guerrilla art



Considerations on the book by Artur Freitas that discusses the role of the avant-garde and conceptualism in Brazil

The book Guerrilla Art: Vanguard and Conceptualism in Brazil by Artur Freitas, examines the production of avant-garde artists in Brazil during the military dictatorship, or, more precisely, from 1969 to 1973, the first years of the Institutional Act n. 5 (AI-5), of December 13, 1968.

Its intent is to specify, within the so-called countercultural production, the strategies of guerrilla art – or of the “conceptualist project”, in the expression of Artur Freitas – that reacted to political repression, loss of rights and censorship of the arts, fruits of the AI-5. In those years of redefinition of the role of the avant-garde in the country, the artist – said in 1975 the critic Federico Morais, who coined the term “guerrilla art” – became “a kind of guerrilla fighter”; “art, a form of ambush”; and the spectator became a victim, as, feeling cornered, he was forced “to sharpen and activate his senses”.[I]

Freitas' work refers to the period of countercultural, marginal, experimental, alternative, underground, udigrudi, independent, underground, of enjoyment, or, in the terms of the time, of desbunde, which indicated that “many revolutionary illusions fed by the aesthetic projects of the 1960s” were already crumbling.[ii] Faced with the modernization imposed by the right through the military dictatorship, the only possible way out, from the perspective of avant-garde artists, was the creation of alternative spaces for the production and circulation of art as a form of resistance to the hardening of the regime. It is interesting to recognize, within the scope of marginal strategies of guerrilla art, the convergence of two currents that, at the time, were considered antagonistic, but which over time revealed to have strong affinities: the armed struggle and the counterculture, the guerrillas and the hippies: engagement and the dropout.

Several visual artists, therefore, placed on the margins of the system, that is, outside the official forms of circulation of artistic objects, resisted not only the reduction of art to the commodity form, but the dictatorship's own organs of surveillance and repression military. The analogy between art and guerrilla warfare is not a mere “flare of expression”, because artists, like the guerrilla fighters, spurred on by urgency, acted outside the institutions, unexpectedly, quickly, according to a sense of opportunity, assuming the risk of clandestine action. In both cases, it was, in general terms, specific interventions in concrete political and social situations – the so-called “guerrilla focus” –, aimed at destabilizing the military junta. It is worth remembering, however, that the limits of this analogy were, as a rule, preserved, since few artists, like Sérgio Ferro or Carlos Zílio, moved, in the course of events, from the ranks of art to guerrilla warfare. strictly speaking.

Artur Freitas' intention was not to carry out an exhaustive examination of the artistic production of those years of lead, enumerating artists and exhibitions, but to elect some works as symptoms of the imaginary of the period. His strategy was to prioritize the careful interpretation of just six works by just three artists – or rather, their “interventions”, because in those years there was an attempt to overcome the “work of art” category –, avoiding both generalizations and the laudatory genre, as occurs in historiography or art criticism texts. In summary, the following interventions are examined: Insertions in ideological circuits: Coca-Cola Project e Tiradentes: Totem-Monument to the Political Prisoner, by Cildo Meireles, both from 1970; Bloody Bundles e 4 Days 4 Nights, by Artur Barrio, from the same year; and finally, The Body is the Work, also from 1970, and From 0 to 24 hours, from 1973, by Antonio Manuel.

The detailed analysis of works, a rare procedure in the critical fortune of modern and contemporary art in Brazil, is one of the grateful contributions of the book. Freitas does not apply, in his analyses, a given theoretical position, as they say, but mobilizes notions of different discursive forms from the demands raised by each unique work. Thus, he has several sources: interviews and testimonials by artists; catalog presentations; reviews of exhibitions in Brazilian and foreign newspapers and magazines; articles considered to support artistic practice – such as those by Mario Pedrosa, Ferreira Gullar, or Frederico Morais – art historiography texts; and, finally, supposed poetic references, which, although not mentioned by the artists, allow for the construction of categories underlying their work, as they integrate the imaginary of the period.

Said without half paint: in the interpretation of the works, Freitas reserves the right to retain aspects of a given author without having to accept him in his entirety. His intent, in other words, is to take artistic forms not as illustrations of the authors' positions – such as Clement Greenberg, Arthur Danto; Gérard Genette, Didi-Huberman or Hans Belting, referred to throughout the text – but as “models in themselves”; that is, it aims to explain the mode of thought that a given “work” constitutes, as taught by Yve-Alain Bois, Michael Baxandall or Hubert Damisch.

