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Notes on the Art, Identity and Poverty of the Third World

Keith piper, Recycling Liberty, 1989 at “Tres Mundos” (“Three Worlds”), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Courtesy the artist. Photography: Luis Camnitzer.

Rather than offering a specific proposal, this text will attempt to set up a working list of topics around the idea of the arts in the Third World, by raising a range of questions and suggestions. Many of these have been floating in the realm of social theory about Latin American arts at least since the early 1970s, but at the brink of the 1990s they still haven’t been formulated in a sufficiently concrete manner. The main question here is: what do we stand for collectively, within and outside of visual production? In other words, what unites us despite the obvious differences?


The term ‘Third World arts’ partly has to do with the notion that social groupings with shared problems can come to similar creative formulas, and partly with the idea that it is possible to find common social denominators within the creative diversity of many cultures. These two ideas have similarities, and could even seem to complement each other, but at heart they are very different and have to do with opposing views in public opinion about what exactly the Third World is. This depends on the viewer’s position. Seen from afar, the crafts from vast regions of Africa and the Americas seem to have more features in common than differences, but actually within these cultures it is possible that an observer finds nothing but differences between the arts from two neighbouring locales, both geographically and in formal terms. With regard to how Third World matters can be considered, there is an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’. The term ‘Third World’ has been used since World War II predominantly to refer to a collectivity of poor countries, the differences between them not being as important as their distance with respect to First and Second World countries. This also has to do with the notion of a common situation within the Third World, a view rooted in theories that see primitive art as the expression of a shared savage mind. The idea that the differences between the arts in the Third World are about geographical rather than historical difference arises from this: a determinism of what is natural and an indeterminism of what is historical.

But in the last few decades a second vision of the Third World has been emerging, one in which the differences among its members are substantial, especially in cultural terms. This view is supported by the recognition of the true relationship of the Third World to history, the acknowledgement of the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggle and, in the case of theory, the overcoming of a mechanistic perspective according to which there is a single path of development for all social formations. It is necessary within the definition of Third World culture to account for the differences between the arts of the various continents, of different cultural traditions, of the various ways in which internal and external issues are articulated – tribes, communities and so forth. I must stress that if people are to be liberated politically and economically, we must be invested in their existence as a large global community; if they are to be liberated within an intellectual and artistic realm, we should discuss their differences, like an archipelago of diversity.

As Juan Acha wrote in 1975, ‘We are aware of the socioeconomic and cultural marginalisation of large demographic sectors of our Third World, and there are plenty of projects and doctrines that aim to eradicate it. But we still have not accepted our psychological diversity.’ 01 Perhaps we haven’t done so precisely because discovering our political-economic identity was the more urgent task during the period of decolonisation and of the struggles for national liberation. However, over nearly 45 years we have seen that the wretched of the earth are nowadays not all wretched for the same reasons, or with the same identity. While in some Third World countries the arts have been making efforts to completely assimilate Paris’s or New York’s elusive modernity, in others they have been struggling to survive, in a drama of misunderstandings that often happens within the same country, or even the same city – as has happened within my own.02 In the past we were almost exclusively interested in our shared identity; today we are equally interested in the propagation of difference, 03 understood above all as difference between oppressed peoples, given that the difference between the opulent sectors in the great Third World capitals and the poorest in our countries cannot be understood as part of the solution, but of the problem.

Seen from the outside, the term ‘Third World’ seemed too broad for our group of countries; looking from the inside out, the term was too narrow. Our thinking about artistic production has followed the evolution of our thinking about what the Third World means as a social space. Our thinking about the relation between tradition and modernity has followed that evolution, in the trajectory of a power relation in the use of history and in the creation of consensus with regard to the direction of predominant social expectations. This is why it is not surprising that today, when Third Worldism is faltering as an instrument of analysis and tool for action, both within and beyond art, the tradition/modernity antinomy is also in crisis.

But if the concept of the Third World as a collectivity more or less arbitrarily defined from the outside, on the one hand, and the tradition/modernity antinomy, on the other, are both under attack, the idea that poverty is the common denominator between most world societies and cultures today is, in contrast, alive and well. This idea has been particularly fruitful when reflecting on our countries’ artistic production, and it has allowed us to observe our different creativities in clearer light.

