Towards a theory of boludo art.  

Boludo and its derivatives, the improbable boluda and the product boludez, are Uruguayan/Argentine slang terms. With approximate but imprecise translations in other languages, the Oxford Dictionary for example records the word as dickhead. Literally "dickhead,” although in cruder terms, dickhead is also used to describe people with a certain slowness and obsessiveness. I lack the idiomatic subtlety to fully grasp the term in English, but my son, more erudite in these things, describes it as a mixture of dumbass and asshole.

The first meaning, dumbass, shares the slowness and coarseness. The second, asshole, introduces another dimension that is not entirely appropriate for this case, that of a bad intention, what we would call mala leche, or a kind of bitchiness.

In the fragile balance between the two meanings and the range they establish, one could say that on this scale, Peter Sellers' role in the film "Being There" is closer to the first meaning. The film, based on a novel by Jerzy Kozinski, depicts the life of someone who is essentially mentally handicapped and ends up being president of the United States only because, for better or worse, he is where he is at any given moment.

On the same scale, former President George H.W. Bush (Bush I) would be equidistant from the two extremes, while President George Bush (Bush II) would be a little closer to the second meaning. In any case, boludo is a more complex term, since it includes a certain hermetic density independent of the surrounding context.

This density then merges with an added opacity and absence of sophistication that comes from a lack of perception of - or a meaningful relationship with - the environment. The result is that the person who observes the boludo begins to attribute things to it; to project. It is thanks to this projection that Peter Sellers' character ends up in the unexpected and undeserved position of President of the United States.

The term "balls", the origin of all this, refers to testicles, and the image evoked is the complex one of a gifted bull that moves like a slow and inadequate ox, its movements impeded by the burden of ultimately useless equipment.

These explanations are important because once we refer the word boludo to art, other factors come in that transcend what would be merely stupid (non-intelligent), emotionally inexpressive, or trivial and obvious art. Moreover, many of these qualities would also be attributable to kitsch or mass-produced art, which would also fall short of capturing what I consider to be true boludo art. But it is a word that - although it does not express all the meaning I would like it to - is useful to me because it provides an important platform. The term will serve me until a better one is found.

I would say that the fundamental quality of a good boludo artwork is the non-emission - or at least, the minimized emission - of information. The boludo work has an undeniable, sometimes even aggressive presence, but it says nothing. It is clear that "saying nothing" is a relative notion--every form, no matter how empty, has a sub-text that somehow introduces content--but "saying nothing" here means that the work is not declarative, that it has no explicit message.

Boludity is in inverse relation to the statement issued. In that sense a formalist work is highly declarative, even if its statement refers to itself and not to an external message. Being highly declarative, its degree of boludity is relatively low.

It is here that we probably have to differentiate between stupidity and gratuitousness. The gratuitous, or "al cohete,” artwork is not necessarily a boludo work. The function of the dumb work is to be there to some extent, to assert its presence. It is no accident that Peter Sellers' film was titled "Being There.”

But since its very existence can become a statement in itself, the formalization of the boludo artwork must, by necessity, be understated. In other words, despite affirming its presence, boludo art must simultaneously deny it. Or as Liliana Porter says, referring to Morandi’s paintings: “Accomplished boludo art would be capable of such a perfect silence it would allow us to listen, in a utopian way, to the work of Morandi. The boludo would be the space of the opposite."

We want then to produce works that ultimately deny their own presence without going to the extreme of non-existence. It is about creating a work that functions on the fragile border between imbecility and invisibility without falling into one or the other.

One of the temptations to solve these problems is to make tautological works. Historically, tautology was used to eliminate all non-artistic reference and allow the work of art to be nothing more than itself. This was achieved either through formal reductionism or by using the content as if it were a dunce turned in on itself. The classic examples in American art are Frank Stella's geometrically striped Black Paintings, which were made as "reductions" of the painting's outer form. But the result of this strategy did not achieve the idea of boludo art in the sense I want to give it here.

