The progressive spirit has decreed that the discussion about whether design is or is not art turns out to be old, out of date. And we already know the debacle that may break out if the progressive spirit disqualifies: those boys and men in their forties who frequent G Street, who are the leading lights where the action is, who attend workshops and literary cafés, who show off their bellies or their hardened muscles in the wings of a gym while recalling a poem by Ezra Pound…; your future may depend on the voices of those boys and men in their forties –which are often confused–, can you imagine!
Nevertheless, there are discussions that have been all over cultural history and not just for the fun of it. Their recurrence takes advantage of some deep reason. A wise thought states that behind every stereotype there is something deeper. More succulent. And one must know how to make the most of it.
It is hard to consent that the debate around design is out of date, when not even a consensus has been reached on a conclusive criterion in relation to architecture. The social functionality, the housing compromise, the technological mediation… are they reasons to discredit the artistic character of architecture? We have been at it in a Byzantine discussion for centuries. A dangerous syllogism that has reached our days comes out of Byzantium: if functionality is at odds with art, art was over with the Bauhaus, where function seemed to become independent, secularized. The art or functionality dilemma sounds like modern binarism, like a myth tired out by evidence. And by vanities. The alleged assertion also counts in relation to the unselfish character of “true art.” Art is never unselfish. Not even art for art’s sake. Unselfishness involves another cultural and anti-(ethical) illusion. Art always serves, if not for something, then something or someone. Safe or not, it always ends up in some harbor, some enclave, some positioning when faced with the world.
Which is the argument that manages to separate, once and for all, design from art? The strict pact with the commission, subordination to the patron, the close negotiation with demand? That would mean not knowing what the History of Art has been. Painting, as sacred an art as they came, has had to take risks with commissions all the time. Both easel and mural painting. The Sistine Chapel was commissioned. Music, a sacred and abstract art among the greatest, has seen, or heard, the anguish of its artists at the expense of monarchical or religious commissions. The musician from the 17th and 18th centuries was a servant of the court before anything else. There has not been art without negotiation, without strain, without resistance. In fact, that dilemma informs one of the great themes of art itself.
Of course, from the technical arts, the reproduction era, the crisis of the aura, and the systematic attempts in favor of the democratization of access to the cultural capital, the proliferation of a group of cultural expressions and genres that depend pretty much on commissions is maximized. The cultural industry turned traditional Aesthetics upside down. In those cases, would we have to renounce art as a guarantee of a less dramatic link with the patron? Or the other way around: will it not be that the concept of art is constantly redefined, widening its limits, metamorphosing, fitting in with the times, negotiating, understanding the new vectors of time? Did the definition of art not always have a historical, changeable nature; or is it that we aspire today, more than ever, to an atemporal metaphysics or ontology of what is artistic? Did art die when the commission became particularly prominent; or did art make a capital, histrionic and powerful move that challenged the market and even the times?
A similar thing happens with advertising: there is a tendency to assume that subordination to demand, that the immediate communicative compromise usually discredits the mediation of the artistic element. There is no cultural genre that, like advertising, requires the concurrence of the aesthetic, tropological, linguistic repertoire; the coding of artistic nature. When in fifteen seconds creators must encode a powerful text, they have to resort to the domain of metonymy, metaphor and so many more figures of speech: literal, linear language would get them lost in a pedestrian message, as well as ineffective, in dealing with communicating.1 Isn’t advertising art; or is it another kind of art, for which generating the critical tools that favor a better interpretation is still necessary? A similar thing has happened in Cuba with the video clip experience: how can “authors” emerge in the middle of a genre that is so anchored to the will of promotional commission? Without attacking promotion, several producers have started to found (many times different from their purposes) a poetics of creation that can be recognized even in terms of edition, of the criterion of shots’ articulation. By all this I mean that, whatever the progressive spirit says, for which there is no doubt about design being one thing and art being another, who writes this comes up with the outlandish idea that it is not so clear, not even today. Today less than ever, when access to the definition of art is more and more complex and empirical phenomenology exposes us to a very vast and movable repertoire, for which historical measuring sticks reach a patent crisis, or become different ones. Whatever the progressive spirit sententiously declares, riot act in hand –there is no juicier dictatorship than that of the iconoclasts–, I would not be so sure about separating design from art. To tell the truth.
Consequently, when a prestigious designer tries to go over to the land of “art;” when he tries to enlist in the macro-holy grounds of the fine arts, I become a little nervous. Because I feel we lose; that we again fail to understand the dynamics of the cultural democratization that, fortunately, we live today and have lived for decades. It is as if the 19th Century would win a Scrabble game with the 21st Century. I even wonder: how come doesn’t the progressive spirit become nervous? But anyway, it is hard to understand the progressive spirit; it has its own laws and they are as mutable as art itself.
