Chicano Art: Three Encounters

Chicano Art for Our Millennium is my third major experience with Chicano art. The first was as program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the project Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (CARA). This project received a planning grant from NEH, and, upon its successful completion, the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA applied to the Endowment for implementation. The peer review panel, outside reviewers, and Endowment staff recommended the project for funding. In spite of this considerably positive evaluation, Lynne Cheney, Chairman of the Endowment, denied funding for the project. At NEH the chairman has final decision-making authority on all applications, and she was within her rights to reject Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation. During my five years at the Endowment, however, the chairman very rarely overturned the unified recommendations of the peer review panel, outside reviewers, and professional staff. Mrs. Cheney’s decision on the CARA project was not based on the merits of the project as established by the professional review process. Instead, Endowment staff widely believed that it was primarily a political decision reflecting an unfavorable view of projects on minority, ethnic, or potentially controversial subjects.

My second major experience with Chicano art was as director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, when the Museum of International Folk Art displayed Alma López’s computer-generated collage Our Lady as part of the exhibition Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology, curated by Dr. Tey Marianna Nunn. López’s image, as portrayed by performance artist Raquel Salinas, is a Virgin with attitude. Not the demure, unassertive, head-bowed Virgin of the traditional image, López’s Virgin is a head-up, chin-out, hands-on-hips assertion of the power of women and womanhood. Otherwise unclothed, garlands of roses cover her breasts and hips, and a cloak of Aztec symbols surrounds her. The press immediately dubbed her “the bikini-clad Virgin,” and the fight was on.

Our Lady offended certain traditionalist, conservative Hispanic male activists, who made their objections known to the media. Representatives of very powerful institutions demanded removal of Our Lady from display, including members of the museum’s board of regents, the archbishop of Santa Fe, a group of influential, mostly Hispanic Democratic legislators, representatives of national Catholic organizations, and segments of the general public. I refused. For months, the museum was embroiled in highly public discord that fractured Hispanic and Catholic communities in New Mexico and reached national and even international proportions before the exhibition ended. By then, this one little image by a Chicana artist had engendered considerable heated debate and raised visceral issues such as the role of artists and museums in society; free speech versus respect for traditional religious images; the role of women in patriarchal Hispanic culture; who controls art; public funding of the arts; loss of cultural heritage; art and cultural change; the role of the church in such debate; and various us/them, insider/outsider, rich/poor, and white/brown dichotomies. Our Lady exposed all kinds of raw nerves and real issues.

My conclusion from these experiences: Chicano art is powerful indeed. It has the ability to reach across ethnic groups and class lines, to captivate greatly diverse viewers, and to compel a large variety of intellectual and emotional responses. Chicano Art for Our Millennium, a collaborative project between the Mesa Southwest Museum and the Hispanic Research Center of Arizona State University, emphatically demonstrates this artistic power. No previous exhibition establishes the artistic range and thematic sweep of Chicano art more forcefully than Chicano Art for Our Millennium.

Much has been said of the origins of Chicano art in the barrios of East Los Angeles and San Antonio, the campos in between, the universities of the Southwest, political movements such as the United Farm Workers and the Brown Berets, and artistic traditions such as the Mexican muralists and pre-Hispanic art. Because of its geographical cohesiveness, ethnic associations, subject matter, and political and social edge, Chicano art has been variously labeled “ethnic art,” “political art,” “outsider art,” and so forth. One encounters the well-known antecedents of Chicano art in Chicano Art for Our Millennium. But Chicano artists do not work in a vacuum; they are aware of the great traditions of art history. Looking at these works of art, one recognizes references to Goya, Sargent, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Duchamp, and even Vermeer, to movements such as surrealism and German expressionism, and to pre-Hispanic, Spanish, Spanish colonial, and Mexican art. In Chicano art one sees references to the European pantheon from the Renaissance to impressionism and beyond.

Chicano art is a distinctly American art. The time has come to place Chicano art within the context of American art history. Chicano Art for Our Millennium is a major step toward making Chicano art better understood and appreciated by the mainstream art world and general public. As that occurs, the world will be much richer.

Thomas H. Wilson
Mesa Southwest Museum