[Presented at a conference of the National Association of Art Critics on public art held in Yerevan, Armenia in 2010]
Haiti’s earthquake killed approximately three hundred thousand people, among of which were hundreds of fine artists, metal sculptors and artisans whose living depended upon the sales of souvenirs. The earthquake of January the 12th, commonly referred to as the Goudou Goudou, broke down the divisions between what previously had been considered as elite artists and their artisan counterparts. With this tragedy, the schism between high and low art was broken as evidenced through the ways in which Haitian art came to be recognized through ‘loss’ and the manner in which those in the art world across the globe attempted to recuperate the history and the very artifacts of Haitian art. Media reports both spectacularized and leveled the field of loss as narratives of ‘celebrated art…buried under rubble’ mitigated the reality of human loss. Here the loss of art was felt by those inside and outside Haiti as having a direct effect on the continuance of human life in a country plagued by natural and human-made disasters. The connection between art and survival was made through the tragic impact of the Goudou Goudou, the resultant loss of somatic and artistic bodies; likewise the connection between art and survival was made in the earthquake’s aftermath when the only references to these lost bodies were evoked through memory and storytelling. Haitian identity was both lost and in a state of resuscitation as droves from around the globe came to help find these ‘bodies’.
The Goudou Goudou leveled the capital, Port-au-Prince, toppling galleries, museums, cathedrals and historical edifices and robbing this Caribbean nation of one of its most precious resources: art. News reports told of the loss of tens of thousands of paintings, sculptures and architectural treasures, and the international spectator looking upon the devastation would be given sound bites from all sides of the disaster through video montage and interviews: opinions from medical and sanitation specialists, updates from rescue teams and military, and likewise the status of lost and damaged Haitian art from curators and museum directors. There were tremendous casualties amongst the thousands of paintings in the Cathédrale Sainte-Trinité which housed valuable artworks of the late 1940s by Haitian masters of what is referred to as the Haitian Renaissance. This included voodoo priest Hector Hyppolite, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Philome Obin, Prefete Duffaut and Wilson Bigaud. This cathedral was known for its murals of Bible stories, all with dark-skinned figures and vibrant frescoes, including Philomé Obin’s crucifixion scene with a mulatto Jesus, and a depiction of Christ’s Ascension over a scene of football-playing villagers by Castera Bazile. These are now little more than an ‘unfinished jigsaw puzzle’ of crumbled walls, according to UNESCO’s damage report. Weeks after the earthquake, this cathedral was eventually cleared by demolition crews as the many murals destroyed were beyond repair (Lacey, 2010)
The Centre d’Art was home to painters such as André Pierre (circa 1915-2005) and Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), and is credited as the place where Haitian artists began to gain international recognition in the early part of the twentieth century. Yet, the centre’s role as the promoter of Haitian art is highly contentious: some claim the centre nurtured a generation of untrained artists, while others believe that the centre’s role was primarily that of art promotion and putting these artists in touch with overseas buyers. Pierre and Hyppolite, both voodoo priests, were part of a generation of Haitian artists who produced work, often labeled as ‘naïve art’, which emphasized the religion’s dystopian side of death, grotesque eroticism and purification of life. The Centre d’Art was also the place where Haitan artists once met with André Breton, Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire, and as such the architectural site of Haitian cultural production was lost as well as thousands of paintings contained therein. The Musée Galerie d’Art Nader on Rue Bouvreuil lost over twelve thousand Haitian works when the building in which they were housed succumbed. Only two thousand works have been salvaged, among which are the works of Hector Hyppolite and Alexandre Gregoire. College Saint Pierre, the city’s main art museum, was hit hardest by the earthquake and became a site for collectors and curators who showed up to personally salvage paintings with the likes of art dealer Axelle Liautaud, UNESCO special envoy Bernard Hadjadj and Haitian painter Maritou Chenet who watched as employees of the College Saint Pierre used sticks to fish out a painting by Jasmin Joseph. While the National Palace–the country’s principal symbol that dates back less than a century designed in a French Renaissance style evoking an earlier period–collapsed, key collections contained in the National Museum, built underground in a park facing the National Palace, were largely untouched. Despite these cultural losses, dozens of Haiti’s fine artists–the number is not yet known–perished in the quake.
