The Immense Seriousness of Art*

The Photographer and I like guided tours when we visit a new city. So much to see and we like the insights and background that only a resident can provide. For our second day in Buenos Aires, we spent half the day with an anthropologist from the university who took us on a graffiti art tour.

That might sound odd, but in Latin America, graffiti holds a position of cultural significance. It’s not vandalism; it’s art, politics, and criticism.+
Indeed, graffiti is so important that it is now frequently government-supported . . . which leads one to question whether free expression is being supported or co-opted.
Sponsorship is one way to control and de-legitimize content; that’s why The Directrice accepts no money from the National Endowment for the Arts, NIH, the tobacco manufacturers, Big Pharma, fossil fuel producers, for-profit health care corporations, the auto industry or the makers of Little Debby Nutty Bars

Let’s be optimists and assume that the government is acting purely in the public interest; artists have to eat!
Here, Claudia and I are looking at an example of pasting — the collaborative layering of graffiti and decoupage by several artists — in a corner of La Boca that is home to the city’s new cultural center.

In order to re-vitalize less visible parts of this historic neighborhood, the city has funded the painting of several large scale murals like this one.
Clearly some sort of permission is necessary to undertake a project of this scale.
Could not do this under cover of the night

This beautiful mural, showing folkloric figures, adorns the side of a very humble dwelling.
Folklore and mystical realism

In San Telmo, we visited two large scale works that I don’t imagine were government sponsored . . . but perhaps I am wrong.
This work critiques an economy built on the export of massive agricultural wealth — cattle — while there is poverty and hunger at home.
Argentina’s agricultural production is as varied and rich as that of the United States; they have everything!

His name is David
This massive-scale painting was created by projecting a photo on to the side of this dilapidated apartment house. The building is located on valuable property that could be converted to more profitable uses; strong local laws protect the tenants and this boy is one of them.

Not all street art is political.
Here, I am standing next to The B-Ghost: a dual-layered, metaphorical drawing representing the relegation of the River Plate by the Buenos Aires Boca Juniors. This is a very important soccer rivalry. Also, the relegation happened something like eight years ago.
Sport! It unites us and it rips us apart!
A ghost emblazoned with slash running through a B is the Buenos Aires equivalent of spray-painting “Yankees Suck” outside Fenway Park

We followed our street art tour with a trip to the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA).
I’ve probably said this before, but I love the atmosphere of art museums. Like churches and elementary schools, all museums feel a little similar when you step inside.
MALBA is a gem of a museum — a beautifully, purposefully curated collection of modern (late nineteenth, 20th century, and contemporary) Latin American art presented to demonstrate the unique sensibility that Latin American artists have brought to traditional fine arts.
The Photographer was particularly struck by this large scale sculpture — O impossivel — by Maria Martins, depicting her relationship with Marcel Duchamp.
This does not look like a healthy relationship to me

The Directrice appears to emerge from Illustration of Light by Antonio Dias.
We both liked this work, Illustration of Light, but instead of showing it to you properly, I am standing in front of it. We realized that my dress and the painting are the exact same color.

We were also transfixed by this experiential, installation work: Swimming Pool.
The Directrice is at the bottom of a swimming pool while the docent does nothing and The Photographer takes photos.
There’s no swimmin’ in this show**

Not submerged; not even trapped
It’s an illusion!
On the upper level, visitors believe they are looking at a deep swimming pool. In fact, the water is no more than a few inches deep and the illusion of depth is created by an empty chamber, painted blue, below a glass floor.

And now, one piece of (recycled) travel advice. Everyone smiles at a lady wearing a bright yellow dress. Wear one and everyone will be happy to see you.
Such a lady

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel in El Calafate — almost as far south as you can go in South America — and the music playing in the bar is Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing old standards. I love that this old recording is loved all over the world to this day. Imagine creating something that extraordinary.
* I always think of Christopher Newman and Benjamin Babcock (Henry James, The American) — who you could argue were perfectly-matched traveling companions, a mis-matched pair, or the uneasy halves of an ambivalent national identity — when I visit museums overseas.
+ Well, the B-Ghost is vandalism, but Claudia told us that any B.A. property owner would be pleased to see it on his house.
** Some of you may recognize this line; it’s from Waiting for Guffman.

15 thoughts on “The Immense Seriousness of Art*”

  1. Fascinating to compare this with Reykjavik – where ‘graffiti‘ murals are also common through the city centre, but I think are commissioned by the homeowner in many cases. No matter what their origin, I really enjoyed looking at them and felt they significantly added to the vibrancy of the city. My tour guide pointed out that this not only supported the artists, but also tended to reduce the incidence of amateur graffiti. Murals by some of the better-known artists are quite valuable.

  2. How did you come to find the graffiti tour? Something you read about on Trip Advisor?

    I’ve been meaning to ask, you and The P. have been to South Americia a couple of times. Are you fluent in Spanish?

    • The travel agency (Jacada Travel) who helped set up our trip arranged this tour for us.

      You honor me, Rose AG to suggest that I might have the capacity to speak a foreign language fluently! Sadly, The Photographer and I — despite the benefit of many years’ study of Spanish in high school and college — don’t have the facility (grammar, speed) of an 8-year old native speaker between us. But I do have a large Spanish vocabulary and great enthusiasm for putting together garbled word salads using infinitive verbs. Fortunately, the places where we are staying have staff people who are fluent in English (and other languages) — so the limits of our speaking ability have not been a source of trouble.

  3. I agree with Cookie! Could you be the first ever travel+fashion blogger?? Trashion blogger? Fashel blogger? Where’d you get the yaller dress?

  4. Such fun following the two of you on your travels! What are the chances that your dress and the painting color are identical. Your right arm disappears into the canvas! Beautiful photographs, wonderful commentary.

  5. Having spent part of my early years in Latin America, I feel as if I should have something intellectual to add. But all I can think is: who designed the Directrice’s beautiful yellow dress and where did she get it?

  6. How wise of you to connect with an anthropologist to take you on a tour and what an amazing topic to focus on, graffiti. The Museo de Arte looks very interesting, including the bench you sat on. Sounds like an all around terrific trip.


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