A conventional view of the arts of our countries located that which was connected to dominant and modernising sectors – what is today called ‘high art’ – on the same developmentalist platform as other social manifestations. And that which originated in oppressed sectors with marginal representation within capitalism – that is, crafts or so-called ‘primitive arts’ – became automatically associated with the traditional. The fate of the art of the Third World was to catch up with the evolution of the field in the central markets, and craft’s fate was to languish, disappear or lose its character, to die on the altar of modernity. Even those theoretical perspectives on the problem that were politically or governmentally involved in the protection of the exploited sectors did not take into account the historical nature of all aesthetic categories. And, in a reversal of the Marxist defence of art from ancient Greece, nor was there a historical interest in the culture of the colonial periphery.

In Latin America, the Marxist and Eurocentric view of art, imported in the 1920s and 30s, has only begun to change in the last quarter of the century. This view, and the kind of extra-methodological radicalism it produced, helped to maintain conservative conceptions of art – the same conceptions that have since shaped theory around the topic in Latin America. Nevertheless, the real process of radicalisation – that is, the shift in consciousness among a sector of the producers – culminated in a questioning of established ideas about the arts in the Latin American continent.

The first idea to be dismissed was the notion of a supposed lag with respect to European and North American artistic developments; the second was that creative efforts in the Third World could cancel that supposed lag. At the same time, the idea arose that art considered to be traditional has legitimate claims to contemporaneity. At the beginning of the 1970s it became increasingly apparent that in the art markets modernity equalled novelty, a monopoly view from the cultural centres that founded and defined it as a single, irreversible trend – and that did not take into account a single Third World art market. This is what Marta Traba defined and criticised as an exacerbation of consumption, the dismissal of art as a fiction and ‘the terrorism of the avant-garde’ – manifestations of alienation from the outside world that she opposed to an ‘art of resistance’ that she saw in the work of a group of Latin American artists (Fernando de Szyszlo, Enrique Zañartu, José Luis Cuevas, Armando Reverón and so forth). 04 In my view these artists are concerned with the conscious or unconscious reproduction in their respective countries of the nationalist lesson of pre-Revolution Mexico, rather than with keeping up to date with developments from the North. Implicit in Traba’s claim is a change in the axis of development away from the international to the national-regional, and the first relativisation in several decades of notions of modernity and tradition. I will not focus here on chronicling the limitations of this resistance as the paradigm for the development of art in Latin America.

The next step in the evolution of thought on art and the Third World was the first (and last) Bienal Latinoamericana de São Paulo in 1978, dedicated to the myths and magic of the continent. That event, inspired and developed in consultation with Juan Acha, is perhaps the most direct predecessor of this [the third] Bienal de La Habana. The Bienal de São Paulo, which was always at the forefront of the modernisation and internationalisation of art in Latin America, took the opportunity to reverse this tendency and to open the doors to artistic production defined in conventional terms as more traditional and less modernising. It was there that Mario Pedrosa, in a symposium contribution titled ‘Arte de retaguardia’ [‘Rearguard Art’], claimed that the arts from our countries basically elaborate ‘infinite variations around a single historical phenomenon characterising our entire continent: misery, the first move towards a Latin American unity’. 05

The notion of poverty as the key to our identity brings us, finally, to the centre of our analysis of arts in the Third World. Our goal is to reflect on how the infinite modes of poverty that afflict us affect artistic production, distribution, consumption and representation. I am here referring to the misery, defined in terms of access to nutrition and services, that surrounds the world of crafts production, both rural and urban. But also to a ‘social’ poverty, defined in terms of awareness and production resources, that surrounds efforts to shape markets and artistic movements of international relevance in poor societies where a minority wallows in abundance. Reversing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quotation, we could say that we poor are different because we have been taught that our identity is a limitation, and vice versa, of course. Since the mid-1970s a significant part of the discourse about art from the continent concerns the meaning of historical specificity for artistic production, 06 a view clearly different from the so-called Marxist aesthetic constructed on ‘European universals’. 07

Some fundamental evidence has emerged from those critical efforts to understand the art of the Third World today and the new relationship between tradition and modernity in Latin American art discourse:

a)  The introduction of social and historical analysis into the study of current and past art has shown that the essentially subordinate relationship between dominant and dominated art markets cannot change, neither in its material nor in its representational aspects, through activism or even revolt of artists within these societies. In fact, that relationship has been promoted through this very path, adopting new faces for a new reality.

