Letter Regarding “The Panel Discussion, The Tennis Match, and a Bodegón”

I nerded out last week and decided to write a letter to the editors of Artforum.  Although I’m being sincere there’s a certain element of fan writing going on here.  I really like Art Forum. It reminds me that what I most miss about living in New York are the art museums, not that there aren’t great museums here, there’s just not a dozen of them.  In the meantime I can look at their glossy pics and imagine that all that print in between is just the stuff you have to read on the wall.

Anyway, David Joselit’s article about Nicola Guagnini’s piece “The Panel Discussion, The Tennis Match, and a Bodegón really interested me, especially his notion of “Post-Conceptual”, which – how he explained it – sounds almost like a throwback to agit-prop, only with no clear end.  My letter however focuses on the literary part of the piece.

Dear Editors,

Although I very much appreciated “The Scream,” David Joselit’s lucid interpretation of Nicolas Guagnini’s “The Panel Discussion of Tennis, Match and a Bodegon,” [Artforum, September 2011], I disagree with his characterization of the book covers presented on the far wall of the installation.  Guagnini may have called them a representation of the “canon of Latin American culture/literature circa 1975,” but he would have done so erroneously.

Foremost, one of the books featured, Cesar Aira´s The Literary Conference was not published in Spanish until 1997. In fact, “circa 1975” he had only published his novel Moreira with a small press.  He would remain a fringe writer for almost another ten years.

Furthermore, the characterization of these “canonical” authors as somehow outside of the political debate between left and right factions is ludicrous.  An article written by literary critic, and later member of the leftist guerrilla group, Los Montoneros, Francisco Urondo, titled, “Writing and Action“ (La zona de poesia, August 1971)  describes the incapability of fiction writers to write fiction in turbulent political times.  Five years after this article came out Francisco Urondo was shot to death by government soldiers.

Even less politically fervent authors took sides.  Upon winning the prize for fiction in 1973 for A manual for Manuel, Julio Cortázar donated all money to political prisoners in Argentina.  He regularly visited revolutionary Nicaragua, graciously hosted by writer-guerrillas Sergio Ramirez and Ernesto Cardenal.  Afterwards he frequently wrote in support of Nicaragua´s Sandanistas.

As for the older, conservative members of this group, Jorge Luis Borges and Bioy Casares, were both anti-populist.  When asked about the re-election of Perón in the turbulent 1970s, Borges said he was elected by millions of idiots.  He also opposed the leftist guerrillas who were in some cases finding inspiration for what they considered patriotic acts, in Borges’ fiction.  Implying that their works are somehow “Utopian” or other-worldly seems at best a misinterpretation; the majority of their work reflects a deep-seated romanticism in matters of national politics, as their militant leftist readers would attest to.

As for surrealism, the featured Octavio Paz text, Chaung Tzu, is a translation of the Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi (in English).  It is a book of aphorism meant for application in practical life, nothing that would suggest the other-worldliness or abstraction denounced by the political extremists. (In fact, Maoists, of which there were some followers in Latin America, might have even noticed that Mao mentions Zhaungzi in his own philosophical tracts.)

While Cuban poet Lezama Lima´s books were eventually condemned as pornography, prior to then he had long supported Fidel’s revolution, and have even acted as a political agitator in his youth.  He also regularly corresponded with Salvadoran revolutionary poet Roque Dalton – one of whose most famous poems is titled “Karl Marx” – before Dalton was killed by a his own leftist guerrilla group, believing him to be an intelligence agent of rival leftists.

Finally, I might suggest that all of these authors in one way or another were covertly supported by the left or right during the Cold War; far from the destruction of the experimental, these geopolitical rivals supported the writers they viewed as favorable for their political views.  While Latin American writers sympathetic the Soviet Union were invited to Moscow to be treated like kings, the CIA hosted literary festivals via its Congress for Cultural Freedom.  To put it another way, in an accurate allegory, these writers would be playing in this match as well.

Perhaps then the covers are just that: covers, reminiscent in their designs of tempered Concrete Art or Geometric Abstraction.  Both of those movements were successful n Latin America due in part to their apolitical esotericism.  Could books as objects be another element of negation?

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