Assuming that the history of structures and artistic forms is always ideological, Freitas rejects both the direct sociopolitical analysis of the work of art and the merely formalist analysis, heir to Greenberg. His procedure is closer to the “materialist formalism” defended by Yve-Alain Bois,[iii] considering that it turns to the specificity of the object, which involves not only the general condition of its “environment” but also the most insignificant details of its means of production, such as the order of the invoice. This materialist formalism supposed here is indicted in the expression “introjection of the political”, recurrent in the book, understood as the way in which notions of the period – such as “imperialism”, “underdevelopment” or “art-institution” – are articulated as an allegory in the very invoice for the works, whether these are “objects” or “gestures”.

Also noteworthy, as a singularity of the book, is the characterization of guerrilla art as a development of the Brazilian constructive project, of concretism and neoconcrete inflection. In this sense, the text sharply accentuates the impasses resulting from the radicalization of the idea of ​​artistic fruition or public participation, present both in Ferreira Gullar’s ​​“Theory of the Non-Object”, from 1960, and in the “General Scheme of New Objectivity Brasileira”, by Hélio Oiticica, from 1967. It shows, in other words, that “the attempt to internalize political action in artistic practice”, from 1969 to 1973 “combined the phenomenological interest of the neoconcrete legacy” and Tropicália with the “immediacy ideology of the new times”; because at that moment, according to Frederico Morais, “the maximum elasticity of neoconcrete thought and derivatives was being tested, straining its moral assumptions and radicalizing its ideological assumptions”.

This radicalization is also recognizable, according to Freitas, in the incorporation of violence into the very structure of the work as a response to “the violence of the world”. In some works, the incorporation of destructive impulses – a way of reacting to the pure, geometric forms of the neoconcrete movement, still marked by the prospective and revolutionary-utopian vision of the constructive vanguards – is presented by the author as being almost literal; in other works, as being metaphorical; but in all of them we would have the same awareness of the “impossibility of dissociating between what is said and the way it is said”, in Freitas' speech.

As Bloody Bundles, for example, which were scattered around Barrio on the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, were “fetid packages”, with “real meat and bones”, bought in local butchers, causing a great uproar. The presence of these “Muggle objects” (or horready-mades) in the Municipal Park of Belo Horizonte, in April 1970, even demanded the intervention of the fire brigade, due to the suspicion that this was the “disposal” of “political prisoners” by the death squad, since we were experiencing the peak of military repression. The aggressiveness of these “muggle situations” by Barrio would show, in Freitas's expression, the “introjection of a pragmatics (politics) within the scope of a syntax (artistic form)”; that is, the “violence of oppression” of the death squads would have been internalized in the “work-process” as “violence of revolt”, in the sense of the guerrillas.

The boundary work is also analyzed Tiradentes: Totem-Monument to the Political Prisoner, by Cildo Meireles, who, on April 21, 1970, also “introjected”, now with the burning of live chickens, cruelty to the very “performative structure of art”. It would be a “test work”, in Freitas's opinion, “the sharpest vertex of the Brazilian critical trajectory”; “apex and fraying of a process characterized by the emblematic passage of the phenomenological question” from neoconcretism to the “guerrilla position”. Cildo Meireles' “violent action” is presented as a ritualistic response, because under “the approximate form of sacrifice by substitution” – in René Girard's sense – whose purpose would be to “interrupt the cycle of social revenge” that reigned in the country. However, in this intervention there would remain a minimal but fundamental remnant of a metaphorical nature: “ultimate figure”, “almost intolerable”, but still figure of the unspeakable violence of the period. In this way, guerrilla art, in Tiradentes, it would still guerrilla and non-guerrilla tout court, not least because in the latter case, violence occurred, evidently, “on a human scale”, carnal, and not by similitude or figurative, in the form of immolation of animals.

The Body is the Work, by Antonio Manuel, is another “edge-situation” that Freitas analyzes with due care, noting even the absence of studies on the artist. On the night of May 15, 1970, Antonio Manuel appeared naked, as is known, at the opening of the XIX National Modern Art Salon, for about a thousand people with the intention, in the artist’s words, “to deny Art, the Museum and the whole scheme”. Such a gesture was considered by some critics, in the heat of the moment, a symptom of guerrilla inefficiency, be it social or poetic, while for others, like Mario Pedrosa, it was, on the contrary, an “experimental exercise of freedom”, eminently avant-garde, in tune with the “cultural revolution” under way in the world.

The author records that Pedrosa himself, however, would characterize, five years later, the series of thanatological acts, of aggression against his own body, by the Viennese artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler, in 1969, as a symptom that “the cycle of the alleged revolution [of avant-garde art] closed in on itself”; and that the result of this movement was a “pathetic regression of no return: decadence”.