In lesser privileged parts of the city, street artists were missing and dead, lying lifeless under ruins along with their art. Although some of these street artists and experimental cooperative centers which often passed down artistic traditions to younger generations have recently come into the crosshairs of museum directors and curators who recognize this street and community art as ‘fine art’, most Haitian community artists are largely unrecognized by the more formal spaces that legitimize art. The distinction between high art and mass culture was always a formally bifurcated terrain in Haitian society, and the Goudou Goudou can be credited with breaking through this barrier and opening up the floodgates of the equal access to death and art. Located in one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest neighborhoods, Bel Air, much of the Grand Rue was flattened. Countless numbers of Atis Rezistans’ sculptures were lost or damaged, and art collectors and museologists from around the world came to salvage the art therein. The three sculptors from this group are Jean Hérald Celeur, André Eugène, and Guyodo (Frantz Jacques). In the ‘about’ section of their shared website, they autobiographically describe that they ‘have transformed the detritus of a failing economy into bold, radical and warped sculptures… [we reference] a dystopian, sci-fi view of the future and the positive transformative act of assemblage.’ (Atis-Rezistans, 2007) Their sculptures are constructed from sundry electronics, car engines, car wheels, lumber and whatever else may land in what the three describe as an atmosphere of junkyard, make-do, survivalist recycling and artistic endeavor.
Similarly, Port-au-Prince, this city of interminable piles of rubble, now presented the young and the poor of Cité Soleil and other poor neighborhoods a series of treasure expeditions for finding primary material for their creations. Just as the artists of the Grand Rue who used metal, car and machine parts for their works, much of Haitian popular art is crafted from recycled materials–from metal to plastic and sundry found objects. After the Goudou Goudou, scavenging the thousands of piles of debris by children and young men has become a task of survival. Pulling the metal out of the rubble to craft lawn chairs, souvenirs of local flora, sculptures of various voodoo deities, or merely the placement of a crushed car in the middle of a road all became occasions for celebrating life after death and for conterminously commemorating death through life.
Despite these cultural losses, thousands of Haitian artists of all backgrounds–the precise number is not yet known–perished in the quake. Typically, this loss of life and art were conflated by many who made direct connections between cultural heritage and somatic life: ‘This may seem like something superficial, to care about paintings at a time like this,’ said Ms. Liautaud, an art dealer who is also on the board of directors of the Centre d’Art. ‘Of course, we should care about the people first. But the reason why there is still a country, despite all our troubles, is our strong culture’ (Lacey, 2010). If as Liautaud maintains, the preservation of cultural heritage is the raison d’être for the country of Haiti, what then do we make of the huge losses of Haitian art? And what is the relationship between individually and communally crafted art while it is spun in the international scene as that which is already attached to a cultural construction of political and economic oppression, or more recently as “damaged” and “traumatized” as a result of the Goudou Goudou? Georges Nader, owner of the Musée Galerie d’Art Nader stated, ‘We have lost the biggest collection of Haitian art, not only in Haiti but in the world…There are pieces that you won’t be able to find any more. This is finished.’ (Phillips, 2010) Similarly, Gerald Alexis, curator and art critic, said. ‘It’s our heritage. And although people think that in poor countries such concepts are unnecessary, they are indeed the only thing we have. Our cultural heritage is our pride.’ (Phillips, 2010). This idea of material loss is bonded to the cultural for obvious reasons, but the historic and artistic losses are merged discursively:human losses become synonymous to the loss of cultural heritage. Indeed, as Ms. Liautaud told the New York Times. ‘We had so much despite the fact that we’re so poor…Nothing that’s new can replace what’s old. Gone in a day. It’s all gone’ (Lacey, 2010). What is notable about many such commentaries define Haitian culture and historicity as paradoxically linked to art, where art is perceived as being homologous to human life: ‘Haitian art is what makes the international eye see us,’ Joseph Gaspard, a member of the board of directors of the College Saint Pierre museum, said. ‘Every Haitian is an artist. Art, it is us, it’s what we are. Even our children are artists.’ (Wilkinson, 2010).
