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EL ESPECTADOR

When Free Artists Don't Honor Their Freedom

In Colombia, a recent case of censorship - since reversed - shines a light on the role of art in a society that has all the signs of freedom. And yet....

Graffiti from the Toxicomano art collective in Bogota
Graffiti from the Toxicomano art collective in Bogota
Camilo Tellez Germán Muñoz*

On Aug. 28, when the Hidden Women exhibition opened at the Santa Clara Museum in Bogotá, the Cundinamarca departmental tribunal ordered it to temporarily halt after receiving around 80 complaints, mostly from people associated with the Voto Católico organization who had denounced it as offensive. On Sept. 10, the restrictions were lifted and the exhibition remains open to the public. The authorities decided that "the authorization given to the exhibition is in keeping with a museum's ethical principles, the freedom of expression, plurality and cultural diversity."

-Essay-

BOGOTA — When you find yourself in a society where nobody tries to restrict artistic displays — bar extreme, isolated cases — that society has reached a point where its members respect both criticism and diversity. They understand that art long ago discarded its duty to be pretty or "pleasing."

But there is another scenario in such a society: that the art produced by its free citizens fails to disturb the representatives of tradition and its interests, and has become (for many reasons) a part of capitalist and consumer values. It is now designed to play its role (status, investment, decoration etc.) without posing a danger or threat.

Those who think Colombian society is of the first, tolerant type, live in a different country than me, because here everything, from politics to football, constantly reminds us the scant regard we have for differing opinions and criticism.

Tradition's current assault on disruptive art precisely shows the need for such art; regardless of whether one wishes to qualify it as good, bad or ordinary, its mere presence has had the effect of revealing the medieval intentions of certain groups in Colombia.

I do not know which is worse: that the censorship should have happened, or the possibility of it not happening again.

Certainly there is no justice in silencing an artist, whatever his or her ideas. But the reactions provoked by the Hidden Women (Mujeres Ocultas) exhibition by artist María Eugenia Trujillo, leave one with the sense that the self-styled defenders of traditions found it too easy to attack the display — for having stood out from the current crowd of exhibitions, not being the type of exhibition traditionalists have learned to ignore.

I think artists are partly to blame here, for failing to consolidate the practice of mounting challenging, aggressive and progressive exhibitions that are difficult, or for some impossible, to digest, and preferring to flow in the world of the pleasant, elegant, boring or "conceptually interesting." Much of such work is simply of interest to artistic cliques and has no impact on anyone outside.

Certain readers might think of three or four art works far more irreverent and provocative than those that are the subject of this discussion. I can think of six, and the most knowledgeable could cite at least a dozen. But we are members of an increasingly isolated, almost secret, community, which has forged its symbols and words that mean nothing to anyone outside.

Paradoxically, when this very same community of artists should be able to talk to everyone, it has come to restrict its criticisms to a few individuals who fundamentally, already agree with its artistic proposals. The edge needed in Colombian art (it does exist) is not just to state uncomfortable truths but ensure these go right through the numerous socio-cultural layers of our world.

We need to make more art that disturbs those who inspire it, occasionally move a little, each of us, at least an inch or so from our "comfort zone" and return to provoking reactions. Artists who are saying things need to become visible again, not just those who sell or pat each on the back at cocktail parties, sipping wine and thinking how clever they are.

It is not about provoking a scandal just for the sake of it. Smiles are not the measure of good art, but neither is the number of insults it provokes. Frankly, if you like jokes and pretty pictures we have blogs, Tumblr and Instagram, free and personalized. Art in Colombia deserves more exhibitions they would censor, which would raise more of us to fight censorship and insufficient means to censor us all.

Criticism is left between the lines. Curiously, amid the controversy, artists (among whom I include myself) are putting up a fight on social network sites, briefly commenting their disapproval or signing a couple of online petitions.

Fighting this way is like a lion defending itself by swinging its tail. The setting of our fight against censorship should be where art is found: on the streets, in galleries, in museums, group exhibitions, in our own workshops. We should be making art that provokes and challenges the establishment, which unites us against obscurantism. There is no victory in getting yourself exhibited by pulling bureaucratic strings, all so you can paint more little pictures to sell, or having shows where people stroll and admire kitsch concoctions, or art fairs practically filled with Pop Art because that's what sells best.

My sympathies, respect and support go to all those artists that face down the establishment to show their work. It sickens me to see them restricted for the sake of some twisted morality that despises everything reflecting, like a mirror, its own hypocrisy.

* Camilo Tellez Germán Muñoz is an artist and visual arts professor at Universidad Javeriana.


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