Friday, October 26, 2007

Works by Vik Muniz

Vik Muniz, the Popular Iconoclast

Viz Muniz' ascension into the high-profile elite of contemporary art came through happenstance, biting perfectionism and the soft wit of intelligence. In Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer, a recently published autobiography, Muniz writes of the necessity of humor: "I have never, ever looked in the mirror and considered the charm of my own seriousness." Muniz’s art also rides the line between absurdity and profound meaning. From a peanut and jelly portrait of the Mona Lisa to the Last Supper in chocolate, Muniz has become famous from his faithful renditions of master works executed in deeply unconventional ways. These portraits are captured through photography and he destroys the original upon completion. On average, the photographs sell for $5,000 to $15,000 but recently “his painting Action Painter went for US$ 45 thousand at Sotheby´s auction.” His international popularity has led to a fair deal of criticism not only in the art world but also on the streets. Some consider Muniz an iconoclast; others just lazy. Yet, a highly conscientious man lies behind the hype. So when it comes to the spider web of intent that surrounds his art, no one unties Vik Muniz better than he does himself. His silver-tongued talent for explanation has engrained him in the psyche of popular culture as not only an artist but as a mind.
The son of a con artist/ waiter and switchboard operator, Muniz grew up poor on the outskirts of the megapolis Sao Paulo, in Brazil. The city’s fringes had a profound influence on him as he explains, "the edge explains the city: it makes us see in its gardens and parks the urban push to implode. The edge makes us see what the city does not want to be, its cosmic aureole of dejection and refuse; the garbage heaps and cemeteries, one finds on the way to the airports." To him, these edges defined both society and its antithesis: a vast area of nothingness that is neither city nor country, T.S. Eliot’s famed Wasteland. In this caustic environment, Muniz somehow flourished. He started reading early but could not write. So instead, he explained himself by drawing. He sketched incessantly with little respect for other distractions, including school. Luckily, this single-mindedness led to the first of a series of coincidences that would shape his career. One day, at the tender age of 14, his teacher sent him to the principal's office to teach him a lesson about doodling in class. After scolding the boy, the principle looked at the drawings and recognized his talent. He encouraged Muniz to apply for a contest the school county was holding that awarded a two-year scholarship to an academic studio. Muniz won. After two years at the studio, Muniz continued his artistic studies on his own and is considered to be self-taught. “The factors that contribute to a person becoming an artist have nothing to do with when he starts,” writes Muniz, “they have more to do with when everyone else stops.” With the faithful companion of retrospect, the artist acknowledges that he might have never been the artist he is something miraculous hadn’t happened, in 1983. While walking home late one night, the 22-year old Vik came across two drunks fighting in the street. One man blindly shot off his gun and the bullet penetrated Muniz's leg. Afraid of litigation and coincidently being quite wealthy, the man offered to pay him off. The price? A one-way ticket to Chicago.
With only serendipity on his side, Muniz moved to the United States with no knowledge of the English language and no cash. During his first months, he worked various odd jobs and got to know the city by roaming the streets on a used bike. It was through these bike rides that English began to take form. He memorized sign after sign, until the incoherent words matched an image his brain had already defined. Now every spoon, lover, apple, mop and grin had two titles, two twin definitions. Thrust back into art, he worked in a frame shop where he meticulously copied famous paintings to be sold at furniture stores. This provided him with an education in discipline and a comprehensive knowledge of the masters. The arduous job of repainting what was already well established had him toying again with the notion of doubles. On weekends, he visited the Metropolitan museum to immerse himself in the classics but often left disappointed. Their precision lacked imagination and too closely resembled reality to invoke the sublime. He began to posit "in the same way rereading a book says more about what has changed in ourselves between readings than about the book itself, recurrent artistic themes serve to indicate a cultural change in attitudes towards images in general." This basic idea set the tone of his work to come, as Muniz wholeheartedly contends that “a copy of a copy is always an original thing.” With this Warholian belief in mind, he started translating iconic images from different periods of art history in a contemporary diction by using materials that we do not normally associate with art, such as sugar, spaghetti sauce, string, diamond, caviar, toy soldiers and ashes.
Simultaneously, he became obsessed with perception and began photographing his work. Due to the materials he used, photography became a practical way to frame something that was perishable by nature. At this point, he questioned his identity as an artist because photographs were the final product of his work. In a 1999 interview, he explained this conflict; “I first tackled these issues as a curious person, not as an artist” (Richards 230.) His 1992 show, titled Individuals, was one of his first fusions between art and photography. Having just returned, broke and alone, from Paris where he was living until his U.S. citizenship came through, he discovered he only had one small piece of white clay in his studio. He began making sculptures, sixty in total, and took blurry photographs that masked their scale. He then posted these photos in a gallery with pedestals of various sizes below them. “Walk towards anything and it transforms,” Muniz contends, “Metamorphoses always happen with distance and proximity.” Through careful experiments with perception, he reinserted a well-needed dose of ambiguity into art. We innately trust photographs but never really question the image behind them. Muniz asks us to look harder and forces cotton balls to look like clouds and then like Durer’s famous praying hands. All his compositions rely on the interplay of identity conflicts in the objects that form them.
Up until recently, Muniz’s use of universal images downplayed any Brazilian influence in his work. In 1998, he produced a body of work called, Aftermath, for the Sao Paulo Bienal that played on social issues within the city. Inspired by an earlier project where he made black and white portraits of the children of sugarcane farmers in the Caribbean using sugar granules as a medium, Muniz was eager to connect with the street children of his native city. These kids were drastically different from the fresh-faced ones he had met in the Caribbean. At eight years old, they were already jaded, skittish and victims to violent statistics: 30% of them had HIV or AIDS . Muniz eventually gained their trust and photographed them in famous art poses. He painted them using debris he had collected from the streets after Ash Wednesday of Carnaval. Yet, Muniz’s real return to nationalistic themes came when he represented his culture at the Venice Biennale in 2001. He writes sentimentally that “when the exhibition finally opened… I sensed I’d come to the end of a long struggle to be accepted by my own country. Brazilians were finally proud of my unschooled, unorthodox, cross-cultural and popular vision of art and its role in Brazilian culture.” The exhibit marked a slow return to Brazilian subject matter that has appeared more and more in his recent work, including portraits of current president Lula and musician Seu Jorge.
Another unequivocal connection Muniz maintains with Brazil is women. Despite his many years in the States, nearly all his relationships have been with Brazilian or other Latin women. In an interview with Revista Trip, he says, “it dawned on me that language works physically, also. There is something I like to say: ‘It is much better to kiss in your own language.’ Kissing in Portuguese is entirely different from kissing in English.” He is currently married to his second Brazilian wife, an artist, named Janaina Tschape. The couple and their young child split their time between Rio de Janeiro and Brooklyn, New York. Through this partnership, Muniz has reinserted himself into a Brazilian context that he left long ago, perhaps drawing on his contention that “one always has to leave the place where one was born. You've got to leave to be able to come back.” Muniz’ artistic career, like his life, has been a slow return to home and all the complications that accompany it.