b)  More detailed studies on what national contexts mean as a framework for artistic creation have shown that the relationship between systems of artistic production (art, craft, primitive art) has considerably changed over the past few decades. The evolution of these interrelated systems is not parallel but convergent, and its articulation can be seen as originating from the common base of conflicting social relationships that the national framework poses in the Third World. Class confrontations and developments play a determining role in the formation of national spaces for art.

c)  Following on from the two previous points, not only has the tradition/ modernity antinomy come into crisis, but also the antinomy between the cultured and the popular, stemming from the bankruptcy of the thought that circumscribed the popular to the traditional. We are therefore facing a ‘crisis of modernity’ in the art context and a ‘crisis of traditionalism’ in the popular arts.

d)  The patterns of change in crafts, an artistic area that was previously considered to be stagnant or bound to decadence, are increasingly apparent. These processes of change not only refer to a dissolution into art and industry, but also to a transformation within the framework of dominated cultures that manage to change themselves while maintaining their core identity, that succeed in sketching out a modernity that is popular without becoming proletarian.

e)  A growing familiarity with the mechanisms that define art’s relevance on a global scale has led us to assign increasing importance to horizontal relationships between artistic manifestations in Third World countries, as an alternative to the historical mediation that European and North American cultural institutions created for their own benefit.

In all these changes, what we have generically termed ‘poverty’ acts as a way of establishing a Third World-specific space of artistic production. Without a doubt, national and cultural spaces still have specific means of defining particularities, but we feel that these shared characteristics are only the first level of a generalisation, one which applies to Latin America as well as Africa and Asia. To sum up these dynamics with a single encompassing concept, I would say that we are witnessing the end of the period in which the

modernisation of Third World culture (since the beginning of the century) and art (since World War II) has been defined as a pursuit of cosmopolitanism. After abandoning this search for cosmopolitanism (the idea from which the contemporary and the traditional have been defined), there must come a period of mutual acknowledgment between the arts of countries afflicted by poverty – that is, a heightened awareness of the diversity of our arts. We still do not have appropriate tools for this new exploration, one that must help create a suitable intersubjectivity, but it is apparent that this is a key task for social theory of the arts in the years to come. 08


The relationship between art and poverty revolves, as I have already pointed out, around the influence of socioeconomic issues in the evolution of the process of creation. But it is also about representation: the way art of the Third World shows or instead obscures, defines or confuses, the forms and experiences of poverty, and how aesthetic ideologies take part in these processes. For a view that understands representation as an ‘ideology of images’, it is clear that the arts of poor countries – whether ‘high’ or popular – have neither as their key concern, nor as a significant one, the representation of this situation. In the fine arts, the search for modernity has been complementary to the discourse around the limits of the medium itself, which has even been seen as a path towards overcoming an alleged lag. In the remaining forms of artistic production, its two main destinies – use by the poor themselves or sale in markets for tourists and other social classes – have not fostered representations of the realm of poverty; representations that, depending on the audience, could appear as redundant or subversive. In many instances, such as in Peruvian crafts, the drive towards the documentation of poverty or towards protest has avoided for centuries the relatively permanent forms of art, and has instead flourished in music, dance and the fiesta, understood as ‘lightning meetings’ within a dominated culture.

On the other hand, it is important to add, as Gustavo Buntinx says, that poverty as we know it today in the context of the Third World is a creation of modernity, in both senses of the word ‘creation’: the result of a practice and the ideology of a situation that is defined in relation to the prosperity of the other. The type of representation that I am referring to here has developed in the Third World in parallel to the increase in the difference between those who have and those who have not. It is hard to consider the autochthonous figures depicted in the naturalist engravings from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries as poor by definition. They still belong to a time in which the semantic partner of ‘native’ was ‘natural’, not ‘poor’. Similarly, the producers, African or American, of the so-called primitive forms that inspired Pablo Picasso or Paul Klee are not considered poor. In contrast, the visual protagonists of the nationalist saga of the Third World throughout this century are all considered poor until the opposite is proven.

