Building a New Cultural Hegemony in Venezuela
The exact nature and implementation of the Bolivarian revolution’s cultural policy has lately been an obsessive and controversial issue in Venezuela. In the pre-Chávez period, public cultural administration was defined as state support for film, fine arts, traditional arts and folklore. As the major city in a country with few developed urban centers, Caracas was heavily favored by the oil boom and hosted the majority of the country’s cultural offerings until the 1990s, when the ongoing process of decentralization began.
Venezuela’s museums became known as the most important in Latin America in terms of infrastructure, knowledgeable curators and art collections. The Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas holds the region’s largest Picasso collection and also boasts a large body of works by mid-20th century vanguard artists such as the South Korean Nam June Paik, the German Joseph Beuys and U.S. artists George Segal and Robert Rauschenberg.
This museum provides the best example of the modernizing thrust of Venezuela’s intellectuals. “The museum was born in a parking lot,” recalled its founder Sofía Imber in an interview. “Our remodelations continued until we achieved a contemporary museum with an impeccable operation. To buy our first Picasso, we had to view 140 pieces. In 30 years, we managed to collect 4,200 works. Now, they call us elitist, but we worked with a single criterion: that high culture and works of the finest and most beautiful craftsmanship could be brought to a developing country - the best book, the best research center, the best museum studies. In this sense, I was elitist—I sought works of the highest quality and excellence.”
At the same time, while skyscrapers and glass financial towers were springing up in the city, kinetic artists such as Jesús Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero became the emblems of a nation yearning for high speed modernization that would sweep Venezuela into the first world on the crest of the oil boom. The future would be like the work of these artists because kinetic art, which began in Paris with its attractive mix of cosmopolitanism and technology, represented the developmentalist project promoted at the time by Venezuela’s leaders and economic elite. But outside their sphere of influence, reality continued its inevitable course. While the city was crisscrossed by quickly built multi-level highways that were seen as the promise of the future for Latin America and celebrated enthusiastically by many, with equal rapidity it was surrounded by ever-growing belts of poverty where high culture was not a necessity, but a distant fantasy.
The recent restoration of some of the most important kinetic installations in central points of the city reflects the influence and persistence of the modernizing project. However, these works are far from having the artistic dominance in the urban landscape that they enjoyed during the last quarter of the 20th century. In the eastern part of the city, where a good part of the middle- and upper-classes reside, a certain concept of abstract art still prevails; in the western part of the city, in the lower class neighborhoods where the chavista movement has its strongest hold, a neo-figurative muralism has emerged. This art is inspired by allegories of the anti-colonial era of Simón Bolívar, archaic indigenous myths or heroic figures such as Che Guevara or Muktada Al-Zawarki, leader of the Al-Qaeda resistance in Iraq. Although most of these works are obviously propagandistic, look improvised and lack artistic merit or skilled workmanship, they respond to a profound need: the representation of the revolutionary imagination, the self-conception, of the Bolivarian project.
Such urban markers of political polarization clearly express the argument between two apparently antagonistic concepts of culture. According to Francisco Sesto, the debate is between the exclusive elitism of the past and the inclusive revolution of the present. By profession, Sesto is an architect, by vocation, a poet, and, until a few months ago, he was Chavez’s longest lasting cabinet minister. In a government where ministers come and go with the cycles of the moon, he held on to his post for five years, during which he gave a radical turn to Venezuela’s public cultural administration.
He says his main mission was to re-found state cultural institutions, which basically meant unifying different cultural areas under ministerial control and reorganizing them in a system of platforms and vice-ministries.
On a recent Monday, a few days before Chávez appointed him Housing Minister, Sesto received me in his office to assess his legacy, emphasizing “The essential thing in the public administration of culture is to reach everyone in the population. In the past, this could have happened in theory, but not in reality. Today, we reach everyone and every culture within a country that is multi-ethnic and pluri-cultural. We can say that we began an era of cultural, demographic and territorial inclusion.”