Various Works of Hélio Oiticica

Hélio Oiticica, the Original Outlaw

Born in 1937, in Rio de Janeiro, Hélio Oiticica brought Brazilian art into the public eye through his colorful and socially conscientious compositions. As "the son of an entomologist/photographer and the grandson of a philologist/anarchist, Oiticica forged unlikely allegiances between politics and art, revolt and pleasure, science and spectacle," in the words of New Museum curator, Johanna Burton. His education began early at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio where he was a prolific note taker, drawing influence from Jimi Hendrix to Kasimir Malevich. Ultimately, his devotion to Piet Mondrian shaped his carrier and led to a lifelong fixation with color. He was "attracted to Mondrian's idea that, one day, art will dissolve into life." His work took various twists and turns, venturing into both the constructivist and neo-concretism movements, but his believes were vehement and unchanging. To Oiticica, art housed the spirit of revolt and revolution and was meant to be used accordingly. Many contend that Oiticica completed the triad of Brazilian Modernism, alongside architect Oscar Niemeyer and musician Caetano Veloso. Nevertheless, he was a deconstructionist at heart and saw all boundaries as arbitrary. He sought the perpetual amalgamation of opposites, the melding of extremes, where art, body, society, poverty, violence, sex, anger, drugs and love were all part of the same productive force.
Tenacious and invocative, Oiticica was a self-declared social outlaw. He saw art as the ultimate means of social liberation for the inhabitants of the city's impoverished favelas, hillside shantytowns. He believed that "art's relationship to established social hierarchies was artificial and unhealthy" (Basualdo 34.) The middle-class artist even moved into Mangueira, a favela in the North Zone of Rio, to live out his belief that art should be universally accessible and not simply a bourgeois pastime. Many of his greatest achievements came out of this experience. First were the Parangoles, wearable pieces of art that mobilized the creative spirit in the streets. Perhaps his most famous piece, Tropicália, erected in 1967 in Rio's Modern Art Museum, was large-scale tactile installation that he called a penetrável (or penetrable.) Oiticica invited visitors to take of their shoes and walk through and fully immerse themselves in sensation. He negated the tradition posturing of the viewer as spectator and sought to break down the barriers between art and its audience. The piece relayed the essential contradictions of the tropics to the audience through a sensual and confined interaction with them. This installation struck a chord with samba singer Caetano Veloso who named the infamous Tropicalismo movement after Oiticica’s piece. The followers of the movement openly condemned the military dictatorship and many of its figureheads were forced into exile, including Oiticica who went first to London and then the States. During his 8-year sojourn in New York, Oiticica’s work evolved drastically. He focused more and more on sensuality and started using film as his chief medium. This period in New York had a great effect on his career and ultimately established a precedent for Brazilian artists in the City.
In 1971, Oiticica received a Guggenheim fellowship to work in New York after the success of Information, a show he participated in at the MOMA. In a letter to close friend and co-conspirator, Lygia Clark, he wrote of New York, "it is the only place in the world that interests me." Infatuated with the convulsive spirit of the City, Oiticica delved into the expansive art scene and feed off the glow of megawatt Andy Warhol and the shadow of subversive Jack Smith. America was in the throes of discontent, now in the fifth year of war in Vietnam, and the youth culture had never been stronger. The democratization of art and the contagious air of experimentation struck Oiticica’s heartstrings. Inundated with fresh influences, he began a project called Quasi-cinemas. Projecting multiple images onto large screens, the artist constructed environments that left the audience to interact with art directly. In some, he ordered participants to inhale nitro benzol, drink Coke or swap pieces of fabric. "His projects allowed, even encouraged, participants to roam and loaf, for their attention to stray or wane." The productions renounced the conventional notion of progress, of art moving towards meaning, and were, instead, a constant reiteration of the present. His quasi-cinemas propositioned the audience and only through their participation were the productions complete. Eventually, Oiticica became disenchanted with New York and saw in it the violence of alienation that was the psychological counterpoint to the physical violence of Rio. He was working part-time as a translator and fell deeper and deeper into cocaine. By his last few years, most of his work was about cocaine. In the highly controversial film, Cosmococa, he used it as paint.
Tragically, Oiticica died at the age of 43 after a series of strokes. It is generally agreed upon that his death was a result of his excessive drug use. Yet, in his short career, he not only universalized art by bringing it into the margins of society, he also increased the breadth of art as a whole. His influence has propagated many of the staple concepts in art today: the repositioning of the spectator, the redefinition of public space and the integration of art and everyday life. In this global age, the art world is eager to appropriate new artists in attempts to make the history of art less Eurocentric. According to art historian, Carlos Basualdos, Oiticica's work "reflects the vibrant, pervasive internationalism of contemporary art" By immigrating to the States, Oiticica exposed a Rio-New York polemic that conjoined two disparate and previously unparalleled places. While his art always remained, at heart, Brazilian, his time in the US unearthed the universality of some themes. He saw the violence inherent in urban culture. He saw art caged in galleries, while people slept in the street. Bringing to mind the words of urbanist, Claes Oldenburg, “I’m for art that tells you the time of day, or where such a street is. I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street.” He saw the renegades combing the sidelines, ready to revolt. The space was reformatted, contorted but the concepts were the same. Perhaps it is for this universality of understanding, of digesting urban culture, that Oiticica is an up and coming icon in the art scene today. Just this year, he had a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Tate Modern in London bought up ten of his pieces for their permanent collection. In his short life, we see what happens when a man folds under the compression of passions. Close friend, Caetano Veloso, the impetus behind Tropicalismo, conveys Oiticica's fatal charm upon saying, "I understood none of us could feel love at first sight again and again. But I took his demanding view seriously and kept on trying to live up to it." Ultimately, art is about liberation and nothing is more universal than that.

