it is a tool for questioning the androcentric foundations of knowledge used for declaring itself superior in the name of the universal, thus concealing its patriarchal and colonial deformations. Within the university, feminist theory and critique are meant to question the hierarchies of knowledge and the normativization of disciplines.

Brigada Laura Rodig: Screening. Santiago de Chile. March 29, 2020. Courtesy: Brigada Laura Rodig.

Referring to the “social and communicative strategies of direct insertion of art into the community,” in an interview published in Infobae in 2022, you stated that, “like Rancière, I am a little suspicious of the blind faith in 'the pedagogical model of the effectiveness of art'; as if there was a linear chain of cause and effect between the (good) intention of the author, the explicit transmission of the politically engaged message, and its massive repercussion in society.” Do you still feel that way?

Existe toda una discusión en torno a qué entender por “arte político” o bien a preguntarse si es lo mismo hablar de “arte y política” que de “lo político en el arte”. Yo tiendo a creer que cuando se habla de “arte y política”, se establece una relación de exterioridad entre la serie-arte (un subconjunto de la esfera cultural) y “la política” como contexto histórico-social con la que el arte entra en relación de diálogo, conflicto o enfrentamiento. Mientras tanto, “lo político en el arte” nombra una articulación interna a las prácticas creativas que reflexiona críticamente sobre cómo se formulan las operaciones estéticas en tensión con lo real-social y sus hegemonías de representación, para desmontarlas a través del lenguaje, la significación y la figuración. La relación entre arte y política tiende a buscar una correspondencia entre “forma artística” y “contenido social” (como si este último fuese un referente ya dispuesto y consignado que la obra debe tematizar), mientras que “lo político en el arte” descarta esta correspondencia entre forma y contenido como una relación ya dada para hacer interrogar la significación poniéndola en suspenso.

Brigada Laura Rodig: Action with scarves on the floor. Santiago de Chile, 25 de noviembre, 2020. Cortesía: Brigada Laura Rodig.

There is a whole discussion around what to understand by ‘political art,’ or whether it is the same to talk about ‘art and politics’ as ‘the political in art.’ I am inclined to believe that when we talk about ‘art and politics,’ a relation of exteriority is established between the art-series (a subset of the cultural sphere) and ‘politics’ as a social-historical context with which art enters into a relationship of dialogue, conflict, or confrontation. Whereas ‘the political in art’ names an internal articulation into creative practices that critically reflects on how aesthetic operations are formulated in tension with the social-real and its representational hegemonies, in order to dismantle them through language, signification, and figuration. The relationship between art and politics tends to seek a correspondence between ‘artistic form’ and ‘social content’ (as if the latter were a previously arranged and consigned referent that the work must thematize). ‘The political in art,’ on the other hand, discards this correspondence between form and content as a preset relationship to question signification by placing it in suspense.

In recent years, we have witnessed a proliferation of public interventions that base their identification as ‘political art’ on community ties, opting for the socio-cultural management of associative-collaborative mechanisms that incorporate the context into the work. Several of these works indeed achieve communicative efficacy by merging with their social and political setting, even renouncing the marks of specificity-differentiation coming from the field of art to merge the audiences with the public. We experienced it in Chile during the revolt, confirming the popular fervor for agitation and participation, for the presentness of bodies through their ‘being together’ as a converging axis of ‘the common.’ To denounce and protest against the dominant system by echoing the claims of denied identities, those being postponed, marginalized, repressed, or suppressed.

But for Rancière—and I agree with him—the emancipatory value of art—of the art that stimulates the critical subjectivity of the spectator—depends not on the literal content of the messages of protest and denunciation that the works profess but on the types of operations (material, symbolic, figurative) through which art is capable of problematizing the system of representation. Namely, its capacity to introduce undermining elements within itself in order to avoid the passive identification—by way of mimesis—of a gaze subjected to a predetermined content, even if it is a politically non-conforming and vindicating content invested with a moral justification. Rancière's wager is not on the association of content between art and politics but on the dissociation between form and meaning, intended to combat the assumption of the “romantic vision of the truth (of a work) as a non-separation.” This is where art as ‘dissent’ would come into play as a rupture and leap of perception and awareness in the image-gaze relationship: criticism, aesthetics, and ethics would have to do with enhancing the capacity for judgment by taking signs as material to deliberate.

Brigada Laura Rodig: Stop Patriarchy. Action on the way to the Strike. Santiago de Chile, March 8, 2020. Courtesy: Brigada Laura Rodig.

In a text presented at the Seminario Investigación en Cultura: Universidad, políticas públicas y convergencias (National Council of Arts and Culture, Casa Central of the University of Chile, December 16, 2015), you questioned the apparent neutrality of the concepts of 'quality,' 'excellence,' and 'educational productivity.' You also said that "art and humanistic knowledge are suffering the devaluation of ‘academic capitalism.’" At what point did the academy stop valuing art and humanistic knowledge, and how could we reverse this situation?

All this is part of a general process that falls under the label of ‘academic capitalism,’ which points to a series of transformations that have substantially modified both the role of the university itself and the relationship between the university, society, and the market. The logics of commodification and technologization of knowledge have taken over the globalized university, opting for the productivity and profitability of applied knowledge through falsely neutral notions such as ‘quality’ or ‘excellence’—which are self-referential notions devoid of contextual relations.

These commodifying and technologizing logics are detrimental to humanistic culture—a minorized and feminized field—as it does not fulfill the rules of valuation of practical knowledge, which is easily integrated into utilitarian transactions: exchanges placed at the service of the market of competencies that follow the capitalist code. There is a whole dominant lexicon today in technocratic universities for measuring the performativity of knowledge through rankings that reward the publication of indexed articles, with their abstracts in English. This is completely incompatible, for instance, with the history of the debate of ideas that were culturally elaborated in Latin America, in the original language of the essay.

Especially from Latin America, I find it essential to revisit the memory of critical essayism, of cultural criticism as a crossing of disciplinary boundaries to settle in the field of politics, aesthetics, and culture—as evidenced in the independent cultural magazines that played such a prominent role in our countries. Within the university, the humanities, art, and critical thinking are indispensable to pose a resistance to the hegemonic tendency for knowledge to be subordinated to the dominant economic-productive demand of neoliberal capitalism, by stimulating the imagination around new sensitive configurations that invite us to meditate on subjectivity, language, and representation. Critical thinking must not give in to the classifications and regulations of knowledge advanced by academic globalization, which seeks to discipline both knowledge and the practices of reading and writing. But, in addition, critical thinking must be capable of intertwining the inside of the university with its outside: from the struggles for democracy to the feminist movement and the cultural resistance offered by numerous art collectives.