Art is Agency

Art can be a means of coping. Art is often a form of rebellion. Art is expected to prompt change. Art, then, is agency.

Latin Americans have fought for equal rights in ways similar to other minorities, with explicit parallels to the African-American Civil Rights Movement.[1] Since colonial history, this struggle for agency and recognition has been a part of the identities of these people. Confined to physical sectors within cities such as New York based upon economic and social statuses, historically Latin Americans sought comfort and empowerment through this sense of community—a trend that continues through the present.[2] This organization of community often directed the strikes and the development of political parties.

Political organizations such as the Young Lords Party and more extreme groups like The Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation were among the most apparent entities that promote change and resistance. Mainly, these groups protested the US government and its treatment of Latin Americans nationally as well as abroad, while defining the overarching goals and demands that were ignored. The Young Lords Party, borrowing from The Ten-Point Program developed by the Black Panthers, created a list of thirteen aspirations spurred by the Puerto Rican experience in the United States and their critical response to the US control of the island of Puerto. All thirteen of these points can be criticized, strengthened, and even enacted by the process and transmission of art.

This Young Lords poster was created in the 1970s and calls for a conference at Columbia University.

Music, painting, photography, dance, theater, and literature are powerful and prevalent components in Latin American resistance of substandard conditions and striving to empower others to call for change. From widely circulated posters to private opposition, art transcends time, place, and even language.

One of the most well-known political activists is Puerto Rican artist Elizam Escobar. Escobar was a member of The Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation during the 1970s while he was a student in the States. In 1980, Escobar was arrested with eleven other members of this group with charges of planning to bomb Federal property. Originally sentenced to 68 years in a Federal prison, Escobar and the others were granted clemency from President Clinton in 1999. During his incarceration the artist created some of his best-known paintings dealing with his heritage as well as his feelings that he was an anti-colonial prisoner of war. Even while still in prison, many of his works went on exhibition in the United States and Puerto Rico under the title “Art as an Act of Liberation.”[3] Here, Escobar embraces the power that art has to not only cope with his situation but to communicate ideas to others.

Generacian Libre was painted by Escobar in 2001, two years after he was released from a United States Federal prison. This work displays the artist's desire for a free Puerto Rico.

Juan Antonio Corretjer is a Puerto Rican poet who like many modern artists propelled his vision of a liberated Puerto Rico and social egalitarianism into his works. Born and raised on the island, Corretjer travelled to New York City to establish himself as a writer, but continued with his political activism which landed him in jail like many other activists of the time. Despite his incarceration, Corretjer continued his alliance with Partido Nacionalista while in New York and his essays and poems served as a critical response to the nature of the problem.[4] One of his more celebrated series of poems is Yerba Bruja (1957) that alludes to the restricting force that the United States and other European countries have afflicted on native populations:

Yerba Bruja (Bewitching Grass)

Caminando por el monte (Walking through the woods)

vi acercándose una estrella. (I saw approaching a star.)

Yerba bruja me ató al pie. (Witch grass tied me to the foot.)

Sentí pesada la lengua. (Tongue felt heavy.)

Debajo de los anones (Under the sugar apple)

un arco lanzó su flecha (a bow and arrow launched)

que era rastro luminoso (it was a bright trail)

de cucubano o luciérnaga. (of Cucubano or firefly.)

Seguí andando, seguí andando (I kept walking, kept walking)

sin saber rumbo ni senda. (without knowing direction or path.)

A un clamor de seboruco (A cry of Seboruco)

llegué al fin. (I got to the end.)

Froté la muesca (I rubbed the notch)

y aspiré el humo sagrado (and inhaled the sacred smoke)

que hace la boca profeta. (mouth-prophet.)

¡Bateyes del Otuao (Bateyes of Otuao)

para la danza guerrera! (for the war dance!)

Tú gritaste, ¡Manicato! (You screamed, manicata!)

Y yo, encima de la puerta, (And I, above the door,)

cuando la noche acababa (when the night had ended)

colgué mi collar de piedra. (I hung my necklace made ​​of stone.)

                                                                  Juan Antonio Corretjer (1957) [5]

These two artists represent how powerful the ideals and struggles are within the Puerto Rican communities. With the use of art, as well as centers like El Museo del Barrio that exhibit contributions from Latin Americans, communities can better understand and organize their aspirations for equal rights and self-determination. Since art transcends normal temporal and special boundaries, it has the greatest chance of communicating ideas that can stimulate dialogue that leads to change.


[1] Morales, Iris. “Power to the People” forward to ¡Palante, Siempre Palante! companion book.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Elizam’s Passages.” Puerto Rico Herald. 8 March 2002. Accessed 7 May 2011.

[4] Rodríguez, Néstor E. Juan Antonio Corretjer Biography. Accessed 7 May 2011.