Brazilian Immigrant Art in NYC and Boston: A Qualitative Study

By Cali Pfaff
Summer Research 2007
Sponsored by the Urban Studies Department of Brown University


The initial objective of this research project was to unearth Brazilian immigrant art in the cities of Boston, New York and Providence and to discern its place in American society. Upon beginning the project, I discovered that while the art was provocative and diverse, Brazilian immigrant communities were practically nonexistent. The artists were living transiently, commuting between borders to chase commissions, with no nurturing ethnic enclave to call their own. The research took a bit of a turn at this point and settled primarily on the population in New York where I began to look at the issue in a larger context. Why did Brazilians, a people known for their warmth, encounter such frigid and at times self-induced isolation in the States? Moreover, what did this do to their art? Can we consider these artists a subculture if they have never met but do adhere to the same themes? I realized that in order to speak candidly about Brazilian immigrant art, it was essential to analyze two central subtexts: Brazilian immigrant identity and immigrant art as a contemporary art movement. The question of collective identity became a central focus of this study, as Brazilian immigrant art means nothing if we do not first understand Brazilian immigrants and their place in society. In addition, there are certain motifs, conflicts and identity issues that are endemic to immigrant art as a whole. These deride the national boundaries that so often define art by establishing a broader framework that treats the immigrant experience as a thing in itself. Ultimately, by understanding these two sub-contexts, I approached Brazilian immigrant art through the lens of three artists that show the past, present and future of the genre and weave them into a coherent whole.