Sesto says that previous cultural institutions—museums, film houses, theatre and dance companies—were inadequate because they were concentrated in Caracas and focussed on the culture needs of a select minority.
Hostility towards previous public cultural administration became explicit with last May’s abolition of the National Culture Council (Conac) that had regulated public culture policy since 1975. Conac had emerged from the multidisciplinary efforts of intellectuals, most of them leftists, to promote diverse expressions of art and culture. Museums, publishing houses Monteávila and Biblioteca Ayacucho, the National Theatre Company and the Rajatabla theatre group were well known outside the country and were the pride of Venezuelan culture.
From 1989, with orchestra director and educator José Antonio Abreu as Culture Minister, public cultural administration was decentralized and many institutions were transformed into relatively autonomous foundations with say over the management of their economic resources. Although it would be an exaggeration to call this a Golden Age, there is no doubt that it established a solid basis for cultural activities.
Elitism vs. Unification
Sesto, the ex-minister who planned the dismantling of this structure, dislikes the words “elite,” “personalism,” and “market”, declaring, “We have counteracted former cultural policies which limited the national state’s role to lawmaking with no capacity for action. If we had kept on with this policy, exclusion would have advanced further. As of today, there are eight states that don’t have a public or private movie house. If you leave everything to the market, there would be no movies, no bookstores, nothing. How many states don’t have an art museum?”
As a proof of elitism, Sesto adds that seven national museums are located in Caracas, but they do not work together. “When we brought the Mega Exposición to Ciudad Bolívar, maestro Jesús Soto told me it was the first time that Armando Reverón crossed the Orinoco. How can you explain this in a country with 26 million inhabitants, a million square kilometers and 33 languages?”
Personalism was even worse than centralization, since institutions, especially in the museum world, were frequently given the founder’s name. Sometimes, names and institutions became confused; for example, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas was commonly known as “Sofia’s museum” until its name was actually changed to the Sofía Imber Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas. That change by itself is enough to illustrate how things are done in Venezuela and the power wielded by some civil servants. To resolve this “imbalance,” Sesto abruptly did away with the foundations through which the museums operated almost independently, and grouped all the museums together in the National Museums Foundation. “Feudal culture has to be replaced by the culture of teamwork. Now we have a strong cultural policy with articulated institutions,” he explained. He eliminated the individual graphic identities of museums, many of which had been created by Venezuela’s most important designers, and united them under one logo. “The unification of logos helped keep museums from operating individually and prevented greater fragmentation.” Many intellectuals considered this profound restructuring to be a cultural coup that subordinated museums to one single institution and, of course, to a “unified” ideological and political project, as Sesto himself observed.
The unification has resulted in a lack of public programming, isolation from contemporary art trends, paralysis due to bureaucratic control of economic resources, empty spaces and fewer viewings than ever before. The obsession with unification, coupled with political polarization, alienated many artists, intellectuals, curators and cultural technocrats, and created a sad reality for the great Venezuelan museums.
The case of the museums is not isolated. The situation of theatre and dance is even more tragic. In the last 10 years, in Caracas alone, 22 theatres—both private and publicly owned—have shut their doors, thus threatening the survival of theatre and dance collectives, as revealed by journalist Lisseth Boon’s detailed investigative reporting. The politicization of those cultural spaces that still survive is also representative of the “unifying” tendency of public cultural administration. Sesto says that in 2004, when the government decided to reshape public cultural administration, he was surprised to see people weeping with happiness because they could finally get into the Teresa Carreño Theatre (TTC), which has hosted spectacular national and international performances, especially opera. It is true that the TTC had given free entrance to all for its grand international poetry festival. But that is only part of the story. For example, since 2004, the TTC has lent its space for government rallies. In 2008, the opera season was reduced to two performances. Many shows were canceled or rescheduled because the government was using the theatre for political events.