Tautology was limited to generating works that were aesthetically narcissistic and closed to the public. It was an art much closer to autism than to boludo. Tautological works affirmed their existence as part of the production of art. That was their raison d'être and justification for their existence. At the same time, tautology declared itself self-sufficient, isolated from any other reality. This kind of art tried to establish an absolute and immobile value, self-sufficient and isolated from any other reality. The work was set up as an entity that did not need an audience to exist. Tautological artworks were anti-audience.


One of the forerunners of boludo art was Argentine artist Ruben Santantonín (1919 -1969). Although Santantonín never described his art in these terms, his approach was prescient. Almost as a premonition of arte boludo, he titled his works "Cosas,” and in 1961 he wrote in his diary that:

“Culture is emaciated by history. Only the present nourishes it. I want to bring myself to the point of frenzy in all that existential total that I sense as the present. I want to feel that I existed with my time. NOT ANOTHER... I want to bleed existence.”

By wanting to “bleed existence,” Santantonín was in fact eliminating any kind of statement, message or aesthetics. His work wanted to "be" and nothing more, without even speaking of itself or of its belonging to art. If the work never really became boludo, its failure was due to the fact that, paradoxically, because of its historica moment, Santantonín wanted his art to limit itself in a concentrated affirmation of its own existence. This lack of humility introduced an element of mystery into his work, thereby keeping it within the canon of traditional art.

Strange as it may sound, the interest in boludo art lies in its authentically democratic nature. Art as we know it, like any exchange of information, is always an exercise of power. The sender possesses and manages the information, and then uses this information to manipulate and control the attention of the receiver. In the ideal boludo art, the emission of information does not exist. Like the Bermuda Triangle or black holes in the galaxies, the boludo work attracts information rather than gives it. If there is any information emitted, it is merely a reflection of the information absorbed.

In the ideal boludo artwork, the observer ends up expending energy without receiving anything in return. There is no exchange, no trace or documentation of dialogue between observer and work. Denying the norms of capitalist exchange, there is no intellectual, emotional, or hedonistic reward for the audience, except that produced by the viewer's own activity. If a viewer experiences the sublime, it is only because she projected it, not because the artist created it for her.  

In its attempt to abolish power, boludo art not only avoids the emission of information from the work, but also tries to achieve the total disappearance of authorship. The observer is no longer confronted by the presence of an individual artist, but with an impersonal and empty gaze. The artist's monologue, so often expressed in a traditional artwork, ceases to exist in boludo art.

The artist offers his silence, and if there is any dialogue, it takes place between the monologue of the observer and its echo. If any poetic aspect emerges, it is one nurtured by the observer. The responsibility for the creative effort is transferred from the artist to the audience. The act of consuming (as a passive and static attitude) ceases to make sense.

This radical transfer of the creative effort from artist to audience alters many things. One of the changes takes place in the role of the artist in that he no longer directs his work to a consumer market but tries to create a field of activation. The artwork becomes a situation rather than an object. Arte boludo demands a reinterpretation of reductionism and its use. Reductionism is about eliminating the superfluous, but this action is no longer meant to isolate a mythical, obscurantist essence. Instead, it is deployed as a non-formalist operation focused on the control of information. The purpose of this control is not to find an essence, but to deny the artist’s ego and instead to force the maximum transmission of information on the part of the audience.

Moving from the formal field to that of projected information also alters the criteria of quality used to evaluate the work of art. In this situation, the criterion of artistic quality disappears. It gives way to a principle of functionality: generating imagination in what used to be defined as a consuming public. With arte boludo, the notion of beauty loses its importance; the quality of the work increases in proportion to the density of imagination it generates in the viewer.

