Monday, 24 June 2013

Elitism for all

Eszter Szabó, Our Lady, 2012 (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

And suddenly, in less than a week, there were three different posts on Facebook, written by three different people, referring to three different situations, but with a common underlying question: cultural elitism.

First, cultural programmer António Pinto Ribeiro criticized poet Herberto Helder's publisher who announced that the poet's latest book would be a unique and limited edition. He considered this to be an offensive marketing campaign, an arrogant decision, little dignifying for all those involved. Someone commented that this was probably the poet's option – feeling uncomfortable for becoming very fashionable and wishing to turn his books into less accessible objects. António Pinto Ribeiro reaffirmed his criticism (read the post here).

A couple of days later, art critic Alexandre Pomar wrote about popular contemporary artist Joana Vasconcelos – Portugal's representative at the Venice Biennale - and the fierce attacks and critiques she has received from many in the field. He talked about the rejection of any art work that has public impact, popular success, a place in the international market. He also referred to the subordination to a clique which reserves the right to dictate what is quality contemporary art and administers the “Great Divide” (scholarly vs. of the masses; avant-guarde vs. popular, cultured vs. uncultured; high vs low). In his conclusion, Alexandre Pomar states: “If there is a traumatic relationship with Joana and her art it´s because she moves powerful tensions (and pulses).” (read the post here)

Two days later, journalist Paula Moura Pinheiro shared her amusement with the fact that the most popular news in the “Culture” section of a big newspaper was Michael Douglas sharing information on his throat cancer having been caused by oral sex… She went on to comment on a reigning confusion of categories, on mixing entertainment (interesting for the many) with arts and thinking (interesting for the few). She wrote that all too often she had difficulties in convincing decision makers in TV and radio stations that it was bad service to present in the same programme the premiere of the latest Zorro film and Herberto Hélder's (here he is again) latest book. “It bores those who fancy Zorro, who, in many cases, couldn't care less about poetry, and it turns away Herberto's lovers.” (read the post here)

I was still thinking about these three posts and the issues they raised when a friend sent me a text by writer José Luís Peixoto, called Luta das Classes (Struggle of Classes). In it, he basically shared his conviction that his work only makes sense when there is a receiver on the other side. Thus, he tries to make sure it gets as widely promoted as possible: he owes it to himself and his conviction in what he chose to say; but he also does it out of respect for the people who wish to read him.  Journalist Vitor Belanciano commented on this text and stated that, although he has both liked and disliked works by José Luís Peixoto and Herberto Hélder (here he is again), and although he respects Hélder´s silence, he identifies more with Peixoto in his efforts to make his work as widely available as possible, being criticized for doing so (a vision Vitor Belanciano considers to be elitist, narrow and provincial). A couple of comments on his wall stated: “You are comparing the incomparable” (the commentator missed the point…); “How can you talk in the same paragraph and on the same terms about José Luís Peixoto and Herberto Hélder!?”. (How did he “dare”, indeed…?). (read the post here)

I work in cultural communications. My aim is to share information, provoke interest, help people make decisions, create access. Ultimately, my aim is to contribute towards pushing people´s boundaries further, challenging them, comforting them, enriching their lives and feeding their thinking. More than once I had to deal with artists that would refuse or wouldn´t bother giving information that would help promote their project, from a simple summary to an interview (funny enough, this is almost never the case when they haven´t got a fee secured in their pocket but their payment depends on ticket sales…).These artists often made me think: “Who are they doing it for? Their friends and relatives? And if it is so, is it OK when they do it with public money?”.

But I am also a 'consumer' myself. One who likes both “Bridget Jones” and the poetry of Kavafi; one who knows a bit about classical music and feels totally inadequate when in the presence of people who know everything about the pop or indie music scene; one who doesn´t like video games, although they´re part of MOMA´s collection; one who has left contemporary art exhibitions in fury because some “cultured” curator thought that I was as “cultured” as he/she was and that I wouldn´t need any kind of explanation or contextualization (or who probably thought that if I wasn´t “cultured” enough I shouldn't be there at all); one who would feel offended and deeply irritated if a favourite writer chose to publish a limited edition of his/her latest work because he/she doesn't enjoy being “popular”.

I've seen quality and I´ve seen crap in all sorts of “high” and “low” cultural and artistic expressions, in all sorts of “popular” and “not-so-popular” art works. I admire those people who don´t categorize, who adopt a more cosmopolitan approach in their consumption of culture and critique of the arts, who are not against elitism, but defend “elitism for all”. And I am grateful to those (friends, colleagues, curators, artists, writers, journalists) who have shown me new things, who have shared and communicated their work and their views, who have helped me understand, who allowed me to discover the “unsafe” when I was after the “safe”, who have pushed my boundaries further and who have given me the space and confidence to talk about what I like and what I don´t like without fear and complexes.

More on this blog

Further reading
Vitor Belanciano, Herberto ou Peixoto (Público, 23.6.2013)
Emer O´Kelly, The case for elitism. The Arts Council, Ireland
John Holden, Culture and Class


jose mateus said...

É mesmo só para dizer que concordo inteiramente e me identifico com o que acaba de escrever. José Mateus

Maria Vlachou said...

Obrigada, José. Um abraço