This unprecedented political use of cultural space has, from the point of view of institutions that have been developing their work for decades and gradually gaining autonomy, resulted in a remedy worse than the illness. It also is a bitter pill for artists who value an artistic tradition based on critical dissidence, and therefore distrust conformist adhesion to the revolutionary project. Many others consider that the public statements of Sesto and other spokespersons have placed Bolivarian loyalty before merit or talent. Obviously, in the name of “the process,” more than one head has rolled. Paradoxically, in a revolution which preaches workers’ rights, artists, cultural workers and managers who do not agree with the government were encouraged to resign or take early retirement.
It is not surprising that the quasi-feudal personalism represented by Sofía Imber has been singled out for quick, severe and exemplary punishment. One day, Imber, a member of Venezuela’s Jewish community, signed a public protest accusing Hugo Chávez of making anti-Semitic statements. After reading it, Sesto, a courteous and affable man, became furious. “What she said was untrue. So I struck back. In this polarized reality, if you hit me with a stick, I hit you back, if I can. My Christian outlook of turning the other cheek only goes so far.” He then ordered the words “Sofia Imber” to be removed from the museum’s name.
One can only conclude that the forced unification of public cultural administration is a strait-jacket on creativity and independence.
The million-dollar question is whether this new focus of public cultural administration, with its drastic measures, is really revolutionary. There is no black-or-white answer. In the publishing field, for instance, the publishing house El Perro y la Rana (The Dog and the Frog) was set up in addition to Monteávila and Biblioteca Ayacucho, to produce low-cost books for mass distribution. Millions of copies have been printed of Quijote and Cien años de soledad, as well as books by Venezuelan authors. Every city now has its own cultural center. The creation of the Villa del Cine, the Film Villa, a studio similar to the old Italian Cinecitá, has given historically weak movie production a certain professional and industrial air. However, the system of checks and balances that existed in the past has been tossed aside. The best proof of this is Chavez’s direct granting of US$18 million—an amount equivalent to the budget of nine Venezuelan films—to Hollywood actor Danny Glover to make a film in Venezuela about Haiti’s liberation.
Sociologist Tulio Hernández points out how the obsession with bringing culture to the masses is neither new nor exclusive to the Chávez government. On the contrary, the institutions of the so-called era of representative democracy (1958-1998) also had this idea without ever satisfying the desideratum of the state. According to Hernández, a well-known expert in urban and cultural policy studies and critic of the Chávez government, the concentration of public cultural administration in state hands will not solve the larger problem: a truly inclusive democratization that guarantees access to all types of public.
“Democratizing public cultural administration is only possible when relative autonomy is articulated through decentralization; that is, cultural institutions and local governments in joint action. But it is not possible by turning back the ongoing process of decentralization begun in 1989,” observed Hernández, who in the 1990s was president of Fundarte, a cultural body in the mayor’s office of Caracas’ Libertador municipality. According to Hernández, examples of democratizing cultural policy are Colombia’s 2002 Cultural Plan and cultural town hall meetings in Santiago de Chile, both based on a participatory, plural and decentralized structure. He also mentioned the creation of the Orinoco Museum and the restoration of the historic colonial center of Ciudad Bolívar in the 90s as examples of this process in Venezuela.
Hernández likens the Bolivarian revolution’s populism to estajanovismo, the Stakhanovite movement that rewarded increased productivity. “The Culture Ministry becomes passionate when talking about numbers. It asserts it publishes millions of books and puts on hundreds of exhibits in cultural centers and all sorts of festivals. But there’s a problem in determining the effect of these books, exhibits and festivals, for whom and for what are they being produced and if they meet the public’s deepest cultural needs. The fact is that public cultural administration is perceived as a proselytizing project of the Bolivarian revolution and its haste to unify as a result of the regime’s need for unification. Besides that, after ten years in power, the Bolivarian revolution has not managed to produce a clear aesthetic nor anything like a cultural vanguard, as did the Soviet, Mexican and Cuban revolutions.”
