Letter to the Editor
Letter to the editor regarding Professor Caroline A. Jones’s article “Anthropophagy in São Paulo’s Cold War”, published in ARTMargins, 2:1 and the author’s response.
Mr. Sven Spieker
Dear Mr. Spieker,
I am writing regarding Professor Caroline Jones’s article “Anthropophagy in São Paulo’s Cold War”, published in ARTmargins, volume 2, number 1. As a scholar working on the history of art in Brazil, I read the article with interest, and found it problematic in several ways.
The author argues that she does not “question existing periodizations or canons of Brazilian art.” This is legitimate enough; the problem, however, is that she does not seem to understand those periodizations or canons. This is evident from a number of glaring factual and methodological mistakes that bear heavily on her argument as a whole. In what follows, I will identify what I find to be the most serious of these errors and highlight their problematic consequences.
On pages 6 and 7, the author writes that, after 1922, “The Semana [de Arte Moderna] would recur annually with great success, setting the terms for the recurring future of [the São Paulo Biennial].” That no source supports this affirmation comes as no surprise, since it is plainly wrong: the Semana did not recur at all. Jones continues with a summary of the debates that followed 1922 (with no reference whatsoever to the vast literature on the topic) and sets up a reductive polarity between the “sublimatory” (Graça Aranha) and the “abject” (Oswald de Andrade). It is this opposition that will later morph into one between technocratic, cool modernism (geometric abstraction, mostly) and all things anthropophagic. In short, if the ghosts of 1922 and of anthropophagy are made to haunt the scene of the São Paulo Biennial, their invocation involves a mixture of a falsely posited historical continuity and a heavy-handed schematization. The latter is furthered by the misrepresentation of São Paulo modernism as the origin of the tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, ignoring that this tension can be traced back to the 19th century.
On page 27, the author writes: “Certainly, the astonishing modules, forms and spaces [of the São Paulo Biennial pavilion] produced by [Oscar] Niemeyer’s team had one immediate result: when the President-to-be Juscelino Kubitschek (elected in 1955) saw them, he hired much the same team to build Brasilia, a new national capitol, from scratch.” What this (once again, unsupported) claim of an “immediate result” obscures is the intricate and long-standing relationship between Brazilian modernist architecture and the State and, more specifically, between Niemeyer and Kubitschek (this particular omission becomes all the more puzzling since it is casually referred to in a footnote in page 31). Moreover, the assumption of a direct cause and effect is at odds with the author’s insistence on a dialectical approach, but it is nevertheless consistent with the crude contextual determinism that informs statements such as “with the emergence of the [politically] ‘neutral’ general Gaspar Dutra [as president] in 1946, Brazilians contemplated the possibilities of ‘neutral’ cultural forms” (page 11).
Central to the author’s argument is a reading of Niemeyer’s architecture as anthropophagic. The schematization of 1922 modernism certainly helps her cause, and so does the fact that she throws International Style architecture and Concretism in the same bag so that Niemeyer can be seen as subverting both in a single stroke. The author seems to forget about the bitter divergences between Le Corbusier and Max Bill, which resonated strongly in Brazil, not to mention the somewhat conservative artistic allegiances of Niemeyer and his peers, who rarely opened the rooms and gardens of their projects to either Concretism or Neoconcretism. But taking that into account would have involved engaging the history of the liaison between modernist architecture and the realm of politics, whose complexity is at odds with the simplistic dichotomies and causal relations the author describes.
On page 17, we are introduced to “postcolonial theorist and poet Ferreira Gullar” [my emphasis]. This is a serious mischaracterization: if one were unequivocally to align Gullar to any particular critical discipline, then development or dependency theory would be far more suitable candidates (but even these assignations would hardly be acceptable without further qualification). By branding him a postcolonial theorist, the author not only betrays her unawareness of the intellectual context that surrounded Gullar, but also happens to wield postcolonial theory itself, paradoxically enough, as another name for intellectual ethnocentrism. How are we to assess the supposedly natural mobilization of a well-established discipline within the US humanities academia as a means of repressing the intellectual history of a different cultural context? The same holds for anthropophagy: posited as an all-encompassing interpretive key for modern and contemporary Brazilian art, the concept is effectively neutralized. Of course, this is by no means a new move, but the author seems unwilling to dwell on its main landmark (the XXIV São Paulo Biennial, mentioned only in passing) just as she overlooks the São Paulo concrete poets’ historical reclamation of Oswald de Andrade in the 1950s.
I am not obsessed with referencing; it is my belief that excessive devotion to academic conventions can often stand in the way of fruitful and genuine intellectual speculation. But conventions do exist for a reason, and it is certainly unacceptable for an author with virtually no previous work on a specific topic to engage in a 30-page long discussion on that topic without displaying minimal awareness of the state of the field. In this context, grammar mistakes and the frequent “castilianization” of Portuguese terms become aggravating symptoms rather than mere oversights. Consequently, how is the reader to trust the author’s unsupported readings of Graça Aranha and Oswald de Andrade?
The author might defend her practice by saying that the article is too broad in its scope for extensive referencing of specific debates, but such a response would not justify the actual scantiness of such references in the article, especially considering that she does not refrain from giving her view on the landmark importance of certain texts.
In a single, long article, she touches on almost all the hot topics in the suddenly timely subject of Brazilian art–modernism, anthropophagy, the São Paulo Biennial, concretism, neoconcretism, Brazilian modernist architecture, Oscar Niemeyer, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. By doing so without verifying elementary facts of Brazilian cultural history and without engaging highly relevant issues of and texts on specific episodes, she performs a disservice not only to the history, but to students and newcomers to the topic. Last, but not least, I also find her assertion that the Cold War role of Nelson Rockefeller is “difficult for most theorists of Brazilian culture to handle” (page 8) extremely patronizing and lacking in self-reflexivity.
Sérgio B. Martins
Assistant Professor, History Department, PUC-Rio de Janeiro
Sérgio Martins has a catalogue of complaints regarding my essay. Yet he does not contest my central thesis – that the revival of cultural Anthropophagy by artists, writers, and architects of the late ’50s and ’60s can be mapped as a crucial turning point for Brazilian practitioners, mobilized against an “international modernism” (sogennant) that had become dominant among advocates of Concretism in Brazil.
Martins’s specific points begin by identifying a factual mistake. He’s right, and I regret that unfortunate error regarding the renowned “Semana da Arte Moderna” of 1922 (which, indeed, did not repeat itself). Given that the significance of the Semana and its echoes was my point, the fact of its singularity is an important correction.
When engaging transnational histories, language politics and national canons are informative, but also unnecessarily constraining – comparative histories will benefit from occasional policies of détente. What is needed is a global art history that can match the critical internationalism of these Brazilian artists, and might contribute to their cosmopolitan appetite for productive debate. But this all requires a much more intense discussion, calling at once for a formal conference on methodological challenges and a passionate exchange of ideas over drinks.
Caroline A. Jones