I. The life and livelihood of Brazilian Immigrants in the States

'Brazucas,' Portuguese slang for Brazilians living in the US, do not fit any stereotypical definitions of immigrants. As bluntly stated by Gino Agostinelli of the Center of Immigrant Studies, "they aren't desperate refugees; they're people with money." The majority of newly arrived Brazilians have graduated from high school and come from the upper echelons of society. In addition, the average Brazilian immigrant is substantially better off than his fellow countryman. According to Margaret L. Margolis, author of An Invisible Minority: Brazilians in New York City, 90% of Brazilians in New York belong to the top two social classes, compared with only 40% at home. Margolis discusses how the mental importation of class structures leads to Brazilian isolation in the States. In general, these recent immigrants come from privileged backgrounds but once stateside they are relegated to do low-skill labor. As up to 70% enter illegally, rendering their formal training null and void. This puts them in direct competition with all the other immigrants in the City, vying for jobs. This subjugated status is a reality they are hesitant to acknowledge as their new position in society contrasts starkly with the old. Class, while always a complicated issue, is fundamentally bi-fold in Brazil: there are those that work with their hands and those that do not. It is considered lowly to do manual labor and, as that is what most Brazilians do in the U.S., many lie to their families back home about their employment. Most Brazucas who work as maids in the U.S. ironically had a maid in Brazil.
Compared to other South American countries, the wave of Brazilian immigration to the States came at a remarkably late point in time. According to Katheryn Gallant's article, "The Brazilians Are Coming," there were only 300,000 thousand Brazilians living abroad in 1987 and that number has risen by 20% or more every year. Mass emigration from Brazil, a country that has considered itself a country of immigrants like the U.S. throughout much of its history, occurred during a fiscal crisis that plagued the economy from the early 1980's to mid- 1990's. Today, an estimated 2 million citizens live outside of the country and an astonishing 750,000 in the U.S. In reality, that number is likely to be close to double as over half are undocumented or illegal and have no interest in talking to the census bureau. They refer to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service as Tia (Aunt) Mimi as a way of personifying their fear . Estimations of how many Brazilians live in New York and the surrounding region range from 150,000 to 350,000 . Similar numbers are projected for Boston. Other Brazilian immigrant hotspots in the States are Los Angeles, Miami and parts of Connecticut.
While most Brazucas enter the states through family or business ties, others are merely ‘economic refugees,’ escaping the unstable conditions in Brazil in any way possible. The allure of the American dream still resonates strongly with Brazilians who are, by and large, not strongly anti-American. From my experience, over half the radio stations in Rio de Janeiro played exclusively American music, ranging from Rod Stewart to 50 Cent. America continues to have an enormous cultural impact on the country and dominates T.V. programming. A popular TV Globo novela, America, that followed a Brazuca family as they adjusted to immigrant life in the States “had more than 40 million people are watching nightly.” Those most desperate to partake in the fantasy that America readily supplies opt for the dangerous and expensive route through Mexico. In a 2005, "All told, more than 12,000 Brazilians have been apprehended trying to cross the United States-Mexican border this year, exceeding the number detained in all of 2004 and pushing Brazilians to the top of the category known as 'other than Mexicans. '" These numbers are astonishing, considering that those are only the immigrants apprehended and the great geographical distance between Brazil and Mexico.
In Boston, residents of Governador Valadares, Minas Gerais have inundated the city. In the suburb of Framingham, an inordinate amount of Brazilian immigrants hail from this small city of 250,000, located in the interior of Brazil. According to an article in the New York Times, “during the war, Governador Valadares provided planeloads of mica for American radios, and the Americans, in turn, helped it combat malaria and develop a water and sewage system. A relationship was born.” Ever since then, residents have been immigrating to the US in mass, decades before the rest of the country got the migratory itch. Practically every resident in Valadares has a family member living in the States, a rarity in other parts in the country. Due to this trade connection, there is a substantial and tight-knit vala-population in Boston. On the flip side, one third of the real estate market in Valadares is financed with valadolares, money flushed into the local economy from the States. Valadareiros are very different from the middle class, educated Brazucas of New York. They come from a more humble background; many worked as laborers while in Brazil and would not have the money to immigrate without close family connections. In the mid-90's, there was a surge of immigrants from Valadares working legally and illegally at resorts in the Catskills. Contrary to the incongruous Brazilian populations in other locations, these immigrants formed a thriving community in the mountain towns, organizing soccer leagues and having cookouts. Randy Paul, a resident of Queens, writes of their self-effacing natures, "I have watched many immigrants from Valadares attending church in the United States, their hands rough from the labor they stopped only long enough to go to church. " The Valadareiros act as a well-needed counter position to the highly disintegrated Brazuca communities in other parts of the country.
