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Pablo Oyarzún on political and cultural change in Chile:
"In the past, Chileans only looked to the sea"

Pablo Oyarzún, Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the Universidad de Chile, is the first scholar to hold the Andrés Bello Chair in Chilean Studies at Leiden University. His aim is to teach students about the social and political changes in Chile, focusing on cultural processes. On German philosophers, female presidents and Marcel Duchamp. "Sometimes provocation is the best road to dialogue..."

by Bart de Haas

Pablo Oyarzún  
Andrés Bello Chair on Chilean Studies                       

Chile recently elected Michele Bachelet, making her the first female president in South America. How do you think this will affect politics in Chile?

"Chile has a very conflicting history and the dictatorship of Pinochet is clearly its most salient feature, because it broke with a long tradition of democracy. Now, with the Concertación, the negative effects of the economic policy of the dictator can be softened. I think the new government has to deal with many expectations in our society, many hopes centre on the charismatic figure of our new president, but it's uncertain whether she'll be able to live up to all of these hopes. Clearly, she cannot be expected to solve all problems at once, that is simply impossible."

What kind of person is she? Why do you think she was elected?

"I see her as an enlightened woman. She's very dedicated and comes from the radical branch of the socialist party. Of course, her past is one of the main reasons for her popularity. During the regime, she was tortured and imprisoned, and she finally went into exile. Her father, a high-ranking officer, was killed by the military under Pinochet in 1974, and her mother was also tortured. She's also a woman who has worked hard to overcome the deep wounds of the past, and a politician with a great many skills and a strong sense of command. All this has made her into a symbol for Chile, someone who reminds us of the hard times under the dictatorship and embodies the need for leaving them behind once and for all."

But she is still a woman...

"You're right about that! That's one of the curious things about our country. There are many Catholics and conservatives in Chile, and Michelle Bachelet has three children by two different fathers. One of the fathers she was actually married to, but with the other one she only had a partnership. She's also a declared agnostic. She embodies many more things that are potentially problematic for our conservative traditions, not to mention our deeply rooted machismo. And yet none of these factors prevented her from being elected by the Chilean people."

What do you think will be the most important change effected by her government?

"We will have a better relationship with 'el barrio', our neighbouring countries. Now I see hope for such relationships, particularly with Bolivia, but also with Argentina, Brazil (despite the cultural differences between the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking nations) and some other countries, such as Peru. As you know, Chile is separated from the rest of South America by the Andes. In the past, we only looked to the sea, now we're also looking over these mountains, seeing not only remote metropolitan models, but also our neighbours. Among them are several countries which are governed by a centre left coalition, and I hope that with these countries in particular, our good relations will develop further."

"Longuén 10 años", installation by G. Díaz (1989)

But do you also look to the West? Chávez, for example, does not.

"Yes, of course we do. We have good relations with the United States and the EU, commercially and also politically, but our attention will be mainly on improving relations with our neighbours. Even with Chávez who, despite all his showing off, is also advocating Latin-America-centred policies. These relations still have to grow stronger, but I see a starting-point here for integration, which wasn't there before."

Do you notice the effect of these changes in your students?  

"In Chile, the students' movement has almost continuously been strongly present, particularly in public universities. Students are constantly demonstrating and taking the lead in political discussions, as they have always done. Even during Pinochet's regime, when they were fighting for the democratization of the universities. Now the main aim of the students' movements is to achieve a deeper and more far-reaching level of democratization. And maybe, with the change in style brought by Bachelet, they will succeed."

Talking about students, will you also teach the students here in Leiden about these changes in Chile?

"Yes, I will, but not exclusively from a political point of view. I will teach them about the cultural changes in the last 15 years or so. I will talk about the development of art. Art played an important role in the political resistance to the dictatorship. For obvious reasons, art no longer has this function, and I will tell them about this."

I understand how written art can play a role in the process of resistance, but how is it possible for fine arts to do so?

"Fine arts involve dense symbolic layers that establish complex links to both history and every-day life. Artists such as Gonzalo Díaz, Eugenio Dittborn, Alfredo Jaar use art as a symbolic device with political implications. That is one way in which fine arts can be involved in such a process. It's like in a dream, where images are actually combinations of different experiences. Art works in the same way, the images combine the experiences of people and their lives."

Afredo Jaar, "Antonio Gramsci"

I can hear you're also a philosopher... and you've studied the European philosophers, haven't you?

"I'm very interested in German philosophers such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Hegel and Kant. I visited Germany because of them. And it becomes even more interesting once you compare this group to the philosophers of the French school, such as Derrida. In the last decades, French philosophy has been strongly influenced by the German school of thought. I'm very interested in how these influences work."

How would you say art and philosophy relate to each other?

"Philosophy has lost confidence in its ability to reveal truth, and it therefore looks to other fields, searching for clues. Art is privileged among these, now maybe more than ever. One possible connection between art and philosophy is in aesthetics and art theory, but to some extent, philosophy in its entirety is under the spell of the artistic way of facing reality. First in Chile, then in Frankfurt, I was working on these theories, resulting in a thesis on Marcel Duchamp. I think he's one of the most important artists of the 20th century, not least because of his radically new approach to art, and his deeply embedded theoretical intentions."

But was he not, in some way, breaking with the arts?

"Yes, he was. He was breaking with artistic traditions. But he also paved the way for new perspectives on art throughout the world, which has led to new art forms, such as Pop Art. And that's exactly what art is supposed to do according to philosophy: art must break the rules; it must open your world and create new views on that world. In this way, sometimes provocation is the best road to dialogue..."

One final question, what's your opinion about Dutch art?

"I have always admired your art. When I was as a tourist in Amsterdam, about 25 years ago, I visited a number of museums exhibiting Dutch paintings. Now that I am in Leiden, I will be able to visit even more museums, especially those showing modern Dutch artists. I think these artists produce very interesting high-quality work, although it is different from the work of some of the Chilean artists I will teach the students about."

"Abelardo", postal painting by Eugenio Dittborn (2004)


11 April 2006, Joint Master Lecture
Growth with Equity: Two Visions from South America

A combined Master Lecture given by Prof. André Cunha (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, holder of the Visiting Chair of Brazilian Studies, 2006) and Prof. Pablo Oyarzún (Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Universidad de Chile; holder of the Andrés Bello Chair on Chilean Studies, 2006).
Chairman: Prof. Patricio Silva; Discussant: Dr Marianne Wiesebron.

The lecture will take place on April 11, 2006, from 3 (sharp) - 5 p.m. (followed by a reception) at the Academiegebouw (U-Raadszaal), Rapenburg 73.


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