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In this article the art historian Alfonso Castrillón looks back at the debate over the jury’s decision to award the 1975 National Culture Prize for art to Joaquín López Antay, the altarpiece artist from the Andean region of Peru. Following the latter’s death, Castrillón reviews the arguments expressed at the time by those who supported the decision and those who condemned it. The former group used the pretext of the “revolutionary” government to demand equal opportunities for traditional, popular art which they insisted was on a par with “cultured art.” The latter group, on the other hand, emphasized the difference between “cultured art” and what was called “handcrafts,” thereby revealing their classist, retrograde point of view. Castrillón associates that perspective with conservative resistance to efforts to reform the various curricula at Peruvian art schools, which reflected the group’s fear of broader changes to the established art system. Although Castrillón describes the controversy as “a white man’s argument,” he believes it helped to “start a serious conversation about the planning and future of Peruvian art,” stimulating ideas about national identity and prompting a change of values among young artists.
Alfonso Castrillón (b. 1935) was a member of the jury that awarded the art prize to López Antay, and was the author of important theoretical arguments about this subject. This article was published as a result of the death of López Antay in 1981; the intervening time gave Castrillón the chance to review the debate with the benefit of hindsight. In the early years of the new millennium this article was included in ¿El ojo de la navaja o el filo de la tormenta? (Lima: Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2002), the collected version of Castrillón’s major articles.
An announcement on December 26, 1975 confirmed that the National Culture Prizes (for the 1973–74 biennium) had been awarded by the Peruvian government through the Instituto Nacional de Cultura to honor the greatest contributions to the development of Peruvian culture. The jury’s decision in the art category (which had traditionally included painting, sculpture, music, and architecture) ignited one of the most heated debates in the history of Peruvian art. The ensuing controversy underscored simmering tensions and suspicions regarding the cultural policies of the revolutionary government of the armed forces led by General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968–75). This administration claimed to be committed to a progressive agenda, a claim supported mainly by the Agrarian Reform of 1969 which was accompanied by the government’s enthusiastic attempt to glorify the image of the peasant population and lifestyle at the expense of other forms of cultural expression that were considered more “Western.” On this occasion the prize was awarded to Joaquín López Antay (1897–1981), who was chosen over well-known visual artists such as Carlos Quízpez Asín (1900–83) and Teodoro Núñez Ureta (1912–88) and the German-born academic musician Rodolfo Holzmann (1910–92).
[For more on the subject of this event, see the following articles in the ICAA digital archive: by Alfonso Castrillón, Leslie Lee, and Carlos Bernasconi “Fundamentación para el dictamen por mayoría simple a favor del artista popular Joaquín López Antay” (doc. no. 1135896); by Alfonso Bermúdez “Premio a López Antay suscita controversias. Unos: consagración del arte popular. Otros: una cosa es arte y otra artesanía” (doc. no. 1135879); by Francisco Abril de Vivero, Luis Cossio Marino, and Alberto Dávila “Artistas plásticos cuestionan premio” (doc. no. 1135960); and (anonymous) “‘No todos nos quieren ni en Lima ni en Ayacucho’: así comentó sobre cuestionamiento a premio” (doc. no. 1135930)].