On a broader scale, Brazilian isolation in America finds its roots in attitudes towards immigration. Most Brazucas consider themselves mere sojourners and are target earners. They can make wages that are four to one of what they would earn at home. As a result, they come to U.S. with the express intention of earning enough money for a down payment on a house or a car and returning home. Few have any interest in naturalizing. Brazilians have very little infrastructure in New York, as few are eager to establish their permanence. Although they do have a monopoly over shoe shining in Manhattan and, up until the early 90's, 80% of go-go dancers in New York were Brazilian . At which point, the Russians took over the field. There is, however, a sad nod to Brazilian patrimony on West 46th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue, in Manhattan. This area is known as Little Brasil, officially proclaimed so by Mayor Giuliani in 1995, though little of it remains now due to gentrification. "Brazilians have moved on,” declares Ernest Barteldes, in "Little Brazil is Dead, Long Live Astoria," “[they are] running away from the steep rental prices that have plagued many of Manhattan's ethnic neighborhoods." Astoria has now replaced Little Brazil as the unofficial Brazilian locus in New York, though it is hardly its own ethnic enclave. Italian, Brazilian and Greek immigrants also share the neighborhood.
A lack of warmth in American culture promotes feelings of isolation and penetrating nostalgia, which propagates Brazilian immigrants to construct impermanent lives while in the States. Margolis discusses the prevalence of "garbage décor" in Brazilian-American apartments. In order to save money, they find furniture in the streets and cram as many people as possible into tiny flats. They deny themselves vital necessities, such as winter coats and snow boots, due to cost. More often than not, this is not a financial issue so much as they are not willing to spend money on a life they view as temporary. Some become capital obsessed and view other immigrants, even Brazilians, with deep skepticism. In Margolis' book, Michael J. Piore posits that immigrants "are people divorced from a social setting… working totally and exclusively for money." Many believe that this newly fostered frigidity is the result of Americanization, as Brazilians are generally known for their tenderhearted and open natures. As is often found in cross-cultural encounters, Brazilians find many American concepts absurd, such as voluntarily living alone. Perhaps the most bizarre Americanism is the yard sale, famously ridiculed by Moacyr Scilar in his collection of short stories, Dicionário do viajante insólito (Dictionary of the Unusual Traveler). Portuguese also tends to isolate Brazucas from other Latin Americans with whom they culturally identify. In elementary schools in Astoria, there are bi-lingual programs but only in Spanish. The ethnic ambiguity of Brazil stymies how newly arrived immigrants identify themselves racially. They consider themselves Brazilian, not black, white or Latino. In addition, family dynamics and gender roles are turned upside-down upon arrival. In the greater Boston area, researcher Sylvia DeBiaggi found that divorce was common among couples that were married before emigrating from Brazil. Marriages that took place in the U.S. and conformed to American customs, such as shared chores and acceptance of women in the workplace, were more successful.
Ultimately, the tenuous nature of the Brazilian immigrant community reflects in the artists it produces. Critics, such as journalist Wilson Loria, are critical of what such an unstable demographic could offer New York's art world. He writes, "Culturally speaking, Brazil does not offer and has almost no influence on the arts in the City, as a whole." Yet, with the popularization of Brazilian music, including cross-cultural projects by Sergio Mendes and Seu Jorge, Brazil has entered the U.S. as a new and invocative voice. The modeling world too has seen a vast influx of Brazilian models, including the illustrious Giselle. The September 2007 issue of Vanity Fair hosts an elaborate feature on the beautiful, rich and talented of Brazil. All of this hype has propagated business for Brazilian storeowners, yet by and large a cohesive sense of community is still missing and this can be seen acutely in the art world. In the next section, we will look at the recent growth and recognition of immigrant art to help place Brazuca artists in a larger sphere.