On the other hand, in the name of that very same ductility and attempt to understand the Other One or the Other Thing, I wonder: and why not? Why would I have to explain –it is just an example– that after some essay books, I feel like writing narrative? Do I myself give in? Am I prejudiced, and deep down I see fiction as a superior rung compared to the essay, and I must, therefore, try and climb it? Not at all. In cultural terms, not always seven times eight is fifty-six. I have written I feel like writing narrative, and there is the key. Uncomplicated, as creation usually is: I feel like… and that’s all there is to it.
There are inner needs of expression that have nothing to do, at least not directly, with the epistemological signs of the times, with the great artistic clashes, with the mobility –more or less legitimate– between genres. They have to do with inner propulsion that is expressed or the creator ends up on the psychoanalyst’s couch.
After an ascendant career as a designer in the 2000s (ascending from sobriety, which made it cautiously dizzy), Jorge Rodríguez Diez (R10) has decided to bet on what he considers “art.” If we were to follow a certain popular song, we could ask ourselves: but why? Is there any need for it? Why so much trouble? During the 2000s, R10 became one of our most brilliant designers, one who managed a style from design itself, without needing other more “beautifully artistic” crutches: the strange combination between his German cultural learning, addicted to order, geometry and the most Spartan austerity, and his essential Cuban character, addicted to boldness, the most (and not malicious) intentional irony, and the making of carnivals with the least solemnity; the minimal sobriety of a graphic figuration away from conventions and prejudices, that is, aided by an enormous quantity of cultural sources and style descents; the subtlety in the induction of sense and in the correspondence, not at all linear, between signified and signifiers (exceptionally expressed in that cult poster: La cosa está clarísima (The thing is quite clear), all redounded in the end to an R10 brand, to an R10 way to conceive design’s artistry. For me, that was enough; but not for Jorge. And Rufo has to do with what he is told by Jorge.
Jorge felt, at the height of 2009, that it was enough. That it was necessary to feel free just as tides are. More freedom than that imposed by him in the land of design. To hell with demand, commission, patron; he needed to shout that he mocked, for the first time at ease, an aesthetic and commercial dictatorship on his shoulders. No more. With his exhibition Rorschach (Centre for the Development of Visual Arts, November 2009), he took the leap he considered to be just. He became emancipated. He at last created whatever he felt like. And it was his right, can you imagine!
One thing is certain; it had been a long time since an exhibition in Havana gave rise to such a theoretical and aesthetic discussion.
Without giving up on design tools (he would not have to: if a man is his past, let alone an artist), that is, appealing to graphics of suggestive visual insinuations and plastic solutions not dissociated from the synthesis, the assembling, the dialogue between demarcated forms, the impact of communication,2 R10 allows himself, for the first time and from the freedom in the use of media, to express, to share with his interlocutor (now more of an active spectator that an oligarchic client) a series of ideas that for quite a while had been tormenting and stimulating him at the same time. He creates free compositions to express those ideas that were pounding in his head, he forgets about any complaint or adjustment of economic bills, he prints those compositions in the most competent canvases America knows, and he goes out into the world with his ideas, halfway between painting, graphics and design. That is not what matters. The intergeneric quality is taken for granted.
The intergeneric paradox does not fail to be suggestive: is it not so that when you print you tend to favor more than one copy? Something that would naturally tend to reproduction becomes a unique piece (contrary to the historical trajectory): does it reach an aura? More legitimation? Is it culturally deified? Does it rise when properly printed as a unique copy? How does it rise? Did R10’s ideas use to stay “down”? There is the small curve, the secondary element; a road along which we could get lost. Of course there are paradoxes, tensions, productive contradictions. That is not the thing.
The thing is in the meaning. And though the thing is not quite clear, not at all, the meaning could be glimpsed quite clearly. It can clearly, clearly be seen.
The printed, “pictographic” series by Jorge, Rorschach, did not turn to that title to no avail. Rorschach is a test where basically, the subject confers recognition and possible meanings to some inkblots. There, in that psychological principle (it is not just what you see, or is it?) lies the premise of art’s dialogue with the world. Jorge graphically establishes some guidelines, retraces the path of a possible territory and the rest is done by the spectator: the spectator creates a world from the suggestions, from the “guided signals” the artist gives. Very well guided; induced I would say.
The piece that maybe best expresses that conception is La buena sombra (Good shade). Whoever comes near R10, is sheltered by an enigmatic shade. A sheep, symbol of naivety, could come near country-like blots: China, Russia, Venezuela, and the United States. What will the sheep prefer? Or will it be the black sheep, fool, stubborn, distant? Will the sheep choose the more fecund and profitable dialogue? What will the price of this other dialogue be?
I say with this, without any other odious cautions, that R10’s “artistic” works (were the former sporty?) have clearly political, ethical connotations. Jorge does not play the fool. His ideas take part in the group of uncertainties that make the life and mind of Cubans right this minute. They have the protection that irony and subtlety afford the expression, there where the pamphlet would have preferred denotation to connotation. R10 operates with a range of possibilities, generally camouflaged in the double meaning and double code yielded by popular jokes, sayings, aphorisms, slogans, when they sardonically unautomate the rhetoric of old and tired apothegms.
