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(The matter of the Landless Peasants
in Brazilian Contemporary Arts:
Sebastião Salgado and Haroldo de Campos)

                                             Maria Esther Maciel


                                               - 1 -

         Van Gogh’s famous painting, known as "The Peasant’s Shoes," which in one of its versions shows a prosaic pair of boots transformed by the strength of an earthy, bluish coloring, received special attention from Frederic Jameson, in his book Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  Referring to Van Gogh’s work as an aesthetic paradigm of so-called "high modernism" and therefore marked by the constituent features of modern art, such as a vocation for utopia and a critical vision of reality, Jameson observes that by choosing as initial raw material "a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state", the Dutch painter aesthetically redeems this reality through a "utopian gesture, an act of compensation which ends up producing a whole new Utopian realm of the senses".   That is, his modernity would be found there in this mastery, in what Jameson called the "Nietzchian fiat," metaphorized in the luminous explosion of colors, whose power of transforming the "wounded world," pitiful reality, ends up also by provoking a kind of state of epiphany in the viewer.

      If Van Gogh’s painting, converted into a canonical model of modern tradition, has been institutionalized today as cultural merchandise (which is ironic, if we consider the marginality and the precarious conditions of existence of this magnificent painter up to the end of his life), the conception of art implied in it ended up by diverging radically from the dominant lines of force in the arts in the second half of the 20th century.  All this results from the great change of parameters, demands, and expectations brought about not only by the triumph of so-called market capitalism, which began to control practically every sector of contemporary life, but also by the crisis of the utopias and of the set of values that sustained modernity.

      With the purpose of critically investigating this new world order, Jameson in the same text shows another pair of shoes, this time completely lacking in any utopian or humanistic content and presented as a type of icon of contemporary consumer society:  the "Diamond dust shoes" of Andy Warhol.  Devitalized pastiche, "hanging on the canvas as if they were turnips," these shoes, according to Jameson, would be constituted as fetishes, reduced to the condition of simulacra of themselves, and so be in accordance with the commercialized and artificial life that defines the cultural scenario of our time, and therefore in radical contrast to the boots of Van Gogh.  In Jameson’s words:

   "Andy Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and the great billboard images of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Camppbell’s soup can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital." (2)

      Even if we may disagree with the binary vision of Jameson in the counterpoint he makes of the pictures by Van Gogh and Andy Warhol, and consequently, of modernity and postmodernity, I think that his questions urge us to reflect on the possibility or not, at this turn of the century, of the existence of a critical and political art, which is able to question the triumph of the neoliberal model spreading over the contemporary world.

      The first questions that arise from this would be these:  has criticism really been abolished from the contemporary arts, as Jameson and many other theorists of postmodernism seem to believe?  Would it not be a fallacy to say that contemporary aesthetic production should be placed exclusively under the sign of those artists who somehow reinforce the ideology of consumption and dedicate themselves merelyto pastiche and the recycling of the past?

      I think that to completely deny the presence of libertarian and innovative features in contemporary culture, as if the utopian vocation and the critical view were out of date and exclusive to the so-called "tradition of rupture," is to underestimate the whole critical-creative potential that has been the distinguishing feature of artists of every century and that still makes itself visible in the crannies and cracks of the dominant cultural system.  If the modern era has converted these elements into cultivated values, this does not mean that they have stopped existing nowadays.

      It is therefore in believing that criticism has not been completely banned from the artistic spheres of the present that I would reply to Jameson that there are, indeed, possibilities for a political art in the world space of multinational capitalism, for an art that goes beyond the well-behaved limits of the "politically correct" and that engages in destabilizating the current commonplaces through language.  I think that an artist can perfectly well take advantage of the raw material that contemporary technologies, mass culture, finaly, the market itself offer, and, at the same time, through aesthetic strategies, undermine the ideology that sustains this same material, just as the artist can also exercise this ability in a theme that is explicitly political or social.  The efficacy in either case will depend on how the artist, in aesthetic terms, portrays the ambiguities and contradictions of the social, cultural, and political context in which he is inserted.

      In the attempt to investigate the effective possibilities of a political art today (political here in the more specific sense of criticizing the contextual structures of power), I will now shift to the cultural context of Brazil at the end of the 20th century.  My purpose is, at first, to evaluate a photograph by Sebastião Salgado, which displays certain elements that I would place in dialogue with Van Gogh’s painting of the shoes, and then, with a poem by Haroldo de Campos, which in its turn shows thematic affinities with the photograph, since both Brazilian artists deal with the social problems of the Brazilian rural workers, more specifically, of the so-called Movimento dos Sem-Terra, MST, "Movement of the Landless."  I should explain that this movement arose at the end of the 1970s, as the result of the struggle for land that the rural workers were undertaking, in a scattered way, in the southern region of the country, and ended up by becoming the largest and most important social movement of the country by the end of the century.