II. Immigrant Art

From long lines at the MOMA to the bartering aisles of Christie’s, immigrant art has taken New York by storm. "The future of art in New York City will by driven by immigrants," says the director of Queens Museum of Art, Tom Finkelpearl, “if you're in contemporary art and aren't looking at immigrant art, you're missing the boat." The continuing popularity of Chicano art, especially in Southern California, has left the gate open for other Latin artists to make themselves known. The craze has gotten so out of hand that White Box Gallery in Chelsea staged a contest that pinned foreign-born artists against each other in cutthroat competition. To the winner the gallery provided “a free lawyer to try to obtain an O-1 ‘Special Talent Artist Visa.’” But why the sudden interest? Immigrant art proffers a dynamic sense of national identity that lends some insight on what America is becoming in a global context. By looking at art that chooses to be American in an era when the American dream looks increasingly bleak and foreign relations are at an all time low, we find a fragment of the patriotism we have lost.
From a political perspective, the new interest in immigrant art makes perfect sense. Due to the post-9/11 rash of anti-immigration legislation, Americans are left to ponder what will become of our national melting pot personae, if immigration, our key-diversifying factor, starts to wane. "Artists enrich our lives by explaining and interpreting the often hard life of the immigrant, a politically important counter-balance to racism and exclusion which feed on ignorance," writes economist Tony Addison. We can see a number of American political and social issues come to light in the field of immigration legislation. Title IV of the Patriot Act was a serious blow to immigrants, claiming that increasingly stringent immigration regulations would curb terrorism. Recently, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 has given millions of illegal immigrants the opportunity to naturalize, provided that they've lived in the country for five to ten years and are willing to pay back taxes and fines. While this act essentially shuts the door on other illegals, it is a landslide move in immigration policy and was called "historic bipartisan breakthrough in the Senate" by the National Immigration Forum. These debates have consequently brought the immigrant community together. Immigrants from various backgrounds are banning together to declare their rights. With immigration on the mind, interests in multiculturalism and dual identities are seeping into practically every facet of our culture.
As a capitalist country, we are constantly commodifying what was formally considered uncommodifable and this has greatly changed how we view the arts. The former droves of starving artists are now working in advertising, design, publishing and media, a subsection of the arts known as “downstream art.” Due to the increased amount of capital being pumped in, more and more artists are achieving fame in their lifetimes. Tony Addison’s article, “The International Mobility of Cultural Talent,” explains the origins of this phenomenon: “the term ‘creative industries’ is of relatively recent origins… until recently [the fine arts] were regarded purely or predominately in non-economic terms…” Art, long considered the blood brother of philosophy, has lost its vaulted status and is making bank. Consequently, art from all areas of the field are selling for vast amounts of money. The infamous street artists, Banksy, recently sold prints of auctioneers vying over a painting that reads, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit” for $1,300 apiece, a gross undersell. It is not unknown for works by Banksy to sell for $50,000- $100,000 at auction, which is ironic as he fiercely condemns capitalism . As we can see, the impulse to own part of culture has never been so strong and many hedge fund managers believe that art is the safest and most profitable long-term investment. Therefore, up-and-coming movements, like immigrant art, are not only drawing a lot of hype but a lot of potential buyers as well. Unfortunately, a lot of the time these investments are merely financial and have little to with the merits of art. While this is a dubious reality, there is one clear advantage: the margins as well as the mainstream of contemporary art will be better preserved and in larger quantities than any period in the past.
Still hovering outside the arena of high art, immigrants find themselves at home in the niche art scene that parallels their place in society. The art elite indulge in the perceived marginality of immigrant art and this sense of obscurity lends to its hip status. Although we increasingly see immigrant art enter the mainstream, it does so as an exception, as a gamble on the part of museum curators. In general, it stays bunkered in the backdoor galleries that so often define what is cool in urban culture. Art critic, Richard Schechner, points out the “double agency” of being a marginal artist as you get to “work within and stand aside from a dominant culture.” Immigrant art joins other fledgling art movements, such as gay and erotic art, graffiti, and other forms of ethnic art, like African American and Native American art. All of these niche movements are slowly being imported into the contemporary vernacular. Immigrant art returns us to simpler terrain where “other people’s stories” take precedent over philosophical abstraction. By toying with language barriers, cultural doubles and old country folklore, the artists humanize the process of acculturation, which we so often look at from a political perspective. The largely narrative nature of this art forces us to interact with the work and we try to find our own stories tied in with theirs. We return to a more emotive relationship with art. As these artists are new to the “American privilege of criticizing American institutions”(Cowart 207,) their insight into our culture is often more objective than our own.
With anti-American sentiments proliferating throughout much of the world, the complexities of immigrant identity mirror our struggles with collective identity and what exactly it means to be an American in the 21st century. Art historian, Amei Wallach, equates the sense of spectatorship involved in immigrant art to that of a tennis match,
Presently, American identity is at a point of flux. With anti-Americanism sentiments proliferating throughout much of the world, it is only natural that we would see the complexities of immigrant identity as a parallel to our own. Art historian, Amei Wallach, equates the dynamic spectatorship of immigrant art to that of a tennis match:

[Through the artist's] awareness of now and then, here and there, on their heritage, their present, and increasingly, on a problematic future, the viewer becomes a spectator at a tennis match. Keep your eye on the ball and you are presented with an unparalleled opportunity to focus clearly on each side, glimpsed in context of the changing background of the entire field. The artist privileges us with their multivalent experience, probed through a visual language of connotation and metaphor. But a viewer fixated on one side of the game is going to miss the point of the game.

As Wallach points out, this art puts its viewer on uneven terrain. We find ourselves ping-ponging between definitions, to find a sense of patrimony in a painting that simultaneously coheres to two countries. We enter an amorphous state defined by the artists that hovers between national borders. Sometimes these fictional, transitory landscapes converge with other artists’ and we receive a more complete image of both places. Yet, the most impacting art gives the viewer the hollowing feeling of disequilibrium that comes from redefining staple concepts, like home and security. Immigrants often refer to their first years in a new culture as their ‘second infancy.’ Due to language barriers, the artist reenters his childhood where images were more vivid than the words with which he could describe them. Vision, again, becomes a survival tool and the immigration process offers up a world of new symbols for art to consume. In this way, they give the viewer an unparalleled opportunity to be uncomfortably out of context, a child with grown up eyes.
Immigrant art also provides varying degrees of insight into the growing multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial populations in the States. Immigrants have always been a key force in diversity in the United States and historically, immigrants and racial minorities have shared neighborhoods, as was the case with blacks and Puerto Ricans in Queens in the 1960’s. Racism, economic subjugation and unfair housing acts often forces cohabitation among diverse but predominately poor populations. Nonetheless, multiethnic neighborhoods generally gain from a sense of solidarity among residents, although this may also be mitigated by racial, ethnic and religious violence. Immigrants, like other minorities, often find themselves in conflict and culturally resentful of either their home country or their new one. On the opposite side, there is also a tendency to idealize one or the other. Some immigrants, artists and otherwise, consider themselves to only be Americans. Those who refuse to deny their heritage often find their artwork adhering to international standards so as not to be completely subsumed by American culture. Their work is usually conceptual, abstract or non-representational. Most hyphenate their nationalities and their art acts as a mediary between cultures.
Through the myriad of identity conflicts, immigrant art gives us powerful insight into what America, as a country and a concept, means in a contemporary context. In spectatorship, we find ourselves simultaneously ingesting our culture as well as one that stands in opposition. “The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually inconsistent frames of reference,” writes Chicano activist Gloria Anzaldua, “causes un choque, a cultural collision.” Like oil and vinegar, we can see the artist’s critique clearly formed but always in the presence of another. Through the artist’s process of metabolizing contradictory definitions, the American landscape remerges before us in a new visual code. In trying to paint ourselves into her America, we begin to remember our own. And if only for a moment, we resuscitate our own patriotism.