What I mean with the above is that, except for cases of stylistic pauperisation, poverty surrounds representation in an atmosphere that includes our own perceptions; and that, at the same time, one of the most remarkable effects of aesthetic ideology is its ability to make poverty disappear from our perception of representation. The idea behind this aesthetic-ideological game is that material poverty does not result in cultural poverty, and that consequently, in the area of creation, class differences are cancelled – they are proven not to determine the human condition. Mario Perniola has warned that aesthetics is the other side of poverty, and that art is the other side of economy. This situation is the expression and support of an ideology according to which the economically poor are rich in artistic forms. 09

Perhaps for this reason looking for poverty as the subject of representation is not as productive as searching for its effect over all aspects of artistic production; in other words, in the way it affects its practice and consciousness. The representation of the poor, a universal theme in the northern hemisphere from at least Pieter Breughel the Elder up to contemporary socialist realism, is not what characterises the art of our countries. The relationship between art and poverty has been studied by European criticism, including Marxist aesthetics, in a manner that is specific to that reality, for example accentuating the idea of the proletariat, and generally considering the proletarian to be distinct when viewed from a class perspective but not from a cultural perspective. 10 In the Third World the idea of poverty is the domain of variety, and it is normally addressed, in creation and in critique, in a rather oblique manner, with an emphasis on the idea of culture.

Today it is possible to find art movements everywhere that adopt the materials and dynamics of poverty. But in general the end result of aesthetic perspectives on poverty has been a beautification, or at least a separation from historical context. This has served complacent and indignant attitudes.


What has been said thus far leads us to the matter of tradition and the contemporary, which in art is closely linked to matters of repetition and innovation. Today two different debates exist on this axis. One directly relates to art and has to do with what is and what is not modern or traditional, and, within the somewhat taxonomic limits of these concerns, its outcome will be a redefinition of the idea of what is contemporary in creation. The other has to do with the crisis of modernity understood as the dominance of reason, of Western reason, 11 or of instrumental reason, 12 three positions that are clearly defined today. The implications of both debates for our topic is a questioning of the very dynamic of the system of artistic production in Third World countries, conceived as the growing separation of two poles, one traditional and the other modern.

For Néstor García Canclini, postmodernism in Latin American art consists of a ‘tumultuous co-presence’ of all styles, in a situation in which the market and mass media have overcome the boundaries between high culture and popular culture. 13 ‘It is not a new paradigm, but a peculiar kind of work about the ruins of modernity’ that existed until then, the main victim of which will be the power of the artist to act as the demiurge of meaning.

For Aníbal Quijano postmodernism proper does not exist; instead he identifies a debate between two forms of reason present in modernity, with irrationalism attempting to advance its position by taking advantage of that fissure. These two forms of reason are instrumental reason and emancipating reason, and for Quijano Latin American history since pre-European times is one of the important sources of the emancipating reason whose main stage has been Europe.

The prevailing idea until now has been that only art can innovate, and that the artisanal, primitive and traditional are static. In this way the Western- art-modernity conceptual complex has been perceived since the beginning of colonial times as the most powerful directional force of Third World cultural efforts, in opposition or as complement to the conceptual complex of underdevelopment-craftsmanship-tradition. Today, two key ideas of this separation in the arts, established in a rudimentary way by European art history, are in crisis, since the benefits of the avant-garde ethic developed in the nineteenth century are now in question, 14 and non-capitalist art can no longer be viewed as a stage on which no significant historical transformations take place, either in the past or present. 15 Innovations in craftsmanship and the crisis in the relation of art to the idea of modernity that sustains it in our countries are today the central axes in the debate around art of the Third World. The characteristics of this debate differ according to the colonial domination in each country. In regions where colonisation profoundly affected the development of local cultures (Latin America, North Africa), modernity tried to reproduce itself as a space that was alternative to the traditional; wherever local cultures were able to withstand the most pernicious effects of colonisation because of their density and demography (China, India), 16 modernity has attempted to ally itself with the traditional. Both of these processes were long, almost as old as colonialism, and with many intermediate stages. Discussing his country’s painting, Lang Shaojun critiques the first Chinese modernisers of this century for being ‘purists that underestimated the assimilating powers of traditional art’. For him, since 1919, the year of the May Fourth Movement, ‘the issue of innovation revolved around controversy and experimentation, with respect to whether it was appropriate to learn from the experience of Western painting and how to do so’. 17 Lang has solid faith in the ability of Chinese tradition to benefit from Western modernity without losing anything essential in the process, something that does not seem justified by the reality of that difficult encounter.

