December 9, 2013
Another ViewSaturday, October 5, 2013
The political use of our revolutionaries
Figures of the past are publicly exhibited and adapted to the antinomies of the present
Ariel Mlynarzawics’ exhibition, “Revolutionaries,” closed a few days ago. Accompanied by a documentary produced by the Centre of Production and Audiovisual Investigation, subsumed to the national Culture Secretariat, the exhibition consisted of twelve paintings to mark the bicentennial celebrations of the May Revolution
The documentary showed the investigations conducted and conversations held by the artist with personalities that —closely linked to Kirchnerism’s culture field — advised him during the production process.
“Revolutionaries” was first shown in May 2010 at the Central Post Office building and this time was showcased at the National Museum of Fine Arts, which has been under the administration of national Cultural Management Under-Secretary Marcela Cardillo since April 2013.
The exhibition was staged at the initiative of Culture Secretary Jorge Coscia, who commissioned the artist a series of paintings on the protagonists of our revolution.
With some very large paintings and broad brushstrokes, Mlynarzawics fulfilled his assignment and painted José de San Martín, Simón Bolívar, Manuel Belgrano, Mariano Moreno, Juan José Castelli, Bernardo de Monteagudo, Manuel Dorrego, Miguel Martín de Güemes, Juana Azurduy and Manuela Sáenz.
On the list are the two great liberators of America, the ubiquitous creator of the flag, the three most cited Jacobins, the icon of popular sectors in Buenos Aires City, the representative of Salta’s gauchos and the feminist minority. Without doubt, this is one of the many projects from the government borne in the commemorative climate of 2010, which expresses the leading role taken up by history in the political speeches and public debates of recent years.
I will not opine on the artistic value of the paintings, as I lack the required credentials to do so. But Mlynarzawics’ exhibition invited me to reflect historically on the vicissitudes faced by our nation when the time came to define who the protagonists of its revolution were. A far away debate, staged in the Constituent Congress that met in Buenos Aires between 1824 and 1827 reveals the difficulties of those who took part in the revolution to reach a consensus on a commemorative list.
In 1826, the Executive branch, headed by Bernardino Rivadavia, submitted a bill to Congress to build a fountain as a monument to the leaders of the revolution, with their names inscribed on it. The bill caused heated controversy on the floor and in the press of the time. The greatest point of friction was the criteria for the selection of authorship. Who were the true protagonists of the May Revolution? All the debate’s participants were aware that the monument would crystallize a pantheon of heroes and that the inclusion or exclusion of certain characters would leave a legacy that would be hard to correct.
Some lawmakers argued that not enough time had elapsed to correctly evaluate the facts, while others affirmed that the risk of forgetting was at stake. Members of the government considered that the monument would allow for the consensus the country needed, while its opponents that it would end up dividing opinion even more. After two months of debate, the bill was approved, but with the amendment of not including names: authorship undefined, in other words, what the revolution was about, undefined. In the end, the fountain was never built.
Conceptions about 1810 and its protagonists have changed over these two centuries. Bartolomé Mitre’s version, consecrated in the second half of the 19th century, sought to silence doubts and interpretive ambiguities that preceded him to establish a definitive pantheon of national heroes. But, as we know, a pantheon cannot be eternal and is always subjected to revision.
The figures currently exhibited in public, stimulated by the government, do not appear to show features of originality, quite the contrary: they recover the old historic discourse of the revisionists of the 1930s and adapt them to the new antinomies of the present.
In this manner, history and memory intertwine in a field traversed by political and ideological forces that compete to assign diverse meanings. The political use of the past is an instrument that has been employed throughout history, present with lesser or greater vigour in all periods and latitudes, and Argentina is not an exception.
Although the exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum inspires me to write these lines, I do not intend to discuss the selection of the “patriots” included in it — which holds no surprises — but rather the climate of the period expressed in it. Certainly liberty, the artist’s talent and the recommendations of advisers were present in the criteria or tastes that presided over the selection process. In a project of these characteristics it is inevitable for there to have been problematic exclusions or inclusions as there were in the Hall of Latin American Patriots of the Bicentenary inaugurated by the president on May 25, 2010.
What I am interested in highlighting is the common disposition of certain artists, essayists and communicators to renounce the restless spirit that proposes questioning of the true past and present.
What dominates the audiovisual material that accompanies the exhibition in question is the certainty about what the revolution was and who its authors were. There is neither the slightest hint of doubt nor the room for dissidence, quite the contrary. The recovery of the past is installed in a continuous “presentism,” made evident in the interventions of those who advised the painter. One example suffices to illuminate the aforementioned. The painting portraying Bernardo de Monteagudo carries the title of “Che Monteagudo” as per the suggestion of Pacho O’Donnell. The president’s preferred cultural adviser compared the changing and multifaceted politician from Tucumán with Che Guevara, and affirms in the trailer that, “He is where the revolution is. If he had to kill, he killed; if he had to die, he died.”
Installing a historic pantheon of heroes and villains is part of the cultural battle waged by the government. Said battle is mobilized through various formats, in museums, monuments, publications, television and radio programmes, or advertising. It is irrelevant to discuss here the roles played by these characters or what the meanings and values they have for their promoters. What is worth asking is what has happened in the field of Argentine culture. It remains unclear at this time whether an “official discourse” on the past truly exists or if it is the product of a puzzle set up by those who found an opportunity without precedent to install themselves in the public arena under the protection of the state machinery.
* Marcela Ternavasio is a historian and Conicet researcher who teaches at Universidad Nacional de Rosario.