January’s earthquake leveled the playing field of life and death, and likewise of the subject’s access to art–both as spectator and as artist. We are now confronted with an art scene which spans what is problematically called the “naïve art” genre; with African, voodoo and abstract symbolism’ with Atis Rezistans sculptures; with metal lizards and birds for sale as souvenirs or domestic “objets d’art”; with paintings which replicate the “naïve art” on canvases sold along Port-au-Prince’s streets; with highly stylized metal furniture along the Pan American Road. Perhaps every Haitian is an artist , but the differences between high art and craft are being dissimulated in a non-transparent manner both by national and international art institutions. Likewise, there is a strangely familiar ‘rescuing’ of art occurring since the Goudou Goudou that replicates the rescuing of life: ‘It is a race against time,’ said Axelle Liautaud, ‘Many of the pieces are damaged – some are extremely damaged. We’re just getting everything that we can reach and we’ll decide later what can be restored’ (Reinl).
Haiti’s cultural patrimony was in danger, and emergency units were sent from around the world to find the valued, if not lost, treasures, whose value were made equal to–and at times more than–that of human life. Immediate actions were taken to safeguard World Heritage sites and to protect Haitian art. This is sadly not the case today with the 1,7 million displaced living in IDP camps. Yet, even the understanding of Haitian art seems to be linked to the poor and not the elite as Ms Liautaud states: ‘The people in power don’t understand the value of their own culture. It’s vital that we rebuild the centre so future generations of students have a place to learn. The earthquake has created a gap in our cultural history…; (Montgomery). For Vidho Lorville, 39, Haitian-born artist, smashed-up galleries and poor funding will not stop the latest generation of street artists, such as Atis Rezistans, from assembling artworks from car tiers, animal bones and battered engine parts: ‘The art of Haiti will never die because it is not in the art schools. Haitian art is an archive of our existence, and it is still very much alive. Haitian art is in the streets. It will take time to get back to where we were before the earthquake, but it is not dead’ (Reinl).
I list for you the facts of Haiti’s formal art scene as it has historically developed and been presented because there has always been a liminal, if not problematic relationship between high art and craft, and a more daunting relationship between values placed on art versus human life. Yet, the true loss of Haiti cannot be measured through the numbers of buildings or artworks as the devastation of life took center stage. The recuperation of Haitian art quickly became conflated with the spirit of humanitarian projects on the ground, and as a result artwork in Haiti was repositioned in the world theater through its sale and collection now rendered ‘fundraising.’ Internet sites such as ‘Haitian Earthquake Relief Art Sale’ put artworks on virtual auction announcing that proceedings would be ‘donated to the relief efforts’, while the Smithsonian set up camp in a former UNDP building to restore the lost art. In this way, Haitian art was recast on the world scene as an art of tragedy, and the Goudou Goudou gave birth to the museum of disaster relief in the context of communal art.
Upon arriving to Haiti, I was immediately struck at vast contradictions posed by the rhetoric of ‘state of emergency’ and ‘disaster relief’, versus the evidenced lack of ground support for the people, most of whom today still lack basics such as tents, water and waste management. Conterminous to this reality are the parallel structures of ‘emergency relief’ that have been orchestrated by mostly private and non-Haitianorganizations among which are the expedited processing of adoption of “orphans” (most of whom are not at all orphans) by religious organizations, the rebuilding of churches by similar organizations, and the attempt to implement alternative energy systems such as the famously disastrous project of the solar cooker. And amongst the ‘emergency’ relief efforts were the efforts to rescue Haitian Modern and Contemporary art from the ruins of galleries and museums. Just a few weeks following the quake, Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s chief, called for a ban on the trade of Haitian artifacts and asked UN peacekeepers to patrol broken-down museums. The term ‘emergency’ came to mean anything in post Goudou Goudou Haiti, and actions by NGOs were undertaken with a certain cynicism towards any knowledge of the real needs of Haitian people.
