The Tango of Envy

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

Buenos Aires, Argentina, will host a book fair at the end of March 2011, and the Nobel Laureate Mario Varas Llosa has been invited to give an opening speech. This should not produce more than a couple of lines in the “People” section of a newspaper or 140 characters on Twitter. But instead, it’s causing the silliest of protests, the kind that show how bigoted some “cultured” people can be.

The principal problem is that Vargas Llosa recently remarked to the Italian newspaper “Il Corriere della Sera” that he thought the Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is a “. . .total disaster. . .” not only as president but as a representative of Peronism, the political philosophy originally imposed by Juan Domingo Perón (a.k.a., husband of Evita) when he ruled Argentina in the Forties and Fifties. Let’s just say that Peronism is deeply embedded in the Argentine psyche.

Vargas Llosa’s words were not well-received in Argentina by the ruling political party and its fans. But I just love the paradoxes and ironies involved here!

To quote Agence France Presse, as quoted by El Espectador newspaper for Wednesday, 2 March 2011, “. . . Intelectuals close to the Argentine President. . .”

I am nine years younger than Vargas Llosa and lack a certain amount of political experience in both the US and in Colombia (where I live), but I must admit that just the idea of “intellectuals close to the President” makes me snicker. Maybe even “LOL.” Vargas Llosa has seen all kinds of political stripes come and go in Latin America in his lifetime and he’s an intellectual, but “close to the President”? As an American, I can only think of one President who might have been able to use that phrase with a straight face–John F. Kennedy. The reality of Latin America until recently has been that a bunch of men (and it’s always men, never a coed group) graduated from the top private school(s) in a country and followed different career paths. They might have married into each other’s families (to sisters or close cousins). But even with a dose of “magic realism” I can’t think of any Latin American intellectual who would want to be known as “close” to the ruling party (even if that were true). Latin American artists and writers tend to be leftists, but even when the local government is equally leftist, it just looks bad to be affiliated. In American terms, the artists and writers lose their credibility, and more so when the ruling party dishes out commissions for paintings and movies and books and whatever.

In terms outside Argentina, the definition of “intellectuals close to the President” is “lackey.” (It’s the polite term.)

The other thing that caught my attention was the reaction of the Secretary of Culture, Jorge Coscia, expressing obviously the government position: That Mario Vargas Llosa is a “. . .reactionary. . .” as well as an “. . .enemy of the cultural industries.”

It is the very existence of these “cultural industries” that is wrecking such havoc in the arts today. The Argentines did not invent it, but the Americans certainly did, and until recently, the business formula worked reasonably well–for them.

For artists, writers, musicians, actors, et al–maybe not so well.

When my great-grandfather R. E. Olds began building a horseless carriage, he had to ask for help in certain areas. One of the people who helped was a Mr. Fisher, whose family lived across the street from the Olds’s and who specialized in making carriages (the kind drawn by horses). My great-great-grandfather, Pliny Fisk Olds, helped his son with some of the mechanical details. Out of this came Olds Motor Works and Fisher Body and so on. A business was born.
A lot of artists do work with other people to complete a project.
But I would say that the vast majority of artists work alone, regardless of the end result.
Since I grew up with the story of Oldsmobile as well as other factors, I also grew up understanding the difference between business (industry) and things done for non-business reasons. (Example: see my essay on Collecting Photos, and the description of the gallery my father installed in his house.)

“Cultural industry” reduces all labor to bare bones cost and profit. That’s not what culture is about. Culture is about bringing out the best in ourselves. Business may only bring out a small part of what is good in ourselves.

Having read Mario Vargas Llosa since the Seventies, I will agree that he is an enemy of the “cultural industry,” probably because when he’s working on a book or a play, the last thing that enters his mind is something like marketing and “target audience” and things like that. I personally can not do any decent writing, not even a term paper or a business letter, if I feel I must worry about incidental details totally unrelated to what I’m doing.

What I do see in the Argentine reaction is the usual envy that exists just below the surface in the world. In this case specifically, most of the bureaucrats opposing the appearance of Vargas Llosa simply do not have the guts to strike out on their own. They’re not just lackeys, they’re cowards. They really need the emotional approval and financial support of the government-of-the-moment or their lives are worthless. One can feel sorry for them, but only up to the point at which one realizes that they are the ones who make it more and more difficult for the genuinely talented to be seen and heard. They are the guardians of the cultural industries, making decisions about what is “correct” or “talented” or even “brilliant,” using a very short and narrow (and usually nationalistic) yardstick. In their itsy-bitsy world, a tango composed by Verdi would be automatically fabulous, while Astor Piazzola would be a non-entity.

Mario Vargas Llosa has made his mark without people like that. He is a shining example and inspiration for talented people throughout Latin America. The protests he has generated before he even says another word only show what kinds of intellectuals actually surround Argentina’s president.

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

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