A Review by Eduardo Ledesma
Aesthetics and Consumer Capitalism in Mexico and Brazil
by Sergio Delgado Moya (University of Texas Press, 2017)
Sergio Delgado’s brilliant book, Delirious Consumption, performs a truly radical feat of locating anti-capitalist re-sistance precisely in the heart of the beast, in consumer culture and the culture industry. He does so by examining the work of notable Mexican and Brazilian writers and artists from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, a period of “consumer frenzy” when Latin America was becoming increasingly urban and industrialized, and the middle classes were on the rise. Through close readings of murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros, poetry by the Brazilian concrete poets and by Octavio Paz, and analysis of the object art of Brazilian neoconcretists such as Lygia Clark, Delgado analyzes the ways in which these artists used tools from advertising and consumer culture to chal- lenge capitalist structures, paradoxically ghting capitalism through consumption.
The territory Delgado is negotiating is tricky and fraught with potential danger, but he skillfully works through the paradox, offering a nuanced and thoughtful analysis of the ambiguous position(s) taken by these artists. For him, they represent “an assured but adjustable stance against commodification, alienation, and the politics of domination and inequality that define consumer ca italism” (2-3). Delgado tells us that the works he studies “model an approach keenly attuned to imitation as an incisive, at times subversive, response to capitalist modes of signification” (3). As he deftly unfolds his argument, the author shows that it is by imitating, mimicking and replicating the very processes and strategies of marketing, advertising and mass communication that these innovative artists cast a potentially subversive light on the process of modernization and development in Latin America and disrupt the de-politizing effects of commodity fetishim.
So what Delirious Consumption is attempting to do is to bring attention and re-dress a gap in scholarly work, one that has been neglected or automatically ignored: namely, the positive potential of consumption, typically presented as individualistic and banal. For the author, however, “Consumption is power: it is coercion and control, but it is also, sometimes, resistance. At times, inasmuch as it mediates our inner lives and the world that makes us, consumption may serve as a road to freedom; it may even work like a promise of happiness” (3). Treading where other noteworthy Latin American critics of consumer culture such as Néstor García Canclini, George Yúdice and Graciela Montaldo have placed their theoretical pendants, Delgado stakes out his own claim for the centrality of consumption in the cultural history of the Americas, positing an aesthetics of consumption as instrumental for the identity formation of contemporary transnational subjects and emerging forms of national and global citizenship. We are who we are, in part, because of our purchases. We are defined by our consumption—and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Indeed, what Delgado achieves is to reframe the question of consumer culture to allow for the agency of artists and consumers alike. Although his focus is on an earlier period, his arguments have direct bearing on the contemporary neoliberal crisis. Delgado asserts that a more accurate assessment of the neoliberal moment and the possibility of resistance to it has to include the individual responses of citizens who are not mere passive subjects of the forces of consumption, but rather active consumers: “Understanding neoliberal-ism [...] entails an expansion of what we understand to be the logics of both consumption and neoliberalism, a repositioning that takes seriously the modes of operation of subjects traditionally conceived to be completely under the coercion of institutionalized structures of power [but are not]” (26). Consumers are not to be seen as the zombie-like victims of capitalist exploitation.
But what makes Delgado’s book a “deliriously” enjoyable read in addition to being a scholarly tour de force,
is how its author anchors his argument on specific examples, on close readings of poems, paintings, objects and performances, as well as a thoroughly fleshed out historical contextualization for both of the countries he studies, Brazil and Mexico (the two largest economies in Latin America). He examines works by some of the best-known avant-gardists of the post-War World II period. Delirious Consumption explores “how each of them arrived at forms of aesthetic production drawn tight between high modernism and consumer culture” (27).
In the first chapter, dedicated to Siqueiros’ billboard murals from the 1950s, Delgado astutely teases out the tension between the Mexican painter’s commitment to leftist causes and the very commercial enterprise that the murals represented. The case of Siqueiros is particularly interesting because his earlier works re ected his Marxist ideology, but later he created murals for the hotel and tourist industry. Throughout his career, however, Siqueiros insistently engaged with techniques and tools of advertising. Delgado elucidates Siqueiros’ investment in new technologies and mass media, including his innovative use of materials such as acrylic paint or concrete, and his recourse to industrial processes. Reinforcing Delgado’s thesis about the subversive potential of consumption, the chapter investigates the ways in which Siqueiros’ murals estab- lished links between art and advertising, expressing “their shared need to arrive at forms appropriate for addressing mass publics” (69). Delgado analyzes, for example, several of Siqueiros’ murals in Ciudad Universitaria (Mexico City), concluding that for the Mexican muralist, “the forms of commercial propaganda [are] a fresh source of formal innovation that could be adapted for the purposes of political agitation” (71). The author, however, is not naïve to the turn Siqueiros took in his later works, as he fully embraced commercialism to the detriment of his more nuanced earlier artworks. Unlike his earlier, publicly displayed pieces, Siqueiros’ last mural, La marcha de la humanidad en la tierra y hacia el cosmos (1964–1971), was placed in a luxury hotel frequented by North American tourists, so that “commercial enterprise trumped subversion” (81). Nevertheless, Delgado makes an excellent case as to why Siqueiros’ work is worth examining, especially in our time, as we experience a reality “decisively more wrought by consumption and consumer culture than the reality Siqueiros had to contend with” (82).