The nexus between developmental models utilized by humanitarian NGOs on the ground in Haiti and the recuperation of Haitian art through the similar networks which attempt to save Haitian art as if a human life reveal the very complex relationship between politics and art. Websites throughout the world are holding auctions of Haitian art, such as eGalery.com which proudly announces: ‘Despite the hardships and political trauma suffered by this country, Haiti remains a wellspring of creativity and imagination. Many of the painters exhibited here hang in prestigious galleries and museums. All of them are well-known and collectible artists.” (eGalery.com) Medalia Art’s website announces:’This is an international effort, and only together can we help Haiti recover. In that spirit, this fundraising effort is open to artists and collectors from around the world. We have been overwhelmed by the response to this fundraising effort, both from artists and collectors.”’ (www.medalia.net) And then there is the Antreasian Gallery whose website boasts various artists such as Bim Jones, Allyson Smith and Geraldine Bullock and includes a section of their site dedicated simply to ‘Haitian Artists’. No names necessary. And there was the auction at Sotheby’s in March, wherein the Haitian artists Pierre Francillon and Lesny Felix donated their work to Sotheby’s along with Michael Stipe, Jeff Koons and Marilyn Minter helping to raise $150,000 for relief efforts in Haiti.
What these popular and formal spaces of promoting Haitian art have in common is that they render Haitian art a commodity that exists conterminously inside and outside of any specific knowledge of its culture. Hence, the site of artistic production post-earthquake Haiti, while also flattening the distinctions that many in the art world reflect onto the artifact (ie. style, form), has become a terrain for obfuscating art within metanarratives of urgency, relief and poverty. What these ‘artistic relief efforts’ bring up are a series of questions such as, what is this tenuous social and economic relationship between fundraising through art which maintains the integrity of Haitian art as a sphere apart from those bodies covered in rubble? What is the relationship between public spectatorship and communal art and the problematic ties between the international interception and mediation, local construction and consumption of these pieces, and the representational force of this art? What are the implications for treating Haitian art through human rights and political discourse? How can communities continue to produce art when the bottom line of art to be sold to an international audience must implicitly or explicitly be couched within a narrative of disaster? And how does this meta-discourse of disaster/art relief consistently deterritorialize both real life tragedy and art within the framework of relief and humanitarian aid? Most importantly, is it possible that this artwork produced since the Goudou Goudou can possibly come to represent the local communities’ relationship to their own history, their own memory, and even their own death without bearing the traces of disaster relief? Ultimately, I call into question the representational form of communal monuments and their co-optation under the guise of development or aid. Parallel to the efforts to rescue Haitian art from ‘disaster’ is an equally problematic position of those within the art world who pose Haitian ‘high art’—those collectible pieces—separate from the art of poor, popular artists, some of whom, such as Atis Rezistans, have been embraced by galleries in London and New York in recent years. Antithetically, we must question if the blurring of the distinctions between art and craft are valuable actions for the sake of poverty and its polyvalent discourses for class-empowered and self-taught art. Yet, when one walks through the streets of Port-au-Prince, the walls of most businesses are covered in murals, from images of the well-groomed beard announcing the coiffeur behind the lime green walls to the various interpretations of the miniature sculptures of tap-tap, local transportation vehicles painted in bright colors, often rendering images of a dead loved one or even of Jesus. How to interpret Haitian art in an age when all things are rendered art and when the discursive practices for reading and interpreting art are part and parcel of a system that still names such practices ‘naïve art’?
