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Is Hispanic Art Non-European? : HISPANIC ART IN THE UNITED STATES by John Beardsley and Jane Livingston with an essay by Octavio Paz (Abbeville: $45; 260 pp., illustrated)

September 20, 1987|Margarita Nieto | Nieto is an art and literary critic and a frequent contributor to Artweek on Latino art. An associate professor at Cal State Northridge, she recently completed an interview with the Mexican painter, Rufino Tamayo

Since the late '60s, Latino art in the United States has gone from the street and public art muralist movements into the mainstream of contemporary American art. As a response to the American political scene of that period and of the decade that followed, the Latino murals of Chicago, San Antonio, San Diego and Los Angeles were didactic and strongly ideological, often depicting the realities of recent political struggles and the need for social justice. Through a translation of the symbolic language of pre-Columbian and Native American myth and tradition, they created an awareness of the presence and scope of Latino artists usually identified with specific collectives. As a result, the RCAF (Royal Chicano Air Force), Los Four, ASCO, were names better known than those of Jose Montoya, Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz or Gronk. As a partial response to the need for more personal self-expression, many artists identified with the collective muralist movement returned to studio work in the late '70s and '80s, and to exhibitions in museums and private galleries while continuing to record the social and cultural experience of Latino life in the iconography of their work. This handsomely produced catalogue, the most ambitious effort to date at documenting art produced in the United States by Latinos, accompanies an exhibition that opened in May at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Scheduled for Washington, Florida, New Mexico, Mexico City, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, it focuses on the studio work of 30 contemporary painters and sculptors.

The usage of the umbrella term Hispanic , to include contemporary artists whose work has not been associated with Latino art such as Robert Graham and Manuel Neri, along with Cesar Martinez, Luis Jimenez, and John Valadez, artists whose work is intimately connected with the sociocultural constructs of Latino art brings up one of the more problematic issues in this publication in terms of its context and purpose. What was the criteria used for selecting the artists represented in this book? What constitutes a contemporary Hispanic artist or sculptor? It is a problem that is discussed in part in an essay written specifically for the catalogue, by the brilliant Mexican poet-essayist, Octavio Paz, entitled "Art and Identity: Hispanic Art in the United States."

The term Hispanic embodies both bureaucratic an cultural meanings. It is first of all, an ethnic term useful to (and many Latinos would assert, invented by) the bureaucratic establishment at both the state and federal level and largely ignored by the Latino community itself. While an accepted term in Mexico and Latin America, it has a more literal significance north of the border, inherently defining a relationship closer to the Spanish heritage of the Latin American than to the indigenous or Native American heritage. This difference in perspective is strongly evident in Paz's essay, which he begins by saying that:

"Concerning the term Hispanic: What should we call the various Spanish-American communities living in the United States--the Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Central Americans, and so on? It seems to me that the most common term, Hispanics, covers all of them in their complex unity."

Paz then goes on to discuss the question of names as a sign of recognition of a particular community or society, not as a means of inventing one, and then goes on to speak of the amalgamate of American society as one that developed from the European or Western tradition. Within it, the Hispanic minority is in "marked and violent contrast to cultural homogeneity" given its Spanish, Indian, black, mestizo and mulatto diversity. While recognizing these markedly non-Western tenets of Latino culture in this country, Paz still continues to treat the Hispanic minority as a "variant of Western civilization."

This perspective is critical because the Latino art movement had sought a return to indigenous and Native American roots as a means of gaining a conscious understanding of self-identity. This interpretation of the phenomenon as an emanation of the Western tradition refutes or at best, mis-reads that sense of purpose as well as the pictoric language of many of the artists included in the catalogue, based as they are on non-Western symbols, iconography, style and sense of color.

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