In his second chapter, Delgado turns to the fascinating case of Brazilian Concrete poetry. The Concrete poets of the Noigandres group—Haroldo and Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari—had close ties to advertising, mass culture and consumer capitalism. Several of them worked in advertising firms, and often it is difficult to distinguish where a poem begins and an advert ends. At first glance the close alliance with advertising can prompt the question: is the viewer or reader made into a passive consumer by works that look like ads? Delgado’s nuanced interpretation, however, finds another valence in this highly visual poetry. In his reading of Pignatari’s acclaimed 1957 poem “beba coca cola” (a work that imitates a Coke ad but equates the American soft-drink with excrement), Delgado insists that “if advertising works by effectively, economically, and seductively conveying information about how the world works and how we should inhabit it, anti- or counter-advertisements like ‘beba coca cola’ work not by resisting but by pushing further the mechanism of advertising, by being more witty, more seductive, and more materialistic than the original advertisement ever was, by showing more than what the advertisement was ready to show, revealing a less ideal, more physical level of reality behind the advertised prod- uct” (108). The radical force of Concrete poetry, therefore, lies on its surface, on its way of arranging typography and making the material elements of words visible, its capacity to convey meaning beyond its verbal signi cation, so that “concrete poetry puts forth a challenge to seldom-acknowledged hierarchies of language operating in late capitalism, hierarchies whereby the nonverbal, non-linear, ‘irrational’ aspects of language, its vocal and visual dimensions, are deemed experientially enriching but ultimately inconsequential” (104). What Delgado foregrounds in this genre is its power to appropriate consumer culture, to imitate elements of mass media such as neon signs, advertising logos, newspaper ads, in or- der to challenge our habitual forms of perception. Poetry becomes anti-advertisement, using the tools of consumer capitalism to undermine it.
The book then elegantly transitions from Brazilian concretism to Octavio Paz’s experimental poetry from the 1960s, more specifically to his poems Blanco (1967) and Discos Visuales (1968). Paz was profoundly in uenced by technology, advertising and mass culture, writing several theoretical essays on these subjects which also inform Delgado’s readings. Paz’s relationship to technology and modernity, Delgado argues, is linked to the massive infrastructure projects taking place in Mexico in the 1950s and 60s, much like Brazilian Concrete poetry was aligned with Brazilian development- alism and the construction of Brasilia.
In his final chapter Delgado examines the work of several Brazilian neoconcretist artists, most importantly Lygia Clark’s object art. Associated with both neoconcretism and the Tropicàlia movement, Clark’s main contribution was the bichos (animals), a group of interactive hinged sculptures made of folding metal plates that required the participation of the spectator. For Clark, process and participation and “the physical production of her work” (172) were key elements of the aesthetic experience, as Del- gado observes. But Delgado also critiques Clark’s intent to industrially mass-produce the bichos, stating that, had she done so, “some of the most intriguing aspects of these works—participation, relationality, an insistent sense of free play—would have gained in substance, but only at the risk of trivialization” (163). This desire for mass production might signal Clark’s work as sliding toward depoliticization. Delgado, however, reframes Clark’s art as partaking of a “language of micropolitics” that is centered on the domestic materials and everyday spaces where she generates her work. This political valence of Clark’s art “has to do with the way our consciousness of objects, of subjects, and of the relationships that hold between subjects and objects chan- ges by means of the kind of attention Clark cultivates: attention to our everyday routines and to materials that sustain these routines” (178).
Thus, although consumer capitalism provides the background for the work of the artists Delgado exam- ines, he makes a cogent case for how they represent the modes of contestation and resistance within the very heart of consumer culture.
Delirious Consumption therefore provocatively suggests the potential to nd, at the center of capitalism, its means of interruption. For this reason, this book is also a courageous gesture at a time when, within academic circles, a proposition in favor of consumer culture can be seen as problematic. Delgado’s book challenges such dogmatic perspectives while advocating for the revolutionary potential of doubt, nuance and ambiguity. Perhaps one criticism that could be made about this otherwise excellent book, is that it often fails to make the necessary connections between the neoliberal moment we are living today and the period it examines. While Delgado’s argument, I believe, still is valid for the present, the latest turn to savage capitalism raises questions about the contestatory potential of consumption. Of course, this analysis of consumption and culture in the neoliberal age could provide the raw material for Professor Delgado’s next book.
Eduardo Ledesma is Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A specialist in Latin American literary and cultural studies, he holds a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University. He is the author of Radical Poetry: Aesthetics, Politics, Technology, and the Ibero-American Avant-Gardes, 1900-2015 (SUNY 2016) and has published numerous journal articles about avant-garde literature, film and new media.