Fernando Quilodran reflects on the inspirational role of the arts during the period of the Allende government in Chile
It’s frequently assumed that there’s a close relationship between the rise of working-class and popular struggle and a more profound and compelling expression of their aspirations in culture, art and social theory.
Naturally, this provokes questions of which comes first – the cause or the effect of this link.
“Whatever,” some might be tempted to reply in the belief that it hardly matters because both the “real movement” and its artistic reflection have a common base and its proponents come from the same stock.
Yet all are agreed on the enormous importance of mural art, protest song, poetry and theatre in paving the way for Chile’s Popular Unity movement and the government of Salvador Allende in 1970.
Then, the melodies borrowed from the Spanish civil war or the images derived from Mexican muralism quickly gave rise to home production in mural art, “nueva cancion“- new song – theatre, dance, film, poetry and protest.
In this period a more complete analysis of Chile’s history emerged, with a marked emphasis on the formation of social classes in the dawn of capitalism born from the development of production based in Chile. There was also a recognition that this stemmed from the country being incorporated, or rather absorbed, into a global market ruled by the great imperial powers in competition with each other.
In Chile, as in other Latin American countries with their own specific characteristics, a huge part was played by the often tragic events which accompanied the rise of the workers’ movement, the creation of trade unions and, later, of political parties which identified with the interests and aspirations of the working class. These events had a significant influence on the development of a counter-culture.
Global capitalist crises of production could not fail to affect developing countries particularly if, as in Chile’s case, there was significant infiltration of foreign interests. That was reflected in the exploitation of saltpetre, copper and other raw materials to be exploited for export.
In the 1930s and 1940s, during a period of world war, the vast scale of the contradictions between imperialist powers particularly affected countries which, like Chile, found themselves isolated from world affairs. They were without any role other than to function as producers of raw materials and “strategic goods” for military conflicts.
Faced with having to substitute imports since the powers that be – the suppliers – were engaged in their war effort, a process of industrialisation was begun.
This significantly boosted employment, speeding up the strengthening of workers’ organisations and causing a high level of migration from rural areas to the cities. It marked too the ascent of the middle classes, and their full entry into the political arena.
It is no coincidence that in Chile the most influential movement in the cultural field was dubbed the “generation of ’38.” In that year the Popular Front in Chile came to power in a coalition which, though it had no direct participation in government policy, contained the Communist Party and other forces on the left.
This moment in the political life of the country was decisive, since institutions were created which later would play an important role in the development of a culture with a national and democratic outlook, favouring fundamental social change.
Symphony orchestras, schools, dance and theatre groups and new and innovative trends in the arts came into being.
In solidarity with the Spanish republic, the Alianza de Intelectuales was formed, an institution which symbolises the ever greater and more active commitment of leading Chilean intellectuals in the arts, science and higher education.
The events which then occurred in Latin America, with US intervention and even invasions of several countries, naturally resulted in a heightened sense of kinship which reached a higher level with the victory of the rebels and the fall of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba.
Sections of the left in Chile, particularly the socialist and communist parties, joined forces to press forward the two main demands which they had always maintained – agrarian reform and the nationalisation of copper, the country’s most important natural resource.
As a consequence of these social and political struggles, great movements were forged with the support of workers, peasants and academics.
Canto Nuevo, mural art, critical literature, social and political studies and a fervour for progressive reforms in the universities gave the intellectual and artistic nourishment to the eventual triumph of Popular Unity in 1970.
The great names in music, the fine arts, theatre and the humanities actively backed the great social changes.
These included literary figures such as Pablo Neruda, Francisco Coloane or Humberto Diaz-Casanueva and in “formal” music Luis Advis, Gustavo Becerra and Sergio Ortega.
Violeta Parra was among its supporters in poetry and music, along with artists like Roberto Matta and muralist Ramona Parra, who reinterpreted national history and made artistic propaganda on behalf of the people’s search for identity and their deep-rooted desires.
That great mass movement radically influenced the superstructure and now it was the latter’s turn to return the favour.
This was achieved by the government of Allende. Among the milestones were the creation of the state publisher Quimantu, which revolutionised the market in books and magazines. With the largest print runs in history, publications became accessible to everyone, along with financial benefits and agreements for authors and workers previously unheard of in Chile.
The state technical university established an accord with trade unions allowing access to workers. Previously they had been denied this possibility, given the elitism ruling higher education.
Fine arts, music in all its forms, dance, film and the humanities acquired a new momentum. “Culture trains” travelled the 5,000-kilometre length of the country, with artists from the culture departments of trade unions drawn from a wide swathe of the manufacturing or service sectors. These groups reached corners of the country which until then had been inaccessible for any artistic performance.
It was this cultural explosion which, in part, was to play a part of capital importance in the campaign waged by international solidarity in support of those inside the country who resisted and fought the dictatorship of Pinochet.
Fernando Quilodran is the editor of the weekly El Siglo newspaper in Chile, which is online at www.elsiglo.cl.
The article has been translated by Penny Turpin and John Heath of Anglo-Hispanic Translation.