Pablo L. Álvarez

Where is my grandmother in the History of Art?

The answer is easy: she is simply not there. I timidly asked this question to my audience during a lecture I gave last year in Spain. It was a mere rhetorical resource and I did not expect any response, but I thought it was a plain way to outline the subject I was about to present. The presentation was of the conclusions I drew during, and after, a research project I carried out for the nationwide festival, ‘Miradas de Mujeres’. The project was focused on contemporary women artists based in the countryside, particularly those who, at the time, were living in Asturias, an eminently rural ­ and mining ­ region in the North of Spain. What began as an isolated scenario formed by just three artists, ended up being a group of more than fifteen women whom, despite their diversity of projects, attitudes and discourses, shared the same concern: rurality, memory, and exclusion.

While that lecture was a sort of map-­making work in which I presented a particular artistic panorama, this paper aims to expound the theoretical assumptions I inferred from my research: that the History of Art is both a bourgeois and burgher discourse whose subject is a particular individual and whose legitimacy as a discipline must be therefore revised through political scopes. When I say ‘individual’, I am referring to the term used by Jünger to describe the main figure upon which the bourgeoisie have based their artistic sensibility: the singular person whom has been providentially invested with the power of creativity. Thus, the History of Art, written in the city, has become the unfolding of a History of Names, and, in its most refined form, is the History of the Special and the Virtuoso, enthroned by the Prince, the Scholar and the Antiquarian. In other words, the History of Art seems to be configured as a platinum collection of the ‘greatest hits’: from Caravaggio to Warhol, from Rome to New York. However, and much to my regret, my grandmother, an amazing crocheter, is not there, as if knitting were not a legitimate activity. Why?

“World History is city history”, Spengler once said. Had my grandmother been born in Paris, maybe her crocheted rugs would be displayed today at the Centre Pompidou. The History of Art ­ the one, the only, hegemonical and universal, ­ confines itself to concrete territories which are not only geographical but discursive as well. Thus, the silhouette of its realms constitutes a very specific ecumene; ­ its known world is circumscribed to the city, studied by the connoisseur and the scholar, enjoyed and displayed by the bourgeoisie and, of course, the initiated. The History of Art has endowed itself with its own theological instruments and liturgical apparatus, purposely accessible to few and placing itself within aristocratic dominions. Those who do not belong to the ‘disciplinary institutions’ have very little to say and
even less to claim. Among them, there is my grandmother, and yours as well. As for these institutions, they have been enabled to historicize culture even when we are referring to Contemporary Art which, despite its emancipatory attempts at redemption, is embodied in re­creational spaces and structures whose cultural regime leaves little room for political and historical amendment. And thus, my grandmother keeps being left out of the History of Art.

My grandmother is, naturally, anybody’s grandmother. When I refer to her, I am naturally referring to those whose memory has never been included in hegemonic discourses, that is to say, the peasant, the labourer, the miner, the witch. Those whose historic opposers could be found in the burgher, the bourgeoisie, the industrialist or the priest. ­ I say the priest, but I also mean the scientist, the scholar or the professor. All of these groups, here presented as extra-historical figures, have elaborated their own cultural structures, including means and products, and have been gatekeepers of certain kinds of knowledge and narratives which appear to oppose those of History (of Art), Academia, official religion and urban life. A complete system, in fact, can be inferred from this opposition between the rural and the urban: the common versus the private­/public binomial, narrative past versus historical past, oral tradition versus written literature, craftsmanship versus art, superstition versus science, belief versus positive truth, difference versus Patriarchy.

The revision of the relations between the rural and the urban that I am currently undertaking has led me to regard urban primacy as a colonial and patriarchal power that attempts to master rurality. Though this colonial imposition must be considered as a relative historical novelty, ­ I assume that medieval models of population observed a certain binomial equilibrium
between the rural and the urban. As an urban discourse, History of Art becomes self-­referential, establishing the limits of ‘high culture’, thereby rendering those of ‘low culture’ – ­those which do not belong to the city – ­ to other disciplines which it deems to be more ‘suitable’, such as Anthropology or Cultural Studies. This disciplinary division takes aim at the assumption from which we started above: that the History of Art remains a genuinely aristocratic discourse, since the peasant is, by definition, a non­-urban individual. This discourse therefore sides with academic knowledge and patriarchal structures, including universities, museums or salons, and thus rurality extends beyond the confines traced by this alliance.

This alliance, this engagement between (Art) History, Academia and Patriarchy has excluded the peasant as a historical subject and doubly-barred rural women as a historical protagonists. Rural women, ­ our grandmothers, those who were holders of popular culture and non-­academic knowledge, still stand on the edge of darkest oblivion. Restoring their memory could be a task for the radical historian. However, would this mean to side against History? In
other words: if I save my grandmother, will I become an anti-­historian?

Who is asking this question?
The personal becomes political, they say. I come from the region of Asturias, in the North of Spain, a traditionally isolated area, profoundly rural and agrarian which, during the 19th Century, became the main Spanish coal field. Its contemporary history is that of the peasant and the miner, a history of strikes, failed revolutions, working ­class movements, poverty and hunger. I suppose, since nobody can escape from their past, I was doomed to be radical.

I studied History of Art at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid and at the University of Barcelona, and I soon realised that my subject matter had scarce political engagement. During my final undergraduate year, I chose to specialize in Contemporary Art, not only because I was particularly interested in Art Theory and Aesthetics, but also because I thought Contemporary Art could provide me with a place of genuine engagement. My expectations were nowhere near reality. Contemporary Art, its institutions and discourses, even when they try to retrieve the memory of the oppressed, the indigenous or the outsider, remain, politically speaking, profoundly inefficient, standing upon structures whose nature is eminently aristocratic and elitist. Thus, many times, I saw how an apparently political action became a mere exercise of snobbery.

This disenchantment led me to become more historically aware and less ‘artistic’. Trying to delve into the social, political and economic structures that have configured the means by which we produce culture, especially that culture we usually refer to as ‘low’, I decided to study the 19th Century. This is a key period to understand those processes which created our current hegemonic discourses and our dominant cultural apparatus. Thus, I am currently studying an MA in 19th­ Century Studies at King’s College London, in which I am paying particular attention to the folk culture of the time, both rural and industrial.

Outside of my academic career, I have worked for several cultural institutions holding different positions, mainly as a researcher or lecturer. The next project in which I am involved will take place in June, when I will be curating an exhibition about industrial landscape.

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