To illustrate this, I will use the example of a mirror. In the terms of traditional art, when faced with a variety of mirrors, a viewer would choose one of them based on her preference of its shape and frame. But what defines the mirror, the reflective surface that makes the mirror truly a mirror, has nothing to do with the shape or the frame. In the case of the boludo artwork the situation is equally clear. The form and frame, as aestheticizing and therefore declaratory elements, interfere with the degree of boludity. The appreciation of the truly boludo work is whole, direct, and devoid of extraneous adulterations. It is noiseless. One work can be more boludo than another, but the attribution of aesthetic and/or commercial values no longer makes sense since those values belong to another sphere.

Before continuing, I want to clarify that all this is not about erasing or ignoring what has been produced in the history of art from its beginnings until now. The traditional declarative aspect of the work of art still satisfies certain functions. It can produce a process of transmutation that sometimes manages to confront us with unknown mysteries, even if that encounter happens through interpretation. Traditional declarative art also can permit hidden ideas to become visible and intelligible thanks to translation into the visual field. The artist León Ferrari, discussing these ideas, commented that he "whores through art.” What in other media would be nothing more than an ephemeral and disposable commentary acquires a potentially indelible permanence in art. What is not resolved in traditional declarative art, however, is the permanence of the work as a situation that activates the spectator, rather than an object left for consumption.

The efficacy of the boludo work in activating a viewer can only be measured in relation to the amount of information it absorbs, a factor that depends more on the viewer's projection than on the artist's skill. In this context, it is more probable that the less sophisticated observer will end up projecting much more than the experienced one. This means that the importance of the boludo work is no longer defined by a group of specialists but by a general collective.

Once again we are in a field very close to kitsch. But in genuinely consumed kitsch (i.e. without the sober attitude of the refined intellectual) the consumer uses his empathy in a pre-fabricated and pre-packaged situation. Genuine observation of a kitsch object does not come from active effort. On the contrary, with kitsch, imagination is annihilated by the activity of consumption. It can be said that kitsch works so well because it is the consumer who is boludized. In boludo art the opposite happens. It is the activity of consumption that is annihilated by the imagination. In the silence presented by arte boludo there is almost nothing to consume and almost everything to imagine.

Borges offers us an example for all this in his short story "El Aleph,” from 1945. The Aleph is a point only perceptible from a basement floor. The owner instructs: "fix your eyes on the nineteenth step of the relevant staircase.” The dot, actually a little sphere two or three centimeters in diameter, contains all the images of the world. By pure coincidence, Carlos Argentino Daneri, the owner of both the basement and the Aleph is someone who could be could be described as a boludo. "His mental activity," writes Borges, "is continuous, passionate, versatile and altogether insignificant." But the character, created by Borges to criticize a colleague, doesn't really matter. What matters in this case is that Borges' little ball contains all the information of the universe at the same time. Any declarative quality that this information could communicate is nullified by the lack of order and hierarchy. The observer ends up in a meditative trance of total projection. The hyper-saturation of information here is equivalent to the deepest silence.

At this point it is fair to wonder if the perfect boludo work of art is possible or if it is merely a utopia. In reality, all activity categorized as artistic is utopian and arte boludo is one of them. More than a complete possibility, it is one more instrument of evaluation. Trained to produce and buy objects, we lose sight of art itself. Historically, the cave artist who wanted to promote hunting; the religious artist who wanted to promote faith, the realist who wanted to reproduce the infinite points that make up reality; the abstractionist who wanted to fix the way the world saw and felt; the political artist who wanted to change the conscience of society--all of them only succeeded in making notes on the problem without actually solving it. The fact that their efforts may have gained social recognition and material rewards does not diminish the failure of their enterprise.

The boludo art producer will surely share that same fate, in part because his new enterprise carries with it an insurmountable implicit contradiction. The ideal, accomplished boludo artwork ceases to be legible as belonging to the field of art. The attribution of belonging, to art or to anything else, is declaratory and therefore anti-boludo. This is the problem Santantonín had, and it limited his enormous potential. Because of the scale and form of his work, Santantonín created interlocutors who, wrongly, continued to force a dialogue with the spectator instead of limiting themselves to generating a monologue. These are obstacles also faced by other artists such as (to mention only three) Lucio Fontana, Hélio Oiticica and Richard Tuttle.

