The editorial categories are research topics that have guided researchers during the recovery phase and continue to be the impetus behind the Documents Project’s digital archive and the Critical Documents book series. Developed by the project’s Editorial Board, each of the teams analyzed this framework and adapted it to their local contexts in developing their research objectives and work plans during the Recovery Phase. Learn more on the Editorial Framework page.
In this article, Jorge Zalamea posits a theory about composition or poetics. His thesis concerns the expression and the assessment of art, and is rooted in the field of art criticism and theory. Zalamea refers to two traditional ways of thinking about art and producing it—pure art and committed art—and suggests a third alternative: testimonial art. In his opinion, pure art and committed art are inadequate concepts that are incapable of describing a well-rounded artist, one who is up to the task of creating a style of his own that can “accurately portray his world, his circumstances, and himself, while assuming the tribulations and nonconformity of the community to which he belongs.” This is the artist-witness, the very opposite of the false or committed artist who produces (since he does not create) a style in response to a fashion, a government, a patron, a school, or a client, all of which are ties or bonds that serve a particular interest and prevent him from painting an honest picture of his world.
The October issue of Eco [Echo] magazine (1960–82)—which attracted an important coterie of writers, translators, and cultural thinkers throughout its life—published an article by the poet, essayist, and translator Jorge Zalamea (1905–1969) who was considered by many to be a pivotal figure in cultural and political thinking in Colombia. In his article, Zalamea coined a novel concept about art. While avant-garde artists champion the concept of pure art, he wrote, “I only understand art as testimony,” suggesting that art was an essential epistemological tool in the quest for a historical understanding of nations.
Though Zalamea’s essay makes no material or historical references to contemporary events in Colombia, he does discuss Colombian art in the twentieth century and alludes to the “current debates.” For some time there had in fact been some differences of opinion concerning what exactly Colombian art should be. There was some doubt as to whether it should express “local” (indigenous) subjects or the “universal” themes espoused by European tradition or the increasingly powerful United States. The poet Andrés Holguín had once said that, “our poetry has been written on the fringes of history,” a definition that perhaps unintentionally applied to Colombian art as a whole. In other words, Colombian artists did the same thing over and again, looking to Europe and the United States for inspiration, and then thinking of themselves as Colombians and artists. Meanwhile, their immediate circumstances were a taboo subject that had no place in the history of Colombia’s cultural expression. This was only natural in an environment in which the country’s politics were informed by Montesquieu’s books or Roosevelt’s political history rather than by local geographical and sociopolitical conditions, and where there was a cultural history that was devoid of tradition. There was no attempt to perform the sort of constant review of local work that builds a local tradition, despite the fact that there had been great artists at work in Colombia since the end of the colonial era. As in the time of the viceroyalty, the intellectuals and critics of the twentieth century continued to build their poetics on a totally foreign artistic foundation.