From the analysis of these works and their reception by art critics, Freitas notes, therefore, that a “certain historical awareness” of the “unreality, albeit relative”, of these avant-garde projects was developing in the country. These works, of “verification of the borders of the phenomenon-art”, which interfered in the “flow of information” (as From 0 to 24 hours, by Antonio Manuel) or in the “circulation of objects” (as Coca-Cola Project, by Cildo Meireles), showed, according to the author, that interventions like these would be “unsustainable in the long term”. It is in this sense that, forty years after his ambulatory delirium de 4 Days 4 Nights through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, in May 1970 – which is analyzed by Freitas, without haste, at the end of the book –, Barrio would ask: “What to do after that? There was nothing. A complete desert”.

It is the examination of this impasse of the conceptualist project in Brazil that is the cornerstone, in my view, of this book. With documents and arguments, Freitas shows that the indetermination of the boundaries between art and life “did not lead [in Brazil] to the epic taking of life by art”, but to the need to “remark the boundaries between both”. In this direction, the author points out, for example, that in 1975 the editors of the magazine Malasartes, including Cildo Meireles, proposed that the “art system” would henceforth be considered “No. work” of art, instead of the “anti-institutional assault typical of the vanguards”. However – let me add – it was only at the beginning of the following decade, with the so-called “return to painting” of the “80s generation”, that the boundaries between art and life would be effectively remarked, with the difference that from then on the art system would no longer be referred to in a critical key, in the sense of Malasartes, but, on the contrary, warmed by works with guaranteed liquidity such as Beaux-Arts.

This diagnosis of the aporia of the vanguards in Brazil in the first half of the 1970s is also articulated by Freitas to the international debate on postmodernity, in the world fields, or more precisely on themes such as the crisis of the autonomy of the artistic form and the so-called “end of art”. Because it was perceived, here and there, despite the differences, that the crisis of the avant-garde implied, at the conceptual level, the abandonment of the notion of autonomy of form, associated in the imaginary of artistic modernity with the negativity powers of art.

The author's challenge, therefore, was to verify whether the guerrilla interventions that aimed to bring art and life together articulated, in each case, the elements of the present in the aesthetic gesture - in order to relate, in the metaphor, aesthetics and politics - or if, by On the contrary, they produced the neutralization of poetics and the fading of politics, by succumbing to the so-called “world of life” (which is glimpsed by the author in The Body is the Work, by Antonio Manuel, who, unlike Tiradentes, by Cildo Meireles, aimed at the “direct intersection” – “an association evidently laden with naivety” – “between the denial of aesthetic autonomy, on the one hand, and the refusal of a repressive system, on the other”).

Artur Freitas examines, therefore, the attempt to overcome art in life based on the “contradictions of conceptualism in Brazil”. Because if conceptual art was, on the one hand, a “democratic movement”, on the other hand, it also implied a “sterile discourse”, as even Cildo Meireles himself pointed out in the 1990s, when reviewing his militancy during the guerrilla period. Which means that, due to its specialization – if not esotericism, which would be the result of the internal logic of the artistic form of avant-garde art throughout the XNUMXth century – conceptual art would have distanced itself in such a way from praxis that its effects would not they would have been used for the “world of life”, in the sense of a reconfiguration of existence.

This observation, according to Freitas, is valid not only for Anglo-American conceptual art, of Joseph Kosuth or of the group Art & Language – according to which, tautologically, “art is the definition of art” –, but also for “expanded conceptual art”, such as Latin American political-ideological conceptualism, for which “art is life”. Reinforcing the parallel between art and guerrilla warfare, one can risk, with regard to this hermeticism, that just as the liberating potential of conceptual art did not permeate the practice of life, because it remained distant from the average public repertoire, the actions of armed groups declined quickly, since they did not reach the expected support of the “masses”.

With the aim of bringing out the contradictions of the conservative modernization process during the period of the military government, Freitas ends his assessment of guerrilla art by showing the difficulty of the conceptualist project in extending the “world of art” to the “social world”. In this assessment, the author lists what he calls “the four conceptualist myths”. The first of them, resulting from the fight against the figure of the “artist as a genius”, is the myth of universal creation, according to which “anyone has a productive aesthetic faculty or is capable of developing it”.

The second myth, the result of the refusal of the observer's passivity or enjoyment as a disinterested judgment, is that of public participation, inherited from neoconcretism; and it consists of the belief that, faced with a conceptual proposition, the spectator becomes a participant or co-author, and, therefore, a transforming agent of reality.

The third myth, the aestheticization of the real, is the result of overcoming the work of art as a “special object”; or, put another way, it is the myth that all in life, object or gesture, it can be art. Finally, the last myth is that of the death of institutions, or of the artistic circuit, which is based on the conviction that “any place is a place for art”, or even that “the museum is the world”, as it was said at the time. – and what happened in the following decade, in the opposite direction, was the musealization of culture, that is, that all in the world can end up in the museum. Regarding this last aspect, the author ponders, however, that it would be a “forced idealization” to assume that the actions of guerrilla art were destined only to “ideological circuits in general”, and not to the art circuit in particular, as evidenced by documents analysed, be it the artists' notes or the photographic records of their actions.

