A New Book from Esther Gabara Explores Art of the Americas Under Neoliberalism

Gustavo Furtado, Associate Professor of Romance Studies holds a copy of “Non-Literary Fiction”
At a book talk on April 24, 2003, Gustavo Furtado, Associate Professor of Romance Studies holds a copy of “Non-Literary Fiction” while in conversation with author Esther Gabara and Mark B.N.

As neoliberal regimes took power across the Americas during the 20th century, a new form of fiction emerged, says Esther Gabara. But it wasn’t of the familiar literary nature. Rather, it took shape in new mediums and practices that revolutionized contemporary art in response to the brutality of the time.

A professor of Romance Studies and Art, Art History & Visual Studies who studies art, literature and visual culture from modern and contemporary Latin America, Gabara examines the development in her recently released book, “Non-literary Fiction, Art of the Americas under Neoliberalism.”

The work follows her earlier monograph, “Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil,” and her work as guest curator of the exhibition “Pop América, 1965-1975,” which won the Sotheby Prize for curatorial innovation. Gabara also wrote and edited for the exhibition’s bilingual catalogue. Her groundbreaking research made a critical contribution to understanding this artistic period and to Latin America’s rich artistic heritage.

We interviewed Gabara to learn more about the concept of art as negation and what she has discovered about the meaning of fiction. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You wrote “Non-literary Fiction” over the course of several years, prompted by a deep desire to find a comprehensive definition of the term fiction. What have you discovered?

I wouldn’t say a “comprehensive definition” since that can be taken to imply that this book solves the problem once and for all. I understand the work of a scholar to be to contribute to broad, international, multilingual and centuries-long conversations and debates. I sought to develop a concrete framework to identify and analyze fiction outside its familiar terrain of literature, and to answer how and why contemporary artists invent them. 

Typically, we think about fiction in the form of narratives that tell an imaginary story — events populated by characters and occurring in settings that do not, or even cannot, exist in reality. Those fictions exert control over the time we experience them. The classic beginning of a story is, “Once upon a time,” right? One of the key contributions of my book is to explain how visual artists invent fictions that don’t control time in that way but that we still experience as fiction –– and, also, what that experience provides us in the context of late 20th century life.

I examine contemporary art practices known broadly in the Americas as “non-objectual,” including installations, performance and social practice, and artist books among other interdisciplinary forms that abandoned more familiar object-based art such as painting and sculpture. They transform familiar tools from literature to make these non-narrative fictions. Each chapter details a different form of creating these fictions and unfolds how they respond to the expanding, repressive social and political climate of neoliberalism.

Your chapters are organized thematically, focusing on line, motif, gesture, corpus and color. What led you to structure the book in this way? 

Given the artists’ own refusal of historical medium designations such as sculpture, drawing, and painting on canvas, I realized I could not write a book about non-literary fictions that forced the artworks into those terms. However, it was important for the book to have a conceptual structure that focused on the aesthetic form that non-literary fictions take. 

Each chapter focuses on a concept shared between literary and visual fictions: the first chapter invites the reader to see the line as the material of both writing and drawing; the motifs of the second chapter are considered eruptions of the visual in literary fiction and also shape many projects of non-literary fictions. And so forth. Each chapter develops how negation helps to form these fictions – and elaborates the temporality of non-narrative fiction.

“Non-Literary Fiction” examines art from two different moments in Latin American history – the 1960s and ‘70s and the 1990s. Why are those two periods particularly pertinent when examining art of the Americas under neoliberalism? 

Esther Gabara
Esther Gabara smiles during her book talk in Smith Warehouse on April 24, 2023. (John West/Trinity Communications)

I find that fiction was taken up seriously by artists who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s, just as neoliberal “reforms” were imposed by explicitly repressive regimes, and again by the next generation of artists who came of age in the 1990s, who confronted the full realization of neoliberalism under democratically elected governments.

South America ­­–– especially Chile, but also Brazil –– played a key role in University of Chicago economics professor Milton Friedman’s foundational neoliberal economic theory, and their military dictatorships offered up their populations as laboratories for those theories. The government of the U.S. threw its support behind those regimes as they experimented with the large-scale economic privatization, political deregulation and reactionary social logics, known broadly as neoliberalism.

Can you talk about the concept of art as negation?

That’s a huge question since the answer really holds the book together. First, the mechanics of these non-narrative fictions all involve a kind of making in negation: they negate narrative time, as I’ve said, but they also negate the kind of creativity that neoliberal capitalism profited from.

Non-objectualism also negated the art object—sculpture, painting, drawing—as it had been constituted historically. Varied articulations of non-objectualism erupted across the continent, but I suggest that all of them negated representation at large as the central concern of contemporary art.

The debates around abstraction and figuration that structured so much of modernist criticism were essentially debates over representation. The negation of representation turns instead to possibilities of invention and making up that these fictions offer.

Finally, these fictions negate the negation of other political and social options to American neoliberalism. To explain that briefly, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a key figure in the design and imposition of neoliberal policies, was given the moniker “TINA” for her insistence that “There Is No Alternative” to those policies. Non-literary fiction contests not just the lack of alternatives, but also her control over the power of negation.

How have Indigenous thinkers informed your writing and critical analyses?

Amerindian practices, knowledges and aesthetics have not been sufficiently recognized in the scholarship on contemporary art, even though many artists were deeply influenced by them. What is more, many of my key sources for thinking about how to conceptualize negation in the book are contemporary Indigenous scholars and artists.

In some chapters I study artists who directly addressed Amerindian artistic and philosophical genealogies. In others, I embrace the influence of those concepts on major figures in art history. This body of thought also informs my understanding of how a non-literary fiction comes to be and what it does in the world.

The somewhat odd subtitle of this book, “Art of the Americas,” intentionally misuses a moniker that typically names museum galleries containing pre-Columbian art. It underlines that Amerindian thought is crucial to answer pressing theoretical questions about the aesthetics and politics of what is often called “global contemporary art.”

You consider artists as critics who provide “critical interventions” –– reactions to economic, social and political injustices in the world. What do you see as the role artists can play as critical interventionists for current and future political and environmental movements? 

I think artists play an important role in society, but there is also a danger of placing such high expectations on their inventiveness that they never seem to do enough. In fact, many of the fictive contributions or, as you say, interventions, in this book are very small in scale. It can even be easy to miss them if you’re not looking carefully.

One important distinction I make is between the utopianism of avant-garde movements and the fictions that fill the book. One of the grander scale interventions I examine was Argentine artist Nicolás García Uriburu’s Colorations (1968), when he threw fluorescein into the Grand Canal in Venice and dyed it green as an early environmental artwork.

While dramatic and visible –– he was briefly arrested for the act –– it dissipated quickly and now exists only in the form of prints, photographs and a short documentary film. At the same time, the New York Times just covered an environmental protest that performed the same act in the Grand Canal, and the reporter referenced García Uriburu’s 50-year-old art intervention. So, the fictive act the artist described as “painting the world” was both ephemeral and long-lasting, we can say. 


Esther Gabara regularly teaches Spanish 335, Introducción a la literatura y el arte hispanoamericanos; Spanish 433S, La fotografía en América: Guerra, turismo, arte, protesta; ARTHIST 89S/ LIT 89S/ ROMST 89S/ VMS 89S, Public Art: Monuments, Murals, Graffiti and more; and Art History/ROMST 590S, Contemporary Art & Coloniality.