So, culturally speaking, is the Bolivarian revolution just a bluff? Definitely not. Sesto made a complete inventory of the artistic heritage in all the country’s museums. He must be credited with reviving the editorial and film sectors, as well as the project for creating an Arts University.
Nevertheless, a large part of the potential for renovation has been misspent on mendacious diatribes against elitism, while codifying a dangerous type of control over the contents of artistic production, thus creating fertile terrain for authoritarianism. Much of the problem stems from the notion that everything prior to the revolution ought to be erradicated, an irrational viewpoint held by many. And there is also the trap of defining what is “culturally revolutionary” in terms of antagonism towards dissidents. If all dissidence against the chavista establishment is counterrevolutionary or reactionary, then “culturally revolutionary” means the culture that backs this establishment. Statism, bureaucratism, and authoritarianism have emerged from the combination of these two erroneous visions, devouring good intentions for inclusion and making slogans such as “The people are culture” and “The revolution of the conscience” even more ironic.
All in all, the contradiction between grandiose plans and poor delivery leads to the inescapable conclusion that the centralist vision has led to atrophy of cultural policy.
Paradoxically, the market has reacted quickly to this situation. During this time of diminishing state art production, several private art centers have opened, and commercial theatre is enjoying a boom. It is doubly ironic that the market is rapidly gaining ground that used to be almost exclusively the state’s and that the cultural offerings are concentrated mainly in the wealthy section of town, rather than the western shanty towns.
Some alternative centers have emerged, such as ONG, a self-determined conglomerate of minorities founded by artist and cultural activist Nelson Garrido. Garrido, who comes from an anarchist background, is critical of the lack of cultural policy under Chávez, “I can’t wax nostalgic about the period prior to Chávez, but I must admit that though I was censoredin the past, there existed bastions of democracy where one could do things...Today there is only destruction of what once existed.” Garrido founded ONG in 2003 at the height of the confrontation between government and opposition, when many artists took sides. His aim was a center for creative and intellectual growth independent from political strife.
ONG (a clever acronym in Spanish that can be read as Non-Governmental Organization or Organization Nelson Garrido) is located in a small house to the southwest of the city and functions as a study center, artistic laboratory, residence and exhibition gallery. It has become a refuge for many artists who do not adapt to the Culture Ministry’s centralized apparatus or the myriad of private galleries and art centers that have floursihed recently in Caracas, such as the Trasnocho, Periférico and CorpBanca.
The appearance of this type of open space for freewheeling ideological and aesthetic debate is healthy. But only up to a certain point, since, as Garrido points out, these spaces are for minorities. Attendance at openings in the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo was 5,000, but in these places, it’s less than 500.
Although cultural access has always been an unfulfilled aspiration, the founders of pre-Chávez cultural institutions worked for thirty years to promote artistic and intellectual plurality. Curiously, present-day cultural administrators have the notion that it’s necessary to do away with plurality in order to increase access and revolutionize consciousness. Their only coherent vision has been to construct a new hegemony based exclusively on revolutionary belonging. Venezuela is not the Soviet Union, but this hegemony has had victims: talent, critical capacity and efficiency. This is profoundly anti-democratic and goes against the very nature of the inclusion the government says it seeks.
In other words, the government’s populist doctrine is inclusion and its practice exclusion. And the real problem is that the doctrine has been slowly percolating into the collective consciousness until it seems unquestionable, but there has been no collective questioning of the government’s cultural practice. So far, its words speak louder than its deeds.
It is frightening to think what the next generation’s cultural legacy will be.
Boris Muñoz studied Latin American literature at Rutgers University and has been a fellow at the Frontera Institute del Dartmouth College. On returning to Venezuela, he was the editor in chief of Nueva Sociedad. He currently teaches Venezuelan Literature and Culture at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and is editor of the magazine Exceso. His most recent book is Despachos del Imperio, Random House Mondadori (2007).