In his "Spatial Concepts" sculptures from 1959-1960, Fontana missed the mark right from the start - because of the title. His variations on bronze spheres would have been much more suggestive - and not just because of the obvious formal evocations - if he had not given a guide with those words. Fontana involuntarily turned these pieces of bronze into illustrations of other speculations.

In his "Bólides" from the 1960s, Helio Oiticica worked to avoid all narrative effect and the risk of absurdist and surrealist evocations. He tried to emphasize the importance of relationships over the objects themselves. When he used the notion of "ready-made" it was not to enrich the object but to remove it completely from everyday experience. For this reason, Oiticica also called these pieces "trans-objects.” They were incorporated into what he described as " aesthetic idea, making it part of the work...and making it participate in a universal idea without losing its previous structure." But ultimately, Oiticica's goal was to satisfy his own poetic sensibility and share it as much as possible with the viewer.

Richard Tuttle, in reaction to the growing spectacularism of American art, concentrated on the use of materials and trivial forms on a sub-modest scale. In some ways he can be considered the most authentic American representative of a kind of "arte povera made in USA.” In fact, Tuttle’s work achieved an appearance of much greater poverty than the art of the Italians. But his repertoire and way of working quickly became stylized and a traditional representational tool of the individualized artist. In his work we recognize Tuttle, not our own imagination.

Neither Santantonín, Fontana, Oiticica, nor Tuttle had set out to make silly works. Santantonín was too preoccupied with existence and with his existence; Fontana's appearance is casual--it is I who project the boludo part onto him; in Oiticica's case, the name "Bolides" referred to meteorites and nothing more than that. Tuttle certainly never heard the word in his life.

There is a more recent work that, except for the title, seems to me more accurate to explain what I have been saying. It was done in 2002 in Peru, a collaboration between Francis Alys, Rafael Ortega and Cuauhtemoc Medina. In it, 500 volunteers moved a sand dune, shovelful after shovelful, about 10 centimeters from where it had first stood. In itself, the work seems to be the product of a gratuitous activity, devoid of sense. Indeed, this work - this action - is meaningless in the clearest way in which such a lack can be formalized. And yet this operation evokes the exotic nostalgia that one projects onto the Egyptian pyramids. The work suggests the relativity of the use of time in relation to the limited life of man within the broader perspective of history. The unraveling of ideas and arguments here can go on endlessly. It is the title of the work, "When Faith Moves Mountains,” that damages the result. The title is declaratory information that contextualizes and limits the viewer's projection.

If the artist who makes boludo art were to achieve the ideal extreme, she would run the risk that the work would go completely unnoticed and die in invisibility. The definition of the artist's skill then shifts from her refinement of the craft to her ability to manage the artistic statement. All her effort will be concentrated on arousing the viewer's attention sufficiently for her to begin the process of projection, without ever interfering in it.

This mission is perhaps the most difficult yet encountered in the history of art history. It requires a formalist sense that helps to eliminate form; a conceptualism without concepts; and a craftsmanship capable of self-elimination to a carefully specified minimum. The artist has to demonstrate that the work belongs to the field of art without declaring it; without participating in the competition that establishes the acceptance of artistic qualities; escaping all possibility of comparison.

The ideal boludo art is also the only form of art that can achieve that profound social change that neither the sermon nor the pamphlet have achieved throughout history. It would be the total awareness and activation enabling the erasure of the border separating those who produce from those who consume. It is in the clarity of these approaches where the paths of artists who try to make boludo art are clearly separated from those of artists who are boludos. Without realizing the dimensions and resonances of his fiction, Borges marked this difference by describing a possible paradigm for boludo art and at the same time locating it in the property of a creator who is a boludo.

And by concentrating on the marketing of objects, art history has not yet had the time or the capacity to develop the subtlety or the instruments necessary to fully understand the differences between the two.

Luis Camnitzer, 2005