Buenos Aires Is Not a Swedish City
“We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience.”
—T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”
Ricardo Piglia uses these lines from T. S. Eliot as the epigram to his novel Artificial Respiration, published in 1981. I start my introduction to the first Cahier of this series of publications about and around the work of Oscar Masotta by relating the story of the first time I met Ricardo Piglia, in Buenos Aires, in 2014. It was as part of a public discussion, in the course of which I read a passage from Artificial Respiration, and Piglia didn’t immediately recognize that the passage I was reading was from his book. Piglia constructs his novel around the idea—obviously a metaphor for the act of reading itself—of letters being intercepted by someone other than the addressee. That idea has been important for this project all along: what are we, after all, if not clandestine readers, snoopers, into the correspondence between Masotta and his time? And it is central to this Cahier, which presents newly-found letters that Masotta wrote to his mother in Buenos Aires from his exile in Barcelona in the last years of his life. Masotta’s daughter Cloe, who has been a collaborator in this project more or less from the start, found them only last year and she suggested that we could use them, an idea that we immediately agreed to, not just because of the insight they give into Masotta as a father, husband, and son, but also because of the plastic possibilities they offer for this Cahier.
The discovery of these letters gives us a fresh and unique glimpse into the private temperament of an intensely curious and intellectually voracious character. There is nothing in them about his intellectual production (other than passing allusions to the fact that he needs to write, or to his students, or to possible professional invitations), about his readings, his lectures, or about other intellectuals he was in contact with, or had recently met. Instead, through these letters to his mother, we read about his relationship to the family he had to leave behind, his enthusiasm with newborn daughter, his observations into the new city, Barcelona, that became his home, his description of the two apartments he lived in (and the gift for descriptive writing, as anyone who has tried it knows, is by no means a given), and, finally, about the first signs of the disease that would cost him his life. They give us a privileged look into Masotta’s humanitas.
As I write this text, I am also finishing the last of four short films I’ve made in dialogue with Masotta’s work and that, in their own way, explore—and I hope continue—his legacy. Entitled La Eterna, the film closes with these words by the Paris-based Argentinian philosopher Gabriel Catren (we’re leaving the English unedited):
Gabriel Catren: Masotta is someone that, in a certain sense, he is an intellectual from Argentina, and I don’t know if you know this theory in biology where they say that the individual, that the ontogenesis recapitulates the phylogenesis. (…) The idea that the development of a single individual recapitulates all the stages of development of the species. So when you’re a child you’re a sort of amphibious, and when you grow up you’re traversing all the stages of the species, is it clear?
Adva Zakai: Yes, yes.
Gabriel Catren: So in a sense Masotta is someone who, in his ontogenesis, in his development as a person, recapitulates many of the different stages of the European intelligentsia during the last century. He started with phenomenology, then he passed to existentialism, afterwards to Marxism (well, not afterwards, they were all entangled), after that he was a structuralist, and afterwards he was interested in psychoanalysis. So a single individual traversed, recapitulated, all these stages of thinking in Europe in the last century.
That is, indeed, what makes Masotta so interesting: he is a man who recapitulates—a man whose work embodies and traverses—the seminal currents and tensions of intellectual and political debate in Europe during his century. That said, Masotta was Argentinean through and through, and in his writings he always insists, with bitter lucidity, on where he is speaking from. In “I Committed a Happening,” for example, he writes:
I was thinking of accomplishing purely aesthetic ends, and I imagined myself a bit like the director of the Museum in Stockholm, who had opened himself up, from within an official institution, to all manner of avant-garde manifestations. But Buenos Aires is not a Swedish city. At the moment during which we planned the two-week festival there came the coup d’état that brought Juan Carlos Onganía to power, and there was an outburst of puritanism and police persecution. Scared, we abandoned the project: what is more, it was a bit embarrassing, amid the gravity of the political situation, to be creating Happenings…. In this respect—embroiled in a sentiment of mute rage—I now think exactly the contrary. And I am also beginning to think the contrary about those “pedagogical” ends: about the idea of introducing the dissolving and negative forces of a new artistic genre through the positive image of official institutions.
And Masotta opens “After Pop, We Dematerialize” by commenting on the “explosion” of the word “happening” in Buenos Aires in the mid-1960s. He wants to explore this somewhat strange phenomenon—strange because the ubiquity of the word in print was disconnected from the reality of the art scene itself in Buenos Aires at the time, where Masotta counts exactly six happenings between 1965 and 1966. One explanation that catches his attention, and which he considers “abominable,” is that the “explosion of the word” happening in the press is, in some ways, a “a positive phenomenon,” because “it somehow represents a becoming aware of our lack of seriousness.” And Masotta comments:
Just imagine: the vicissitudes of political power, the circular succession of economic teams. And what to say of the ridiculous seizing of the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) by an ex-actress and a few young extremists? I would say the answer is nothing. Especially if the point is to make comparisons: the domestic and foreign politics of Argentina are no less serious and more scandalous, nor more serious and less scandalous (perhaps less scandalous) than those of any other Western nation. On the other hand, it would be difficult for Argentines to give ourselves the politics we want. The steel limits of an internal and external economic and social structure determine and decide for us and without us the “reality” that is only ours because it is foreign.
