Tomas Peters

MPhil/PhD student in Latin American Studies

From my first years as a university student, I have been interested in understanding the world of art and its interrelation with social processes. As an adolescent, for example, I thought it seemed strange that a museum – a solemn and illuminated place- would exhibit a painting by Monet and then, a few meters further on, a urinal signed by someone named “R. Mutt” but whose author was Marcel Duchamp. At that time, those issues seemed attractive and interesting, but I lacked the categories of understanding to make an interpretation of them. Something similar happened with the recent social history of Chile and Latin America (70s, 80s and 90s). In those years, a series of historical events would occur, which would impact my own life and would have repercussions in my current PhD research at Birkbeck, University of London.

In Chile, at the beginning of the 1990s, a 17-year military dictatorship was ending. Those years meant much more than the implementation of an economic model planned according to the neoliberal postulates of the North American Milton Friedman. In those years, through the repeated violation of human rights and violently punishing social protests, a social model controlled by individualism, consumerism and the privatization of the basic services of a modern democratic society (education, health, housing, etc), was implemented. Thus, with the return to democracy in 1989, a new socio-cultural process, called “democratic transition”, led by a series of centre-left political parties known as the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia (Concert of Parties for Democracy), was established. They would rule Chile for nearly 20 years, achieving significative advances in the economic sphere (“improving the neoliberal system with social emphasis”), but with large debts in justice, growth and social equity. At the same time, and under the hegemonic siege of globalization, strong socio-cultural changes would emerge among Chileans.

As a young student, I was a direct witness to those changes. That was why, at the beginning of my university studies I searched for analysis tools that would help me to understand, with a critical and rigorous view, the social, political and cultural processes in contemporary Chile. Thus, when I studied my Bachelor of Sociology, I had the opportunity to use those tools to study Chilean society, and at the same time I directed my investigative attention towards the relationship between art and society in Chile, a topic I was particularly interested in. With that motivation, I devoted myself to investigating, on the one hand, the artistic field/system in Chile from a sociological approach (using the thought of the Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu and the German Niklas Luhmann) and, on the other hand,  the cultural consumption of Chileans. On these topics, I published a series of academic articles in Colombia, Mexico and Chile, and participated as co-editor of a book about the behaviour of Chileans in their access to art.

However, as I progressed in my research, I began to see a line of knowledge and social reflexion in artistic works (especially in visual arts, cinema and literature) that as a sociologist I had not taken into consideration before. In view of that, I did a Master’s degree in Theory and History of Art, in order to understand the reflective, material and critical perception that art has on society. At that time, I began to study in depth a number of philosophers and intellectuals, from British cultural studies, the philosophy of French art and aesthetics in general. Thus, their lines of thinking led me to concentrate on the concept of crítica cultural (cultural criticism) used in the Chilean context by the French-Chilean intellectual Nelly Richard.

Put simply, crítica cultural is a way of thinking the social, which questions the dominant or hegemonic symbolic orders from a perspective combining aesthetics (art, visuals, letters), culture (as space in permanent dispute) and politics (as a logic that values difference). From this perspective, crítica cultural is a reading space of social processes where reality can be questioned by the imagination and aesthetic creativity, thus creating new forms of reading and thinking the social (Richard, 2004). From this theoretical proposal, I decided to begin my doctoral studies and use crítica cultural as “glasses” to analyse the democratic transition of Chile over the last 20 years. In order to do that, I started looking for academic spaces worldwide that would allow me to develop a project with such characteristics. Shortly after, and following the suggestions made by a number of Latin American intellectuals, I contacted my current MPhil/PhD supervisor, Professor John Kraniauskas, reader of the Department of Iberian and Latin American studies at Birkbeck, University of London.

It has been 39 years since the military coup and 22 years since the return to democracy in Chile. During all those years, important changes have emerged in the individual and social structure of Chileans, which has meant, among other things, that today we have a centre-right government where politicians (civilians) from the military dictatorship participate. With my doctoral research I expect to analyse, from the use and discussion of the concept of crítica cultural, the democratic transition in Chile. But, at the same time, it is intended to be used as support for the analysis of the cultural changes developed in the artistic production – visual arts, cinema and literature- in Chile during those years.

My first few months in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies of the School of Arts at Birkbeck, University of London, have allowed me to expand my way of thinking about the topic of my investigation. And, above all, a series of questions that I had not considered before have emerged – thanks to the discussion with my research colleagues-. In the same way, discussions with my supervisor, John Kraniauskas, have been really stimulating and have required me to develop new ways of reading and intellectual exploration. In short, being at Birkbeck, University of London, has meant, not only the beginning of a new way of life (as a scholarship holder from Chile, an inhabitant of London, a student, etc.), but also the beginning of a new logic of critical thinking with a Latin American orientation. 

Learn more about our Iberian and Latin American studies courses.