Innovation through appropriation as an alternative to separatism: the use of commercial imagery by Chicano artists, 1960-1990

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Berkowitz, Ellie Patricia

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Can artists produce socially relevant and politically controversial artwork, which gains strength through subversion and condemnation of mainstream society, while at the same time benefiting from involvement within the traditional art establishment? While this question is not a new one, within the field of Chicano Art, it has had a lengthy yet unexamined history, punctuated by specific events and philosophies linked to the nationalistic political movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Leaders of this era, such as Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, promulgated an isolationist approach to all aspects of Chicano life, including art production. Self-determination became a hallmark of Chicano Art of this early phase, and Chicano artists, regardless of their personal ideologies, often found themselves placed into a collective categorization of the political Chicano artist. However, the problem that arose from this generalization was that it overlooked the complexities of the individual Chicano artist who may not have subscribed to a uniform separatist agenda. Particularly once the Chicano Art Movement of the early phase lost its collective zeal, Chicano artists diverged from the communal portrayal of a unified Chicano identity, one culturally nationalistic in tenor. While some Chicano artists, such as Rupert García, willingly endorsed a participatory approach to the mainstream, others like Malaquías Montoya bemoaned an in-system method, claiming that the dominant culture promoted the cooptation of any artist who participated within its arenas. In the early 1980s, Montoya published his views on this topic in an article he coauthored with his wife. This dissertation examines the Montoyas’ philosophies in-depth, as well as explores the counter-debates by scholars Shifra Goldman and Luis J. Rodríguez that the Montoyas’ article instigated. Linked to this exploration are economic and political analyses of the late 1970s through the 1990s, which reveal not only a development in the mainstreaming and commercialization of Chicano art, but also a trend among Chicanos away from isolationism towards assimilationism. A case study of Malaquías Montoya, Rupert García, and Mel Ramos in the final chapter further illustrates the broad heterogeneity in viewpoints on the subject.