Just as the “material” of music is a certain sonorous material or the continuum of auditory stimuli, and just as bronze, wood, marble, glass, and new synthetic materials constitute the “material” with which and upon which it is possible to make sculptures, so too the “works of communication” define their own area of “materiality.” The “material” (“immaterial,” “invisible”) with which informational works of this type are made is none other than the processes, the results, the facts, and/or the phenomena of information set off by the mass information media (examples of “media” include: radio, television, dailies, newspapers, magazines, posters “panels,” the comic strip, etc.).
Information is the new material of dematerialized art. We could marvel at the prophetic qualities of this paragraph, both in its anticipation of the immediate future (the Tucumán Arde project in 1968, for example), and in the long term (today, information is the ultimate currency, the supreme power). But we must not fail to appreciate what such a claim meant for an Argentinian intellectual. In a recent interview with Nina Möntmann, Lucy Lippard says:
I’ve often pondered why artists in more volatile or totalitarian societies (Chile in 1973, or Central America around 1980 are among the chilling examples) were perceived by their rightwing governments as real threats, whereas we who were analyzing activism, making art by “desecrating” American flags, or yelling and wheatpasting on the streets of New York with similar politics were just nuisances to the US government, a dispiriting sign of art’s direct ineffectiveness.
Indeed, the practice of dematerializing art (and the relation of that practice to art’s politization) in the South American context between 1966 and 1972 could be fatal, literally. It wasn’t necessary to be an artist whose work was explicitly political in content to enter the area of danger. One didn’t have to be a pamphleteer to draw the attention of government forces. A case in point are the repercussions that befell the members of a psychoanalytical group in Argentina that was half-jokingly called Lacano Americanos: many of its members participated in Masotta’s happenistas adventures, and most either preceded or followed him into exile. For Masotta, to be a politically-aware author could not be dissociated from being, radically, an avant-gardist. And avant-gardism in the time of dematerialization, Masotta argues, “fuses” content and form/medium, and in so doing it deactivates the traditional, conventional opposition between these two terms. He writes in “After Pop, We Dematerialize”:
And if there is talk now of not concerning oneself with content, it does not mean that avant-garde art is moving toward a new purism or a worse formalism. What is occurring today in the best pieces is that the contents are being fused to the media used to convey them. This concern, then—demonstrated explicitly for the first time by Pop artists—is inseparable from a true sociological concern, that of a new way of returning to “content.”
In the same text, Masotta explains that he is not interested in “defining” the avant-garde, but rather in pinpointing some of its properties. He offers four of them, the first of which reads:
that there be recognizable in it a certain susceptibility and a completed information about what is happening at the art-historical level, that is to say, about what is happening in art with regards to what has been done before, and to what one images should happen afterward. In this way, the avant-garde consists in a postulation that states that the work of art exists within a historical sequence of works, and that that sequence is governed by an internal necessity. A passage from Henry Geldzahler expresses this characteristic succinctly: “This is instant art history, art history made so aware of itself that it leaps to get ahead of art.”
With Masotta, the eternal dialectics between art and politics, form and content, autonomous and heteronomous art, reaches a new level of complexity, one that we are still heavily debating today.
I think something similar happens with Arlt as with Chaplin’ films, which manage, with their strictly anarchist view of the world, to exert a positive political influence on the individual. And not because aesthetics and politics follow different paths, but because, in the literary work, politics changes its laws for the laws internal to the work, and also because, if one is to speak about politics when speaking about literature, one must, so to say, put in parenthesis all one knows about politics in order to allow the work to speak for itself. Every literary work has to be understood through the description of this limit point, in which its internal structure rubs shoulders with the reader, in which, on the other side of the printed work, the work exists for the reader; it has to be understood through a description of that which, situating ourselves on the side of the one who reads, we could call the experience of an aesthetic structure. That would allow us to see how the left could recuperate in its entirety the political content of Arlt’s novels.
Masotta chose as the title for the book that gathered his writings between the 1950s and the late 1960s Conciencia y estructura (Consciousness and Structure). Speaking about the artistic object, I suggested that in Masotta we see a displacement of the dialectic, content/form, towards another, more significant and contemporary, dialectic, information/medium. And we can now, when speaking of the author and the reader, sense yet another displacement, from politics/aesthetics, to consciousness / structure. I would like to conclude, then, with a passage from Arlt:
He knew he was a thief. But the category he was labeled with did not interest him. Besides, the word “thief” had little resonance with what he felt inside. There, he was aware of a different feeling, of a kind of circular silence that pierced his skull like a steel rod, leaving him deaf to anything but his own wretched despair.