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language, this probably could simply be called directness. Both clearly ad-
dressed a specific public in an effort to raise consciousness to a maximum level
of clarity and understanding. The Tupamaros were all-encompassing in this; Ro-
drguez tried to cover as much as was possible in his time.
Rodrguez published many of his works in newspapers, which at that time
(the early nineteenth century) were both a tool for dissemination and a vehicle
for addressing a tiny literate segment of the population. Both Rodrguez and the
Tupamaros had a utopian view of society as perfectible and capable of nurturing
mature and healthy individuals within a collective structure. It was typical of
the spirit of socialist democracy, as distinct from that of liberal democracy, in
which society is viewed as no more than an accumulation of individual atoms.
In the case of Rodrguez, his socialist position was influenced by Jean-Jacques
Rousseau and by his opposition to Spanish tyranny. In the case of the Tupa-
maros, it was based on a socialist vision distanced from the Soviet Union and
drawn from local reality, and on opposition to the oligarchy that owned what
they called democracy at the time.

The Tupamaros
My classification of the Tupamaro operations as artistic events is not casual or
of recent origin. It first occurred to me in 1969, when I was in a meeting with stu-
dents and faculty of the School of Fine Arts in Montevideomy former peers
and colleaguesand we were discussing the state of the school, which I found
to be very deteriorated compared with what we had achieved with curricular re-
forms before I had left Uruguay five years earlier. The country was already a de
facto dictatorship, although legally it only became one in 1973. I found myself
suggesting then that the presence of the Tupamaro form of guerrilla warfare,
with its unusually high creative component, was important enough to merit and
demand profound reevaluation and changes in the schools curriculum, not in
terms of activism, which would have been irresponsible, but with regard to the
analysis of art historical issues and the approach to creation. The discussion was
heated and to some degree unfriendly to my position. Sometime before, and to
the embarrassment of the school, one of the sculpture teachers had turned out
to be a leader in the Tupamaro movement and was summarily fired after being
arrested for bank robbery.
Later that year I pushed my point further, referring to the Tupamaro guerrilla
operations as the only worthwhile Latin American aesthetic contribution to the
history of art. I felt that the Tupamaros showed that the utilization of creativity,

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usually reserved for art, to affect cultural structures through social and political
ones was possible and already happening. The system of reference in this situa-
tion was decidedly alien to the traditional art-reference systems, but the opera-
tions of the group were functioning through expressions that contributed to a
total structure change while maintaining a high density of aesthetic content. For
the first time, the aesthetic message was understandable as such, without the
help of the art context given by the museum or the gallery. The message was
going directly from the object to the situation, from the elitist legality to sub-
version.3
Several years later, I continued to elaborate on this thought with the idea that
the Tupamaros had, with their operations, created the only work of art that man-
aged to deeply change the political consciousness of the people and, probably,
the only political work that succeeded in establishing parameters for aesthetic
perception in Latin America. Even if the history of art would never register these
events, in a free Uruguay, in whatever future, the teaching of art should not be
possible without this information.4
On each of the three occasions mentioned above, I had what I saw as firm
ground on which to base my arguments, but I also believed that pressing the
point to an extreme had value. So, each time I dealt with this topic, I went a little
further. Today, armed with a more subtle historical perspective, and with some
of the old partisanship now subdued, I am going to revisit the arguments and try
to find a way to preserve their usefulness.
What the Tupamaros did, beyond their political agenda and without any art
historical ambition, was to set in motion the breakdown of the boundaries that
kept isolating art from life. Institutional critique and the fight for change were
blended into actions that made the art object an obsolete vessel. Unlike the tradi-
tional avant-gardes, the Tupamaros did not stop at a definition of art in institu-
tional terms. To be more accurate, they didnt even bother with that idea, despite
having former art students and artists among them. Instead, they went directly
to the activation of creative processes in nonartistic arenas. Their work, there-
fore, made clear how artificial the frontiers are that define and delimit the artis-
tic commodity. The relation between art and politics was made to seem entirely
natural and mutually supportive. The Tupamaro guerrilla movement was no
more focused on art than any other movement of its kind envisioning a social
revolution, but in their development they came as close as could be to erasing
the line that separates politics from art.
I dont believe it was a coincidence that the activities of the Tupamaros devel-
oped in a parallel fashion to those of the Latin American conceptualists in art,

