“We are a Brown People with a Bronze Culture”

Part Three

In asking the question what is Chicano art, one is inevitably asking another question what is art?  Chicano art did not fit into the white Western mainstream definition of “fine art” and was, for years, rejected outright by the museum establishment.  Artists of color met with numerous barriers constructed by white curators and gallery owners.  One of the most ephemeral criteria was that of something called “quality.”  “Quality” became a code word for discrimination and that word is considered racist when put in the context of art that is not white and male.  Evoking quality is an excellent way to keep out art by artists who were not trained in art programs, who were not in the art clique favored by the critics, and outsiders in general.

These outsiders were easily identifiable: they were not doing what the mainstream art world was doing but, unlike their white male counterparts, being different did not mean being avant-garde or provocative.  Being different meant being different and being inferior because one’s work did not exhibit that elusive element called “quality.”  “Quality” has connotations of being “qualified” in the sense of being legitimate. An artist was not identified as an artist simply by doing art, for anyone could make art.  An artist had to be legitimated and gain institutional approval.  Notice that Jean-Michel Basquiat went to a great deal of trouble legitimating himself by making connections with important people in the New York art scene. Suddenly, a street artist became “quail-fied” or an artist of quality. Basquiat wanted to be “in” and used what whites considered his “primitive” desirable “exoticism” to gain acceptance as the colorful Other.

Chicanos think of themselves as living in an occupied land, invaded by Anglos.  As second-class citizens they mush make do, cope or perform actions characterized as movidasMovidas refers to coping strategies to make do or to get along in a situation that surely is temporary and will pass.  Chicano art, therefore, will emphasize the decorative, rather than the functional and displays an exuberate sense of the decorative.  The artists revel in their lower class status and celebrate rasquachismo, as the Chicano sensibility.  The underdog mentality flaunts what Anglos consider “bad taste.”  The concept of rasquache permeates the guerrilla theater of the performance group, ASCO, the emphasis on mass-media poster making, rather than fine art painting, and the vigorous, often over-the-top murals that adorn the walls of barrio communities.  Another key inspiration for Chicano artists is The Border, that scar that artificially separates the United States from Mexico, the wall called the “Tortilla Curtain.”

For generations, a system of casual migration from south to north had taken place seasonally. In the summer, Native peoples headed north to cooler climates and in the winter, they returned to the south. Along the way, they established communities and gradually settled the Southwest. Pushed out during the nineteenth century, these Native Americans were divided into two halves after the Mexican War of 1845. Those that were left were under pressure to leave a land that was once their own. During the twentieth century, Mexican workers were invited to American as guest workers. Over the twentieth century many of these workers elected to stay in America and the Mexican American population increased, particularly in the Southwest and California. The young generation of Mexican-Americans, conscious of the fact that they were neither Mexican nor American, but they were also both Mexican and American, decided to assert their American-ness and to distinguish themselves from their parents began to call themselves “Chicano.”

The Chicano generation was politically aware and alert to the way in which Mexicans were being treated in America. A familiar pattern had emerged: Mexicans were attracted to El Norto and its labor market and, as long as they were needed, their presence was welcomed. However, when economic hard times came, recessions, depressions, xenophobia emerged and economic conditions were blamed on “foreign labor.” Uneasy with the presence of these “aliens,” the federal government countered their guest worker or Bracero Program with Operation Wetback to force the Mexicans to return to Mexico during the 1950s.

Recession politics during the 1970s impacted art. When border politics became a hot button issue, border art began to assert itself.  This is especially true in San Diego where the Tortilla Curtain zig-zags across the land.  Just in the past few weeks, the court upheld the right of Blackwater, a corporation that hires out mercenaries, to build a camp in San Diego, apparently for the purpose of patrolling the border.    According to San Diego artist, David Avalos,

Our relationship is based on the institution of violence.  So it’s not surprising that in this country is a situation of people of Mexican ancestry that is today the situation of people of Mexican ancestry in this country is a situation of a conquered people, a colonized people.  It’s a situation where we do not have entry into the institutions of society.  We exist as a community outside the law.

In other words, what Avalos is saying is that the Border exists everywhere for Chicanos.  Whether the Border is a checkpoint on the 5 Freeway or the term “Chicano” art, Mexican-Americans are strangers in their own land. Which returns us to the original question, what is Chicano Art? Is it art made by those who identify themselves as “Chicano?’ If so, “Chicano” is a political term and the movement is linked to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and to Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers. Chicano Art was a deliberately outsider art, an art of refusal of Anglo conventions, but it should also be noted that Chicano Art was a local art, coming mostly out of California. Since the 1960s, times have changed in California. Mexican-Americans in California are in positions of power and prominence and there are generations that have lived in middle class conditions. However, those of Mexican descent remain proud of their heritage and continue to manifest these traditions through their culture. The next post will discuss individual artists and specific examples of Chicano Art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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