Written by Luisa Straulino
Translated by: María Ritter
To begin to talk about art and its link with acts of protest we must first try to define what art is, but...... I will start by accepting that I still cannot define it myself. As a restorer, I’ve always had problems defining it because what is art for some, is not for others, and what is art in one era, is no longer art in another; it depends on whether the person who made the piece had the intention of making art, it depends on how it is positioned in the market, and so on. Consider, for example, the Coatlicue or the Piedra del Sol that are now exhibited as pre-Hispanic art in the National Museum of Anthropology. For the Spaniards, these stones were horrifying symbols of the devil and paganism that had to be eradicated, and not once since their arrival and during the entire viceregal era, they were seen as art, overlooking, among other things, the enormous quality of their workmanship. And well, for the Mexica...the truth is that I don't know if they shared the concept of western art, although obviously for them they were pieces full of meaning.
So, I have asked Diana Soria Hernandez, artist, what is art in her opinion, and afterwards we will come back to this for more reflections on art and protest:
"For me art is that which makes you see, feel, think about something in a different way, it has the ability to surprise and open perspectives. Art asks questions and makes connections between concepts that move at different levels of perception: it plays and provokes."
Defining what art is has had academics, philosophers, artists, among others, in a constant debate; so, we could think of defining cultural heritage, since art is only a part of culture.
This concept might seem a little more enlightening (the UNESCO definition of cultural heritage can be found by clicking here); for example, in Mexican legislation, cultural heritage is divided into paleontological, archeological, historical and artistic according to more or less arbitrary periods, the first being the least defined, archeological until the establishment of the Hispanic culture, historical from this date until the Mexican Revolution and the last dates from the end of the Revolution until today, as long as they have been declared artistic monuments. The only ones that are exempt from the declaration are the best-known muralists such as Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco. Depending on the type of heritage, it has a certain degree of Federal protection, being the archeological the most protected and the artistic the least protected (to read the law, click here).
So cultural heritage could also be understood as everything that humanity does with a relevant value, but who decides that value? what is taken into account? what is relevant for decision makers is relevant for different social groups?
In this regard, Laurajane Smith (2011) makes an excellent theoretical dissertation on what is the authoritative heritage discourse. This was developed in the 19th century and defines heritage as material objects, places, sites, or landscapes that are not renewable. This discourse, prevalent today, sees heritage simply as a "thing" that can be measured, catalogued, and defined and therefore its meanings can be easily controlled and confined. The authoritative heritage discourse does not allow heritage to be seen as a cultural process, but rather, because it is a "thing" and something to be "found," its innate value, its essence, will speak to future and present generations ensuring its understanding and place in the world. Thus, experts who are dedicated to safeguarding these objects or places (and not cultural processes) work as custodians of the past by taking on administrative roles for heritage assets and heritage events backed by a sense of duty, where they must not only protect the "thing" but communicate to the nation its values that come from the past.
Hence, Álvaro Santillán's proposal (2021), to understand heritage as a factish, is very useful to understand what Laurajane Smith mentions and to study the cultural processes that surround it, such as protests. The term factish was coined by the philosopher Bruno Latour and is a hybrid between facto and fetish, which share the root facer (to do); with this, the dialectic between the documentary and magical function of the sign/heritage is recognized, as well as the conscious and unconscious that it unleashes in us.
"The term factish encompasses the magic of the fetish, the knowledge of the facto, the image of the facia and the utility of the artifact, and it is this conjunction that distinguishes a vile object from a cultural object. They are not only things, but they are also ideas, signs, processes, actants, relations and even beings, since they are personified" (Santillán, 2021).
According to Santillán (2021) it is not useful to see heritage as a normal artifact, since it comes out of use, nor is it useful to see it only as a document, since it has functions that elude reason, but if we see it as a factish we notice coincidences with the meanings that we attribute to it and with the social relations and attitudes that it provokes. The risk of losing these magical objects and the mortal punishment it would unleash are, from a fetishist vision, the reason why we separate them from use, keep them in safe places and restore them to "purify" them.
On the other hand, people who deal with the belief of others in fetishes are the ones who become compelled by rage to destroy these objects. However, it is the fact that they can be destroyed that generates that factishes, or heritage in this case, contain an inherent force (Latour, 2010).