[5] Corretjer, Juan Antonio. Yerba Bruja. Cuidad Seva. Translation by Google. Accessed 7 May 2011

Categories: am

8 thoughts on “Art is Agency

  1. Your statement that art is agency has really resonated with me, and has made me think about whether I think it is or not. In the end, I think it’s a toss up–while “making” art can make a person feel as though they’ve accomplished something, made something that can show the world their plight or fight, I would think it could also be a source of great frustration. All the work that goes into producing a piece of art, and then what? Hopefully, it gets exhibited somewhere, but I would think that attracting an audience that would be moved toward change would be incredibly difficult. I know that’s a skeptical way of thinking, but I do wonder.

    At the same time, I think it’s great that El Museo del Barrio, as well as other museums, exhibit works initiated by a desire for social or political change. By exhibiting these pieces, in past and current settings, I think it becomes possible to see where people have been, and where they wanted to go. In many cases, that fight is still ongoing, and I think it’s inspiring to understand that visitors can feel solidarity with a painting that may have been done in the 1970s.

    1. Elizabeth,

      I think I may be skeptical like you. I wonder who sees the artwork that is shown. If the people who see it are only the same people that already know about the artists struggles, what kind of impact does that artwork have? I think there is a very unfortunate trend in our society. Unlike some European or even South American countries, many people in the United States do not have an appreciation for art. In reality, this lack of appreciation is rooted in the way we see art as just that, something we appreciate because we have the academic tools to appreciate it. In many other countries I have visited art is much more democratic. If artwork is only seen by the elite in the United States, how can these universal ideas reach the people? In the case of the artwork Amanda wrote about, I think it can. Especially pieces like the Young Lords poster. Art is agency and for some cultures it has more power and agency than it does here.

      1. I can agree with both of your skepticism about the current agency of art in our society. I believe art has great power IF it is seen. Unfortunately, a large part of society does not view art on a regular basis. As Liz stated, that is where museums come in. Museums can be a key factor in helping to grow the accessibility and appreciation of art. And now, with ever-advancing communication technologies, museums and other art-related institutions have more diverse ways to spread art than simply through a gallery exhibition. Though there is no doubt that much art is better viewed in person, outreach programs can go a long way to help increase art viewership.

  2. I think that there are two levels of agency when we’re speaking about art as a manifestation of agency. Oppressed minorities in the 1960s had the agency to express themselves through art, poetry, etc. and communicate these ideas to others. Then, there’s the agency to effect actual change, which some civil rights-era groups achieved, and others did not. Undoubtedly, art helped share ideas and promote causes. But how did some groups get from sharing ideas through art to making actual change? Dialogue is a necessary first step towards change, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

  3. I really appreciate your post, because I have spent quite a bit of time considering the intersection between art and politics. I think art is most effective in activism when used as an organizing force. It is an excellent way to establish solidarity, and to deepen commitment and understanding. However, when it is well done, art can also expose certain truths about a situation or political issue that would otherwise go ignored by the general public.

    The main question for me is whether art causes activism, or activism causes art. Most likely, it goes both ways. Art always seems to accompany political movements, but I don’t think art has ever been the driving force behind political change.

  4. This is a really great idea to bring to the fore (and ever so relevant to my thesis research)! While art has been used as a protest medium for a long time, in the late 1960s artists began challenging traditional museum institutions like MoMA, questioning whether these behemoth organizations would accurately and adequately represent the artists’ perspective. The Black and Puerto Rican Emergency Cultural Coalition joined with the Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group to protest for the addition of a Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pedro Albizu Campos Study Center at MoMA in 1970. And in 1969, El Museo del Barrio was formed at the instigation of other activist-artists to create a space for the representation of Puerto Rican culture within the New York City art world. The link between art and agency which you point out, definitely fits in to the historical context from which the Young Lords were born.

    1. It’s really interesting that these groups protested for the inclusion of this Study Center at MoMA given the historical importance art shows seems to have had in the American perception of the Latin American world. From my skim of the Nueva York book, it seemed like the 1913 Armory Show and popular exhibits at MoMA and other NYC institutions acted as sort of a reintroduction for New Yorkers to Latin American art and culture. It’s encouraging to read that as time progressed, these groups you point out didn’t settle for just these celebratory types of exhibitions. They demanded more from MoMA, probably because they understand the clout that such a high profile museum undoubtedly had. Were they successful? I just Googled the name of the study center and couldn’t find anything.

  5. I think art is definitely a rallying point, which many of you pointed out. Revolutionary art in the art world can make a statement and create a movement within itself, but activist art is usually a product of a greater movement where dialogue has occurred, like Amanda remarked. Or even a way to draw attention to an issue or a group.

    Sometimes placing art in unconventional spaces can also bring attention to it and bring relevancy to certain issues and groups. Graffiti is one example. Also the Cuba Now exhibit, at the 21c Museum is found in a hotel in Louisville KY. I think this exhibit brings forward the issue of immigration between Cuba and the United States as well as politics and activism in Cuba. Its interesting to see that young artists/revolutionaries are still present and still using various avenues to bring forth their stories and call attention to their experiences and perhaps to greater issues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s