High culture and its relation to mass culture have been invariably a central concern of much theoretical work in cultural studies, critical theory, media studies and art history over the past seventy years. This nexus was of particular concern to Walter Benjamin whose essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ has been highly influential in this field, as has the work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse who came together at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in 1930s. Adorno saw ‘mass culture’ as basically synonymous with Greenberg’s notion of kitsch– as a means for mollifying the masses and fostering passivity by providing readily-available, if not mindless, cultural products. High culture has also been a central concept in political theory on nationalism for writers such as Ernest Renan and Ernest Gellner, who frame ‘high culture’ as a necessary component of a healthy national identity. Gellner’s concept of high culture was much broader and went far beyond the arts as he defined it in Nations and Nationalism as: ‘…a literate codified culture which permits context-free communication’ (Gellner 1983, 367-368). Here Gellner distinguishes between different cultures, rather than within a culture, contrasting high with simpler, agrarian low cultures. Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction is an important study in sociology of a broader class based definition of high culture, or taste’, which includes etiquette, appreciation of fine food and wine, and military service, giving references to different social codes ostensibly observed in the dominant class, inaccessible to the lower classes. (Bourdieu 1979) Bourdieu introduces us to the concept of cultural capital, knowledge and habits acquired and positioned by a dominant class rearing that his work in post-war France demonstrated increased relative social and economic success despite an ostensibly egalitarian educational system.
Central to this argument on ‘high culture’ involved this concentration on freedom as that which is only possible if humankind could align its consciousness with material processes. For Adorno this freedom was only obtainable through the ‘negative dialectics’—through negations, recuperations, displacements, rather than through consensus and identification. In attempting to reveal the ‘negative dialectic’, Adorno turned to the avant-garde wherein he found that it went beneath the superficial layers of society and attempted to interrupt the mindless consumption which he believed dominated society (Adorno 1973). Likewise, in ‘ “Avant-Garde” and Kitsch; (1939), Clement Greenberg claims that avant-garde and modernist art was a means to resist the ‘dumbing down’ of culture caused by consumerism. Greenberg termed this ‘kitsch’, a word that his essay popularized. While Adorno attempts to liberate the intellect from the standard of commodity consumption, Greenberg claims that the avant-garde arose in order to maintain aesthetic standards, guarding them from the decline of taste involved in consumer society, thus seeing kitsch and art as polar opposites. For Greenberg, kitsch centralizes mass-cultural values in a given era while conterminously exposing the relationship between the masses and the forces controlling production: ‘Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same’ (34-49). Greenberg suggests that while the forms and contents of kitsch may shift over time, the nature of kitsch in relation to culture at large is invariable. He even expanded this notion of kitsch to suggest that formalized artists producing academic art were part of this cultural production of kitsch, a position which he later abandoned: ‘All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch.’ (Greenberg 34-49) I do wonder, however, if Greenberg all too readily abandoned this notion of academic art as kitsch given that the relationship between highly trained artists of the nineteenth century whose artistic expression remained constrained by rules and formulations is not, in practice and form, so different than Haitian popular artists of today.
Haitian art is mostly produced by untrained artists, or rather, artists trained outside of the art academy, who are generally trained in community forums and experimental art centers in the poorest of Haiti’s communities. However, for those wealthy Haitians who can afford to go to art school domestically or abroad, it is undeniable that they are more certain to achieve a place on gallery walls and command higher price tags. Their poorer compatriots, however, will be certainly guaranteed a place along Route des Frères or John Brown to sell their wares to those who pass, while their work will continue to be dismissed as negligible kitsch. While I cannot deny the stylistic sophistication and education apparent in some of the art produced by formally trained artists, I likewise cannot dismiss the ‘kitsch’ which I see along Port-au-Prince’s streets. These art pieces were also “victims” of the earthquake and yet were not the subject of unearthing and preserving by the teams which flew into the country to restore Haiti’s cultural heritage. Thus, how can we interpret the millions of dollars that are being invested in the removal of art produced by a dominant class of economic and political elite whilst the art of those who actually subsist from their art is not part of this process of ‘cultural recuperation’? Since the earthquake, art has become an ever more visible form for those to make money from artifacts—from the dealers in Port-au-Prince who are notorious for paying artists ten or twenty dollars for their works as the dealer turns a profit of several thousands, to the street artists who have come out in full-form selling their works to anyone who will buy them. And tourists are not their only targeted audience as the Haitian homes are covered in Haitian artwork of all categories.