Among the ideas that drive the pieces are: the fatigue of the incessant and inclement struggle on the basis of the slogan and utopia rather than on one’s feet on the ground; the reciprocity or retribution that effort expects and which do not come, but are supposed to come someday, in this life or the next, see who cares!; the turning of the crisis into an endless cycle, so much so that the dramatic word can become a frequent trademark sliding into different codes; the panic about what is new, on the pretext of safeguarding instituted authorities and notions; the paradoxes deliberately hatched in the manipulation of information; the camouflage of the American flag as reference to the changes of nationality in pursuit of travels and naturalization papers; the spreading of the Chinese culture, technology and economy worldwide, a question that makes Jorge both fascinated and expectant; the sham of changes with a back and forth movement that matches very little what the premise of “changing all that deserves to be changed” demands, etc.
It is obvious that, up to here, it is about a series of sustained social criticism, of reflection on zones alienated in the speech and social existence of Cubans; that critical meditation we need to shake off the listless apathy and the sluggishness that prevent us from carrying on with lucidity and reliability. In many cases, the artworks observe just the right proportion between universality and locality; I think of Paciencia (Patience), where indeed, when faced with the blackout, one must have patience, but where the Zen judgment about enlightenment can also be found, in the sense that when faced with any darkness, only one’s own enlightenment and temperance can safeguard. In other words: spiritual retreat. That demobilizing, bitter character could turn out to be polemic, very polemic; but, in any case, these connotations, open to the capacity of cultural associations by the spectator, sensitively enrich the mystery and charm of the pieces.
From the stylistic point of view, the unprejudiced repertoire of disparate figures of speech that turns to any visualization that favors the idea with wit. Innumerable metaphors and metonymies. The frog that will devour the flies in the world. The alighted beetle on La cosa está clarísima, in an illusionism mood, as that resource in advertising according to which an insect or bird certifies a glass or a mirror, and then these, ironically, prop up the nature of the general idea. An appeal to both, the tradition of engraving in the 19th Century and the medieval line alluding to atavism and the caveman approach. I play with the possibility of the Daliesque paranoid image, in the direction of superimposing codes and the deduction options. In short, a smart and good-tempered cannibalism, promiscuous with regard to all that can contribute to express the idea.
When the dance of allusions ends, and of ciphers, and invitations, and festive get-togethers, a question remains on the spectators’ head, tormenting them too: are we the paranoid ones, the ones who always see something behind something else? Isn’t there always something behind something else? Does acknowledging it, speculating about it, imply paranoia? Wasn’t that called semiotics?
At last, R10 could express his ghosts without censure. Without economic censure, without political censure. Without artistic repressions; or better, without what he felt as artistic repression.
Now that ghosts are already roaming; now that canvases, unique ones, hang on the walls of this austere gallery; now, I would like to make a simple question to R10. The question is quite clear: now, are you free?
Is the individual ever free? Does the individual ever become emancipated from all artistic or social networks? Or won’t it be that R10 has entered a new labyrinth, a new mirage, an illusion that is unknown to him, though remote as man and art themselves? When the individual appropriates that other truth that is considered to be Art, is he then freer? Is art, by any chance, still a sanatorium for neurotics, for psychotics that find themselves pursued? Do we like that hospital? Do we feel in it, from there, that we placidly escape?
I don’t think Jorge cares about any of this too much. He is absolutely right about one thing: if in spite of the endeavors of culture democratization, the institution keeps working on preventions and implicit hierarchizations among the arts (the “art of galleries” is still linked to a démodé avant-guard, but avant-guard after all), it may be very comforting, and in fact it is, to cross, to intercept the institution walls and to shout from the rooftops “I am a king.” In my view, he always was; but if the institution saw him before as a prince, with Rorschach, R10 takes care of setting the record straight. All I have wanted to show here is the condition of the Duchampian gesture that marks R10’s leap: the contexts make the text; the contexts make the value judgment, more than the object itself. Jorge was excellent before setting foot on the gallery; but once he did, things were very different, polemic though it was. That such thing happens at the height of the 21st Century is shameful, frankly, but come on, R10 is not precisely to blame. He takes advantage of the progressive falseness, of the absentmindedness, of that being-out-of-step of the art-institution, and he does his own thing. Again, not bad. And now with an added value, not at all inconsiderable: shaking off the imperative of the commission allowed him to communicate a whole personal world, of social vocation, that used to remain crouched in the cracks tolerated by design. We learn, in the end, another cultural lesson.
1. This is without disregarding that certain forms of “linear interpretation,” of simple dealing with reality, of pamphleteering even, are part of the possible repertoire in the artistic element.
2. The point of graphics in his blood is corroborated by the fact that Rodríguez Diez signs, be them posters or books, now “art,” as R10. Enough. He has no problem at all with giving the impression of being an automaton, a disinfectant brand, a squad or a new weaponry hallmark (a new grenade!). None of that. Elegant and sufficient.