Cultural Studies Leuven

Flamenco, as it “really” is

By Jan Baetens

Flamenco culture, which includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (vocalizations), palmas (handclapping) and pitos (finger snapping), but which is also inextricably linked with other fields of culture such as poetry and tauromachy (remember Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon? Still the best possible introduction to this complex cultural network) – all of them having to do with the untranslatable notion of “duende” – is known by most of us as a form of “folklore”. It is therefore virtually highly suspect, given the problematic status of notions such as “authenticity”, the “popular”, “spontaneity”, the “people”, etc.

It would be absurd however to deny that “real”, that is both profound and authentic art (but of course the concept of “art” is no longer appropriate here, since the very boundaries between life and art do no longer apply), no longer exists in a modern, mass-media saturated society in which the idea of community has become a caricature, and that it cannot resist and survive the commercial and ideological appropriations that can be made of it. The question is then: how to communicate the “experience” of such an art?  As already argued by John Dewey in his famous book Art as Experience (1932), an often forgotten forerunner of cultural studies, the only way of knowing such an art is byway of experience.

If you travel to Granada this Spring, don’t go to one of the flamenco shows that litters the touristic areas of the city. Forget about them, and go immediately to the Alhambra; more precisely, the photography exhibition curated by Concha Gόmez (professor at the Carlos III University in Madrid). This exhibition offers an amazing retrospective of the work of Colita – artist name of Isabel Steva (°1940) – one of the first professional female press photographers in Spain who has always been fascinated by the world of the gypsies and flamenco. Speculations on the misrepresentation of real and authentic culture immediately vanish when entering the exhibition, which is a model of great photography as well as curatorial intelligence. What makes the experience so strong is the complete coincidence of the various levels of mediation. One witnesses for example the intimate knowledge of the culture the artist wants to represent (the photographer is not an outsider of the flamenco culture). Furthermore, the curator has built a strong personal relationship with the photographer, as shown by a wonderful filmed interview in the exhibition which refrains from overloading the images with all kinds of didactic captions. There is a strong awareness of the historical and political complexities of flamenco, a longtime marginalized art, created by marginalized people. One cannot therefore simply document flamenco from the outside or by detaching it from the rest of a living culture where current ideas on art prevent us from seeing and feeling what is really happening. An additional level of mediation is the perfect capacity of disclosing the “duende”, the epiphany (?), with an economy of means that is shared by the flamenco artist, the photographer and the curator, and finally, the desire to not only focus on the exceptional value of masterpieces (although neither Colita nor Gόmez tend to hide the empowering presence of exceptional figures).

It is a good thing to be skeptical about “authenticity”, for it is the best way to experience it when it is really “there”.


COLITA FLAMENCO. El Viaje sin fin/Journey without End

Curator: Concha Gόmez

(Alhambra, Palace of Charles V, Jan. 26 to May 6, 2017, free admission)