From “Xican@ Demiurge: Chicano Art Today?”
by Mark Vallen
Historically, the Mexican American population in the western states of the U.S. endured the pains of a suffocating discrimination. In the mid-1960s, they rose to claim equality with the larger society, a struggle that entailed the right of self-identification – leading to the use of the term, “Chicano.” As a cultural identity and signifier of ethnic pride, “Chicano” is today more or less accepted by the mainstream, though the term is still evolving. Currently a number of Chicanos spell the word with an “X”, connecting their identity to ancient indigenous roots – in the Nahuatl language, the Aztecs called themselves Mexica (pronounced: meh-Shee-ka). Also, the gendered structure of the Spanish language has been rejected by some, who favor the written plural forms “Chicano/a” or “Chican@”.
Now that those basic facts have been made somewhat clear, allow me to open another can of worms – exactly what is Chicano art and how shall it be defined? Xican@ Demiurge attempts to form a definition, but as a survey it is stilted and woefully incomplete, in part because it’s extremely difficult to present the totality of Chicano aesthetics with a single exhibit. Chicano art necessarily arose from the tumultuous 60’s as a combative aesthetic in opposition to a system of racial, cultural, and political oppression – a cultural renaissance that took place concurrently with the Mexican American community’s political awakening. The California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives of the University of Santa Barbara, California (CEMA), describes the aesthetic in the following manner: “Chicano art is a public and political art, proclaiming and expressing public and social concerns in its themes and subjects.” That is not a description I’m inclined to argue against, though in all fairness it is one in need of further elaboration.
In their curatorial statement, the organizers of Xican@ Demiurge wrote: “Art that is innovative and aggressive in its approach is critical to developing a contemporary aesthetic that is representative of the 21st Century Xican@ artist. The cultural climate influencing this particular group today is not the same as the one that triggered ‘El Movimiento Chicano’ of the 1960’s.”
I’m left wondering how the art presented in this exhibit could be considered “aggressive in its approach”, unless the direction is one of insistent self-absorption, political retreat and apathy. The curators of Xican@ Demiurge take pains to point out that conditions currently facing Chicanos are not those of the 60s, which is true enough – but this seems an excuse not to address current realities more than anything else. Of the twenty-one artists in the exhibit, only one displayed a work addressing an overt political issue – and that attempt was not very engaging. The show nearly exists in a vacuum, as if one million Latinos did not march in the streets of Los Angeles to protest repressive immigration laws on May 1st, 2006, or that Latinos in the U.S. armed forces are not being wounded and killed in huge numbers in the pointless occupation of Iraq. The powerful tradition of Chicano art as an irrepressible force for social justice is almost nowhere to be found in this exhibit.