- 2 -


      Sebastião Salgado’s photo is a part of the photographic series in the book Terra (Land), published in 1997, together with a CD by the Brazilian singer-composer Chico Buarque and with a preface by the Portuguese novelist José Saramago.  It shows three feet clad in cheap thong sandals, belonging to rural workers.  At a first glance, the scene seems to obviously contain a foot of one man and two of another, but soon this obviousness is overthrown by the lack of symmetry in the toes on the feet that would comprise the supposed pair.   If at first we are tempted to ask "where then would be the foot matching the one in the middle?", a more attentive viewing soon leads us to discover that the foot on the right is really the one matching the foot in the middle, since the confusion is due to the simple fact that the man’s legs are crossed, although this is not explicit.  Through this visual play constructed by the photographer’s look at the moment of capturing and recording the live scene, another reality is established: that of misery, exploitation, physical penury.  It is not necessary to go to the notes at the end of the book to  deduce from these feet their context:  it is shown in the dried scabs covering the skin and the cracked toenails.  And it is explained by the photo on the facing page, where there is the desolate image of a parched land, devastated by drought.  We can read the following explanation under the photo:

In the building of a reservoir for retaining rainwater during the great drought of 1982-83, in the backlands of Ceará, the workers were the poor population who received as payment the food necessary for subsistence. (4)


      Contrary to Jameson’s diagnosis, according to which contemporary photography has renounced referentiality in order to develop "an autonomous vision that has no external equivalent," Salgado’s photo brings its referent with it, even if aesthetically transformed.  On one hand, it is part of a work that the author himself defines as a "photographic essay," since it is a mixture of reporting (hence its realistic character) and critical analysis.  On the other hand, it is also an aesthetic artefact, which diverts it from its conventional function of registering an event, in order to recreate it as an image.  From this combination its critical force and its refusal of immediacy, didacticism, and the pamphlet are derived.

      If compared to the threadbare boots of Van Gogh’s peasant, the sandals of the workers bear the image that Jameson called the "object world of agricultural misery, of stard rural poverty, (...) a world reduced to its most brutal and menaced, primitive and marginalized state", on the other hand they do not contain the same gesture of recompense and transcendence that are inherent in the Dutch artist’s painting.  Both criticize a specific reality, reinvent that reality, but in the case of the Brazilian photographer, this is achieved through constructive mechanisms originating form mass culture itself.  Through sophisticated photographic techniques, graphic and visual effects, he shows the Brazil that exists in the crannies of transparent Brazil and exhibits the face of the country that neoliberal policies try to conceal or deny:  the face of misery, ruin, injustice, human disrespect.  As an internationally recognized contemporary artist, Salgado paradoxically takes advantage of resources that the market itself offers, showing to the world the images of the lamentable social situation in Brazil.  And in this way, he contributes to the reinforcing of the movement of the Landless (it should be remembered that Salgado donated the money from the sale of the books to the MST).  He would, therefore, be among the group of contemporary artists like the writer José Saramago, the composer Chico Buarque, the filmmaker Walter Salles Jr. ((director of the famous Central do Brasil) and the painter Siron Franco, who take advantage of the benefits of the market and the media to criticize the structures of political power.

      Returning to Salgado’s photo, I think that the critical efficacy of a work like this lies not only in its message, in its content, but also and mainly in the manner in which it is constructed and in the potential it has to provoke internal acts in the viewer. As can be observed, Salgado does not use experimental, avant-garde devices, but manages to provoke these acts through small aesthetic effects, like the crossing of the legs, which are not superficially explicit.  By choosing (photographing), as Roland Barthes would say, in the midst of the immense disorder of the world, "this object, this moment, instead of another" (which already implies a political and cultural viewing), the photographer selects merely a detail, the image of the feet, which work as a metonymy of the Landless themselves and a metaphor for the parched land of the country’s backlands (sertões).  He adds to this a destabilizing element:  the nearly invisible play of legs that confuses the logic of the viewer.  This element could be taken to be a variation which Barthes called a punctum:  the element of deviation, the small sting that will scan and harass the stadium, or the merely cultural field.