In contrast to the Chinese situation, in the Latin American case the absence of an excluding self in opposition to the West (the Quechua ñojayku) is remarkable. While it was assumed that art brought in from the outside and acclimatised to the local culture could significantly contribute to innovation in these societies, nobody thought that the artisanal or primitive could benefit from that dynamic. To the contrary: the idea was that the transformation of the traditional would lead to its disappearance, as, unlike art, it lacked the ability to become something else. Perhaps this denial of change is the result of an unspoken awareness in Latin America that, for the poor, the culture that capitalism brings with it is proletarianisation.

Translated by Lupe Núñez-Fernández and Pablo Lafuente

Editors’ Note: This essay was first presented at the conference organised as part of the third Bienal de La Habana. It was first published in English in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.),  Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America , London and Cambridge, MA: Institute of International Visual Arts and The MIT Press, 1995, pp.327–36. A new translation is presented here.


  • Juan Acha, ‘La necesidad latinoamericana de redefinir el arte’, Eco: Revista de la Cultura de Occidente, vol.29, no.177, 1975, pp.244–64.
  • Editor’s Note: Lauer lives in Lima, Peru.
  • See Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, ‘La nueva presencia política de los indios: un reto a la creatividad latinoamericana’, Anuario Indigenista, vol.40, 1980, pp.165–91.
  • See Marta Traba, ‘El arte de la resistencia’, Eco: Revista de la Cultura de Occidente, no.181, 1975, pp.95–99.
  • Mario Pedrosa, ‘Variaçoes sem tema ou a arte de retaguardia’, in Documentos de la 1a Bienal Latinoamericana de Arte de São Paulo, São Paulo, vol.1, 1979.
  • See J. Acha, Arte y sociedad: Latinoamérica, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica (vol.1 and vol.2) and UNAM (vol.3), 1979–84; Ticio Escobar, Una interpretación de las artes visuales en el Paraguay, Asunción: Centro Cultural Paraguayo-Americano, 1982–84; Néstor García Canclini, Las culturas populares en el capitalismo, Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1982; Ferreira Gullar, Vanguarda y subdesemvolvimento, Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1973; Mirko Lauer, Introducción a la pintura peruana del S.XX, Lima: Mosca Azul Editores, 1976; M. Lauer, Crítica de la artesanía, Lima: Desco, 1982; Victoria Novelo, Artesanías y capitalismo en México, Mexico City: SEP-INAH, 1976; and Frederico Morais, Artes plásticas, a crise da hora atual, Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1975.
  • See Roger L. Taylor, Art, an Enemy of the People, Hassocks, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1978; M. Lauer, Crítica de la artesanía, op. cit.; and M. Lauer and Rita Eder, Teoría social del arte, Mexico City: UNAM, 1983.
  • See Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981, trans. Thomas McCarthy), Boston: Beacon Press, 1984 and 1987 (two volumes).
  • See Mario Perniola, L’alienazione artistica, Milan: Mursia, 1971.
  • See Clara Zetkin, ‘Kunst und Proletariat’, Neue Deutsche Literatur, no.3, 1955, pp.78–88.
  • See Mustafa Isrui, ‘Mezquita salvaje’, Hueso húmero, no.19, 1987, pp.121–24.
  • See Aníbal Quijano, Modernidad, identidad y utopía en América Latina, Lima:Sociedad y política ediciones, 1988.
  • See N. García Canclini, ‘El debate postmoderno en Iberoamérica’, Cuadernos hispanoamericanos, no.463, 1989, pp.79–82.
  • See Franco Moretti, ‘El encanto de la indecisión’, Hueso húmero, no.27, 1989, pp.59–68.
  • See M. Lauer, Crítica de la artesanía, op. cit.
  • See A. Quijano, Cultura y dominación, Lima: Mosca Azul Editores, 1981; and M. Lauer, Introducción a la pintura peruana del S.XX, op. cit.
  • See Lang Shaojun, ‘An Evaluation of Innovation in Chinese Painting’, Chinese Literature, Summer 1986, pp.173–88.