The Latin American literary scene has recently heard many voices raised in protest of Chilean writer Eduardo Labarca’s latest collection of literary essays, El enigma de los módulos, which on its front cover depicts the author urinating on the grave of celebrated Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Condemned by Argentinean culture minister as “a violation” and reported by The Latin Americanist to have provoked “a minor diplomatic spat”, the criticism was met by an unapologetic Labarca.
Later admitting it was water from a bottle in his hand, Labarca argued that it was a legitimate artistic act. Dubbing those who were outraged as “short-sighted”, he added that the cover is a criticism of Borges’s political views, not literary abilities. In the 70s Borges had expressed his support of the military junta under General Pinochet, although condemning the human rights violations occurring under the regime. Understandably, Argentineans aren’t happy about this lack of respect for their most celebrated writer of the 20th-century. However, Eduardo Labarca is entitled to visually reiterate his own opinions on the cover of the book in which he verbally states them anyway – is that not what any book (with a cover intended to convey more than “buy me!”) aims to do?
What is problematic about Labarca’s response – in which he essentially reduces this to the age-old “is it/is it not art” dilemma – is that it does not acknowledge the complex factors influencing the protesters, such as national pride and even sensitivity about the legitimacy of their literature in the literary world. Art should undeniably be a medium through which any and all voices can be heard, no matter how political, unpalatable or controversial what is said might be. However, those doing the talking need to avoid two things that always drag the artwork down from a controversial and productive level to a controversial and lazy one; shocking the viewer for the sake of shocking them, and over-simplifying on behalf of anyone but themselves.
Art cannot exist utterly free of all human context, culture and bias
It seems as if Labarca’s trying to make a political statement, which is all well and good, but he’s confusing it with making an artistic statement. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but in this particular case, what he is saying artistically is not quite clear. That art should not be restricted by sensitivity towards the public mood? Fair enough. But that art should be free of all ties intrinsically binding it to its viewer? To acknowledge then reject cultural or historical nuances, for the purpose of making a point, is one thing. To pretend the nuances don’t exist is another, which arguably does strip it of its legitimacy. It cannot be “short-sightedness” to feel an emotive response simply because that response is one of anger, born out of a complex cultural and collective identity. If Labarca’s “it is art: get over how outraged you feel” response could realistically be adopted by everyone, his own work would lose not only its meaning (for no one would view it politically, historically, emotionally) but its value too (for everyone would view it purely aesthetically).
It is not that he shouldn’t have decided on a cover like that for his book; it is that to justify it with a haughty, ambiguous and frankly “easy-way-out” option, like assuming your viewer simply cannot see that it is art, does you no credit whatsoever. Justifying his photo as a representation of a legitimate political critique, or a personal expression of his political stance to be interpreted symbolically, he could have reached through the culture- and emotion-tinted response. Hence, showing people that their very reaction legitimises his method of representation, even as they disagreed with it.
Art cannot exist utterly free of all human context, culture and bias; it would become a metaphysical concept we cannot experience, create or learn from – hence one we can’t care about. Labarca should be downright glad his justification is inapplicable to the nature of art; for creating something that can gauge absolutely no reaction from its viewer will have its artistic legitimacy inconclusively disputed forever – that is, if anyone cares to dispute what they can only be indifferent about.