Even in the most violent scenes photographed by Sebastião Salgado, such as those that refer to the massacre of the Landless in Pará, in April, 1996, when an operation by the state Military Police  resulted in the murder of nineteen of them, this element appears as the trigger of unforeseeable feelings.  This the case of the small, casual reflection of light (as if it were a white spot) that is seen on the left side of the chest of one of the women surrounding a mother whose son was killed during the confrontation with the police and who is being consoled by one of the young men, among whom is one wearing a shirt stamped with the name Benetton.  This white spot (intentional or not) might have a metaphorical function within this context, depending on the viewer’s perspective.  In my case, it is the spot which truly disturbs me in this scene, as it connotes a heart devastated, broken by the violence of the event.

3 -

Another critical perspective in the face of the same fact, that is, the massacre at Carajás, is offered to us by the Haroldo de Campos’s poem entitled "O Anjo esquerdo da história"("The Left Angel of History") . I should mention that Campos was one of the founders of  the Brazilian Concrete Poetry movement in the 1950s and is today one of the most important poets, translators, and critics of contemporary Brazil.

      Using a fractured language, filled with plays on sound and syllabic breaks, while maintaining an apparently narrative diction, the poet deals with the social problem of land in Brazil, the violence of the massacre and his own ethical indignation in the face of this violence.  He therefore composes a "committed poem," but not one within that realist line of political commitment that distinguished Brazilian art in the 1970s and 1980s.  In the case of the poem in question, what is said is displayed in the very materiality of language, in the play of sounds, repetitions and paronomasias, in the nomadic displacement of meanings, achieved thanks to the non-fixed quality of the words.  That is, the referential is not superimposed on the poetic, and the content, instead of sacrificing the form, is revealed through oblique paths in a state of transfiguration.

      The word terra (land) is a pointed and repeated reference in the poem, not only because of its successive semantic displacements within other words — enTERRAdos (buried), desTERRAdos (banished), TERRorizados (terrorized), TERRAtenentes (landholders) —, but also because of its transformation into other words derived from the same semantic or sonorous field,  such as lavradores (farm-hands), sem-lavra (untilled), lavrados (tilled), larvas (larva), agrária (agrarian), agra (field), gregária (gregarious), agrossicários (field-assassins), etc.).  The harshness of the language is explicit and invested at various times with a corrosive aggressiveness, as in the second-to-last stanza: 

gonhada a-
-- envergoncorroída de
imo-abasivo re-
a pátria
(como ufanar-se da?)
pranteia os seus des-
possuídos párias—
pátria parricida:

shamed a-
--ashamecorroded by
immo-abrasive re-
the fatherland
(how to be boastful of?)
weeps for its de-
possessed pariahs—
parricide fatherland: ]

       If, as Roland Barthes says, "tactically or psychoanalytically, all violence implies a language of violence," one can say that Haroldo de Campos critically refutes this language of violence, implicit in the act of the police against the Landless, and in the official impunity, with the violence of language, a violence which, in this case, is seen in the very texture of the poem, in its aggressive and indignant sonority.  Through these resources, the text distances itself from political didacticism, at the same time that it makes an incisive critique of the perverse process of social exclusion promoted by the powerful against the farm-workers.

      Campos simultaneously enters into a dialogue with Brazilian modern poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, when he characterizes the burial of the bodies as a final "settlement" on the piece of land that falls to them from the "latifúndio" (landed-estate) as in Cabral’s poem Morte e vida severina; with Walter Benjamin, when he evokes the "Angel of History," and with another Brazilian modern poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, when he characterizes this angel as "crooked" or "left."  One can also say that Campos tries to perform in this poem what he once called a "poetic of the present."  According to him, after the "hope-principle, directed toward the future" (proper to modernity), "the reality-principle, a fundamental anchored in the present," emerges in the contemporary scene.   Therefore, the "Angel" of his poem, instead of prefiguring a utopian horizon in the line of that which fed the imagination of modern poets and artists, impresses on the poem merely a utopian residue:  "the critical and dialogic dimension inherent in utopia," even if a future "payback" is announced at the end of the poem. (It should be said at this point that Campos has been one of the most incisive critics of the neoliberal economic model, which can be verified in other recently published poems).

      This "utopian residue," wrought and reinvented in the aesthetic work, is what gives to Haroldo de Campos’ poem, as well as Sebastião Salgado’s photographs, their critical power.  It is also what makes it possible for us to take these works as a kind of metaphorical topos for the wanderings of the Landless.  We might say, following what Raduan Nassar said about Chico Buarque’s song "Assentamento" (Settlement), that these artists "settle" the Landless in the here-and-now of the text/image, establish them in the movable space of the possible languages of our time.   There is no doubt that they try to affirm obliquely the ever more spatialized temporality of the present, since, today, the utopian residue is seen less as a project than as a desire.

(Translation from Portuguese: Thomas Burns)


Maria Ester Maciel