Demonstration in Barcelona, October 3, 2017 (photo by Josep-Tomàs via Flickr)

Tensions between Spain and Catalonia go back centuries: The northeastern region has its own language and culture and is one of Spain’s wealthiest geographic areas.

We can track the current extreme polarization of Catalan society back to three major events: The Catalan government’s determination to hold an independence referendum overriding the Spanish constitution; the Spanish central government’s decision to deploy police officials who broke into Catalan public institutions, seizing material for said referendum; and the Spanish police’s physical charges against civilians on the day of the referendum. Extreme overreaction on both sides led to a disastrous civil society standoff.

As of this writing, the parliament of Catalonia has been dissolved by the Spanish government, which has taken control of the region’s politics and finances.  Seven Catalan MPs, and  the leaders of the grassroots organizations Òmnium Cultural and ANC, have been jailed on charges of sedition, while Catalonia’s former president, Carles Puigdemont, has fled to Brussels to seek legal assistance. The Spanish government’s response has been to call for regional elections, which are now scheduled for December 2.

Demonstration in Barcelona, October 3, 2017 (photo by Sasha Popovic via Flickr)

Amid the chaos, arts and cultural institutions in Catalonia find themselves in a difficult and inscrutable position. Silvia Muñoz d’Imbert, the director of the CoNCA, the Catalan National Council of Culture and the Arts told Hyperalleric that the Council tries to work normally despite the fact that the finances of the public entity have been taken over by the Spanish government. “The artistic sector lives in an accentuated fragility. Losing any appointed job can be a setback for artists, curators or critics.” Muñoz d’Imbert believes  that the cultural sector, which has traditionally situated itself within a generally left-wing internationalism, is uneasy within the current context. That’s also the opinion of Miriam M. Basilio, professor of art history and museum studies at NYU. Basilio, who is Puerto Rican and Spanish, with deep ties to Catalonia, tells me that the situation is complicated and painful for everybody.

Money and diplomatic ties are one explanation for the tendency towards institutional reticence around the secession issue. The situation is logistically, structurally, politically, and financially complicated because the vast majority of Catalan arts and culture institutions receive funding from both the Catalan and Spanish governments.

The Miró Foundation draws 80% of its revenue from tickets, sponsorships and shop sales. They receive the rest of their budget from the triad: the Spanish Ministry of Culture, Catalonia’s cultural department, and Barcelona City Hall. El Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Opera of Barcelona, has a different revenue model more tied to private sponsors. The companies who mainly finance it are banks, oil, and energy companies, which do not sympathize with a hypothetical Catalan state. The same happens at MACBA (Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art), where the honorary president is the former queen of Spain, and other founding companies like Caixa Bank, the infrastructure company Abertis, and the newspaper La Vanguardia are all opposed to secession.

Vicenç Villatoro, director of the CCCB (Barcelona’s Center of Contemporary Culture), told Hyperallergic that the center doesn’t have an institutional position in the conflict. “CCCB is a space of reflection and open dialogue among the different positions in this political dispute,” says Villatoro. CCCB recently programmed a series of conferences, “Revolution or resistance?” to reflect upon the current validity of the term revolution on the context of the October Revolution one century ago. Some aspects of the Catalan conflict were discussed in the talks, with important speakers like Angela Davis, Ivan Krastev, and Arundathi Roi.

Charo Canal, from the press department of the MNAC (National Museum of Art of Catalonia), told Hyperallergic that “as a museum we don’t have a position on issues that are not strictly historical and artistic.”

MNAC (photo by Derek Winterburn via Flickr)

For performance artist Francesc Oui, the fundamental question is the governability of these institutions, the concerns of the board members and the commercial interests. “Fearing a bad image in front of Spain, lots of artists and institutions kneel before Spain,” Oui says.

Catalan performance artist Francesc Oui (photo by Mònica Pallí)

Nora Ancarola, the President of the PAAC (The Catalan Assembly of Artists) disagrees. She arrived 40 years ago from Argentina and told Hyperallergic that she has never been treated differently because of her political adherence. “Both Catalonia and Spain are very small. There are cliques, for sure, but it is a country of coexistence.”

Nonetheless, in Ancarola’s view institutions in Catalonia do not have their own voice because the vast majority are financed by public money. “The cultural and artistic landscape is very different than in United States,” concluded Ancarola.

Joan Maria Minguet i Batllori, art professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, recently wrote an article in a local newspaper criticizing the silence of Catalan artists. In his opinion, while there are exceptions like the artist Àlvar Calvet, who “literally ate a Spanish Constitution at the Swab fair”; and the theater director Àlex Rigola, who resigned the artistic directorship of the Teatros del Canal, in Madrid, in condemnation of the Spanish government’s violent actions, there are also those who represent an entirely opposite position. For example, Albert Boadella, another member of the theater community well known for his provocations, said he considers the Catalan aim for independence a virus.

Regardless of their political views, the artists and institutions are aligned on one point: universal opposition to violence. MACBA, the music festival Primavera Sound, the Miró Foundation, and the Catalan Association of Art Critics, among others, released statements condemning police brutality on October 1st.

Poet Ester Xargay talks about Miró, Guinovart, and Tàpies, as artists who historically portrayed the tensions between Spain and Catalonia. When asked about how she merges art and politics, Xargay answers with a poem from Joan Brossa: “L’art no és una força d’atac, sinó una força d’ocupació.” (Art is not an attack force but an occupation force.)

Back in New York, we asked professor and curator Lola Jiménez-Blanco, fall 2017 Chair of the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center (KJCC) for her thoughts on the conflict. She brought up the upcoming symposium “Art and Power: From Museum to Real World”, in which the Catalan artist Francesc Torres will participate. Torres told Hyperallergic that “there isn’t enough historic perspective to produce work on the issue in the artistic/symbolic terrain that would be interesting enough. Now you can only say if you are pro or against independence and we already know that anecdotal art isn’t interesting at all.” Torres highlights photojournalism as the only trace of the Catalan independence process that is presently visible, noting that there is “nothing in the visual arts.”

The Catalan question will surely come up at the symposium on November 17 and 18 in New York City, along with discussions of the role that museums and artists have to play in politically charged environments. One thing is certain: vigorous dialogue is desperately needed to work through chaos to clarity in these doubtful, polarized times.

Laura Calçada

Laura Calçada is a Catalan writer who's been living in Brooklyn for the past four years. She is currently studying journalism focusing her research on socially engaged art practices. Follow her @laura_calcada