Many Haitians view their participation as producers and spectators of art as part of the process of deterritorializing divisions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art while also democratizing art through their understanding of the economic needs of survival facing these artists. After all, many of the cultural dialogues taking place in Haiti over the past forty years have directly addressed the daily struggle of the masses to grapple with their individual roles in their culture and their participation in producing art. How then might we address this conflation of ‘high art’ and kitsch when the very forces that stand to gain from the separation of these two camps are the international organizations and individual gallerists who come to maintain their order in the cue of ‘artistic relief efforts’ from which they inevitably gain media attention, access to grants, and more importantly, access to promoting certain types of Haitian art. What is elided in the more formal embrace of Haitian art both within the academy and the private collections are the cultural artifacts which emerge from communal forms of exchange and various centers of artistic learning. These engage discourses of class and economic inequality that is integral to Haitian society and cultural production.
If anything, the conflation of Haitian ‘high’ art and kitsch reveals the fragile relationship between the art produced by those artists who have access to elitist institutions and their sponsors and likewise access to a public which is educated to appreciate certain art over other forms of art. Or perhaps, this lesser known and recognized community art is calling into question the relevance of the museum today as a formalized, physical space dominated by certain trends and monies subject to the speculation of form and content and likewise of political discourses. To what degree can we claim that art production and its cultural reception in all its diverse forms–from its institutionalization to its formalization–is not also a form of denying certain local and historical specificities of Haitian reality? Certainly, one cannot help but notice that what is being considered a “viable art life” is nothing other than the very art which commands the highest price. Likewise, we cannot deny the contradictions within a system of cultural politics which would ban the sale of Haitian art after the earthquake, while likewise utilizing Haitian art as a means to procure funding for ‘the people; and/or for the artist who often remains elided behind the banner of development politics and ‘aid relief.’ In representing Haitian art as that which is linked to human survival and disaster politics through an ethos of pure economic and ‘high’ art value, these international sales online and in galleries espousing ‘art as disaster relief’ cheapen the processes and interpretations of this culture’s artist production. Imagine if in Greece’s recent financial turmoil, the Parthenon were auctioned off to help restore that country’s economy… Haitian art has already been stripped of its cultural and artistic contexts—not due to the plethora of kitsch artifacts lining Haitian streets, but rather through the very formal and informal spaces which have conflated Haitian art with a political economy is informed by neo-colonial acts of salvation. Today, the state of Haitian art production and consumption has quickly become part of a political performance that is caught between this theatre of ‘disaster relief’ and the blurring of the lines between kitsch and high art, whereby art in the name of the Goudou Goudou eclipses all social, political and cultural realities that fall outside the space of death.
Adorno, Theodor. 1973. Negative dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press.
Atis-Rezistans. “About the Artists.” http://www.atis-rezistans.com/about.php
Benjamin, Walter. 1976. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen. New York: University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste’ & Some of his Key Ideas. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge,
Gellner, Ernst. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford, Blackwell.
Greenberg, Clement. 1939. Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Partisan Review. 6 (5): 34-49.
Lacey, M.. 2010. Cultural Riches Turn to Rubble in Haiti Quake. The New York Times, 23 January.
Montgomery, Gillian. 2010. “Restoring Haiti’s Lost Art.” http://www.voiceforhaiti.com/post/537235326/restoring-haitis-lost-art
Phillips, T.. 2010. Celebrated Art of Haiti Is Buried Under Rubble. The Guardian, 15 February.
Reinl, James. 2010. Rescuers battle to salvage art after Haiti earthquakeRescuers battle to salvage art after Haiti earthquake. The National. 17 April.
Wilkinson, T.. 2010. A Cultural Agony In A nation Where Art Is Life.” The Los Angeles Times, 24 January. Index