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who in their own realm were consciously trying to erase the limits imprisoning
traditional art and to secure freedom by another route. With frontiers of thought
and perception under siege and beginning to crumble, mutual leakage between
art and politics was unavoidable, especially since Latin American art was always
strongly oriented toward content, and content was easily politicized. Often par-
alleling thoughts of the French Situationists as they influenced the student re-
bellions in Paris in 1968, the Tupamaros were able to go a step further and fully
enter the praxis.

Simn Rodrguez
My first encounter with the body of writings by Simn Rodrguez (17691854)
took place during the early 1980s. It was then that I started to find citations of
his aphoristic statements that seemed extremely precise. As early as 1828 he had
given a warning that, even today, we have not completely acknowledged:

We have been fastidiously citing facts of the same species and doing it by im-
itation of what others had done by ignorance, [just] to prove that we have stud-
ied history well.5

And, speaking of those of his countrymen who faithfully copied European direc-
tives, he challenged:

Let them imitate originality, since they try to imitate everything! 6

Figure 1.1. Simn Rodrguez, O Inventamos o Erramos (Either We Invent or We


Fail), Obras completas, 1:343.

Rodrguez is revered in Venezuela more because he was Simn Bolvars tutor


than for his own work. In the rest of Latin America, he is practically unknown.
Rodrguez initially seduced me just with his ideas, but, as I found out later, he
had also developed a very particular visual structure for his writings, which an-
ticipated the formal developments worked out by Mallarm by about seven
decades. Given his relative obscurity, his work certainly cannot be taken as a
causal link in the cultural process leading to conceptualism. But the formal tex-

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Figure 1.2. Simn Rodrguez, En la monarqua (In Monarchy), Obras


completas, 1:231.

tual devices he used to give more precision to the communication of his ideas,
added to his use of his writings as a tool for struggle and resistance, certainly par-
allel and presage those of later Latin American conceptualists.
These two examples allowed me to look at Latin American conceptualism in
a different way. Until now, Latin American conceptualism was linked to the
European Arte Povera and the North American conceptualist movements and,
with some juggling of the dates, had been classified as their belated offspring.
However, the idiosyncratic character of the Latin American version, particularly
in its interrelation with the ethical and political reality, makes this lineage
fragile, incidental, and oppressive. One of the latters most relevant aspects, de-
institutionalization, barely appears in the rhetoric. Most conceptualist move-
ments claim de-institutionalization as a big deal, but the definitions are mostly
local and nontransferable. The term often refers only to de-institutionalizing art
itself or its organizations. Here we are talking about something much deeper, an
effort to seriously and radically change society, wherein museums and galleries
are just small symptomatic manifestations of the problem.

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Obviously, in a disciplinary sense, neither Simn Rodrguez nor the Tupa-


maros are part of a history of Latin American conceptualism, but they are inci-
dental to its understanding. One is an example of creative pedagogy, and the
others show how to put into action creative and active resistance. I want them
to illuminate my arguments within the same regional tradition.
Conceptualism (as a separate term from conceptual art) challenges not
only aesthetics but also the attitude toward the role of artthe ways of produc-
ing it and its intended impact. This means that two ruptures have to be dis-
cussed, not just one. Of these ruptures, one is formal and the other institutional,
and each has different historical significance. Hegemonic art history has not yet
managed to keep these differences apart. The confusion becomes particularly
problematic when conceptual art is used as an example of mainstream rupture
from modernism. Chilean critic Nelly Richard warned about the use of these
rupturist dynamics of the new to analyze art history in Latin America. In both
mainstream and Latin American modernism, these dynamics are based on a Eu-
ropean present that defines past and future according to a dominant idea of
progress that was validated as a canon without considering the periphery.7
It was a mixture of miscellaneous forms of resistance that defined identity
in the Latin American tradition; therefore, the rupture in attitudes was less
significant.

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