However – stresses Freitas – this balance does not result in the ineffectiveness of the conceptualist project, given that it “fixed in the Brazilian contemporary artistic imagination “the fundamental bases of an entire extensive – and impossible – poetic mythology”. In fact, the production of the 1960s and 1970s – as “articulation between art, behavior, experimentation and criticism”, in the synthesis of Celso Favaretto, has been frequently appropriated in recent decades to characterize the relationship between art and politics in the context of globalization or globalization of culture. It should be remembered, by the way, that the expression “return of the real”, by Hal Foster, from 1996, designated precisely this attempt by the new generation of artists, in Brazil or abroad, to reconnect the practical links between art and life – as can be seen, since then, in the multiplication of “relational art” installations or events.

It thus became a challenge for critics to understand – in the language of Jacques Rancière – “the metamorphoses of the mix between art and life”, that is, to understand the new political configuration in the “game of exchanges and displacements between the world of art and not art”, which is very different from avant-garde projects of aestheticizing life, as in the case of guerrilla art.[iv]

Because, unlike the aesthetic gesture of the 1970s, which aimed, in terms of the period, at renewing sensibility through an “investment in the deterritorialization of desire”, the collaborative art of the 1990s or 2000s represented a new form of social criticism – although sweetened, for certain authors, because it is carried out in partnership with the third sector and protected by incentive laws, within cultural institutions.

It is also necessary to contrast, in this direction, the “strategist artist” of the 1970s – “a critical and anonymous operator who, counting on the cooperation of a network of clandestine actions”, acted in the “gaps in the system”, in the characterization of Freitas – with the “artist-manager” of the last three decades –, “exceptional organizer” or “manager of convivial events, astute and authoritative entrepreneur of symbolic operations”, in the characterization of Jean Galard.[v]

This book, therefore, contributes to the understanding not only of the conceptualist project in Brazil but also of the attempts so frequent in recent years to “rebuild bridges”[vi] – in the expression of Nicolas Bourriaud – between the 1960s and 1970s (period of State authoritarianism) and the 1990s and 2000s (marked by market authoritarianism).

Freitas' text responds, in other terms, to the following question by Celso Favaretto, summarized as follows: "Although the images of resistance from the countercultural period are outdated or unfeasible, if we admit that certain modern devices are still active, how can we repotentialize them according to the current conditions of culture and the arts?”[vii] For Freitas, this reactivation will be possible when one realizes that the most relevant works of the conceptualist project – such as the works of Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles examined in the book – constituted a kind of “reserve of poetic power” by “impregnating the form artistic with political concerns, working with the demands of the language of his time”. Or, to put it another way: will it be possible if the new generation of artists, without rescuing or nostalgia, learns from guerrilla art the possibility of “radically elaborating” the political problem of the present without giving up the investigation of the artistic form.

For these reasons, the relevance of Freitas's rigorous and rare, because erudite, analysis is emphasized. It is a work that ingeniously explains how each unique work of art passes from exteriority to interiority, from the matter of life to artistic form. Written in limpid prose, it is a reference book in the area, either for its valuable documentary research on guerrilla art, which escapes the commonplaces of criticism, or for problematizing, with fine treatment, the relationship between art and politics.

*Ricardo Fabbrini He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Art after the vanguards (Unicamp).

This text is a partially modified version of the Preface “Impasses da Guerrilha”, originally published in the book by Artur Freitas, Guerrilla Art: Vanguard and Conceptualism in Brazil.


Arthur Freitas, Guerrilla Art: Vanguard and Conceptualism in Brazil. São Paulo, Edusp, 360 pages.


[I] Frederick Morales. Plastic Arts: A. Current Time Crisis. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1975, p. 26.

[ii] VIEW Art in Magazine, CEAC: Center for Contemporary Art Studies, year 5, n. 7, Aug. 1983.

[iii] Yve.-Alain Bois. Painting as a model. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2009, p. XXV.

[iv]  Jacques Rancière, The Sharing of the Sensible: Aesthetics and Politics.  São Paulo: Editora 34, 2005, p. 55.

[v] Jean Galard, “Estetization of Life: Abolition or Generalization of Art?, in A. Dallal, (ed.). The abolition of art. Mexico: UNAM, 1998, p.70.

[vi]  Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics. São Paulo: Martins, 2009.

[vii] Celso Favaretto, “Art and Culture in the 60s: Resistance and Creation”, in Juana Elbein Santos (ed.), Creativity, Core of Cultural Diversity: the Aesthetics of the Sacred. Salvador: Secneb, 2010, p. 93.

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