The Function of Gossip as Criticism in Mexico’s Artworld

Julieta Aranda, "Saving it for Later," 2009. Guggenheim Collection.
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Gossip is undoubtedly universal but in Mexico gossip – chisme – seems to exert an influence that distinguishes it from other international art centers. Mexican artist Ulises Carrión has described it thus: “Gossip can be used as a scientific model for artificial chains of communication which will reveal something about the chain’s users and something about the chain itself.” If we consider the chain of gossip in Mexico’s artworld, what we find is that more than mere efficiency and proliferation, our informal networks of information provide the primary method of our criticism. I spoke with several leading figures in Mexico on chisme‘s unique influence and effect.

Mexico City’s shallow bench of culturati seems to require that the dynamic be, according to an interview with Chris Sharp, curator and co-founder of the capital’s alternative exhibition space Lulu, “simultaneously polite and secretive; [we are] allergic to real confrontation.” Gossip moves differently in Mexico because in such a small and concentrated community no one feels they can afford to offend.

This past July, a new online arts criticism project, Blog de Crítica, published an essay titled “El fantasma de la crítica en México” (“The Ghost of Critique in Mexico”). In the text Óscar Benassini interviews twelve Mexican artists, curators, and critics about the state of critical writing in Mexico. The general consensus is that the deficiency of Mexican art criticism stems from a chicken-or-egg dilemma: there’s very little critique in Mexico because there are few readers of art criticism, therefore few publications to sustain critical writing (much less the writers). The second and no ness important point they make is that there are very few critics of contemporary art who are only critics. Most critics are also curators, artists, or both, so that their writing is colored by the suspicion that someone is benefitting from their criticism, or that they’re holding their punches.

There’s plenty of reason to be suspicious; the layers of conflict-of-interest run deep. Critics are also curators married to artists who are also gallerists. The heirs of the corporations that fund art scholarships collect the work of the artists their scholarships support. Galleries seem to be curating museum shows in Mexico and abroad.

Perhaps these conflicts of interest are a natural and unintentional result of condensing what happens within a small, intimate professional world. But within the framework of an industry that caters to the extremely privileged, it’s impossible not to consider the pronounced classism and labor precariousness in Mexico as fundamentally influential in the circulation of information as a gate-keeping mechanism.

The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a limited few casts a long shadow on Mexico. According to the grassroots justice organization PODER, just 37 people control 40% of Mexico’s national gross domestic product. Given this profound lack of competition, it’s unsurprising that a recent study by the World Bank concluded that Mexico has the lowest minimum wage in Latin America. Likewise, salaries in the Mexican cultural sector are among the most meager with arts administrators making, on average, approximately US $588 a month. Even accounting for the relative affordability of our cost of living, wages this low are, effectively, symbolic pay. The result is a precarious labor environment sustained by rigid classism.

Though the last four years have seen a dramatic uptick in international attention on the Mexican art scene, our art market is still small enough to force the cultural sector to rely on governmental support. This dependence fosters intense competition, and makes certain commercial projects, institutions, and artists vulnerable to the budget cuts and changing whims of “Papá Gobierno.” In a landscape with such limited sources of capital, gossip is critical. As co-director of Yautepec Gallery, Daniela Elbahara explained, “[It] helps you make your moves ‘cause in the end, we are all competing for something.”

Limited options and a devaluation of labor a priori inherited wealth is not an accident. It is a feature of the economy in Mexico and it breeds a culture that Sharp describes as, “some weird mix of feudalism and bourgeois provincialism. One thinks of 18th- and 19th-century epistolary novels in which the highly-complexed idle rich have nothing to do but sit around and talk trash about one another.”

Daniela Rossell, "Paulina Fathers Desk" (Ricas y Famosas) 2010. Courtesy Sprüth Magers; Greene Naftali Gallery.

Daniela Rossell, “Paulina Fathers Desk” (Ricas y Famosas), 2010. Courtesy Sprüth Magers; Greene Naftali Gallery.

In an interview at Yautepec Gallery Brett Schultz, co-director, suggests that, “Gossip is pretty universal but the scene is smaller here than in other art capitals so it has more weight. It’s Mexico City culture, no one wants to tell you ‘no’. Everyone wants to dance around having to tell you anything negative. It’s like when you ask directions and they always say ‘todo derecho’ [‘carry on’]. Nobody wants to tell you ‘no’ and nobody wants to offend you, so chisme is a way to say what you think without having to say it to [somebody’s] face.”

Gossip, or indirectness, as critical response extends well beyond art in Mexico. In criminal complaints, civil services, and commerce, the Mexican system appears purposefully assembled to hold no one accountable. So people gossip in part because there is no one to be direct to. When we look up to voice our concerns to authority we see the organizational body stops at the shoulders; it’s a headless state.

National traumas past and present have left sensitive psychic wounds with ongoing cultural consequences. Mexico’s monopoly as an industry standard has resulted in consumers having little recourse or options. Censorship and conflict of interest in the media fuels an ongoing crisis of faith in official news outlets and a drive to get the “truth” through alternative channels. The resulting shift in information streams, from news outlets to our neighbors, redistributes the power of information and misinformation equally. Gossip then becomes a mutable socio-political currency that is simultaneously an instrument of courtesan maneuvering and simply an enjoyable way to connect and build trust with others.

The maintenance of social bonds takes critical importance in relationship-driven communities like the artworld, wherein value is subjective; or in places like Mexico where the lack of social contract stresses reliance on social networks to step in where the state steps out.

Though bonding through gossip is genderless behavior there is an entrenched sexism in its perception. In Mexico this feminization has a peculiar logic if we think of gossip as a reaction to the omnipresence and privileging of the macho, which Octavio Paz describes as “pure incommunication.” Perhaps best thought of as opposing forces rather than representative of gender, per se, the “macho” is silent, solitary, and destructive, whereas gossip is vocal, collaborative, and fluid. If macho is authoritarian rule, gossip is the court of popular opinion. Since direct communication with the macho is impossible, gossip allows information to circumnavigate incommunicable forces. This skirting communicative style is what Schultz references when he says, “no one wants to say ‘no’.”

More than indirect communication, gossip assumes its ultimate potency as incantation. “The point of gossip is making something become real,” said Anuar Maauad, founder of the nonprofit artist residency Casa Maauad, “It transforms reality and facts.” Air Force Captain Stephanie Kelly’s study on the impact of civilian gossip on military efforts in Iraq reinforces this conclusion. Her research suggests that, more than just hearsay, gossip has an ambiguous relationship with reality as both a vocalization of concerns and also as invocation of a desired reality. The power of vocalization and repetition is that it begets belief. Without some kind of outside ballast, in small communities gossip quickly becomes conventional wisdom.

The current surge of momentum around cultural projects in Mexico City, including the founding of Mexico’s first satellite fair to Zona Maco, Material Fair; the third installation of Gallery Weekend; and a healthy offering of new artist-run projects, is encouraging a corresponding wave of serious criticism. Eschewing the salacious cyber-bullying of the short-lived but oft-cited internet burnbook Kurizambutto, projects like Cain, Blog de Critica, and the Excelsior blog Cubo Blanco, are all bringing thoughtful critical writing to the fore.

Critical writing can’t and won’t eliminate gossip’s informal utility. But absent more formal criticism, the subjective value of art in a classist and precarious social context like Mexico is particularly vulnerable to conflict of interest and the manipulation of gossip.

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