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São Paulo in the middle of the 20th century

Study explores the relationship between society and culture in the metropolis

Center of São Paulo in the Fifties: facing São Paulo culture as an urban issue

From the second half of the 20th century, the city of São Paulo became the center for Brazilian cultural modernity. Industrialization, massive immigration, the institutionalization of university life, the creation of museums, theater and cinema companies created a cosmopolitan atmosphere, propitious for debate and for the proliferation of languages. Instead of studying this period by comparing different visions of one same cultural activity, sociologist Maria Arminda do Nascimento Arruda chose to examine innovating cultural experiences, apparently disconnected among themselves, and to try to establish corresponding elements among them, that would make it possible to show how society is present in culture.

This original approach makes Metrópole e Cultura – São Paulo no Meio Século XX (Metropolis and Culture – São Paulo in Mid – 20th Century) (São Paulo, Edusc, 2001, 482 pages) an unprecedented study in the sociology of culture, for those done in Brazil. The research was originally presented as a thesis for a lectureship at the Sociology Department of the FFLCH-USP.

Accustomed to thinking out the relationship between culture and society with a regional bias, Maria Arminda is the author of Mitologia da Mineiridade. O Imaginário Mineiro na Vida Política e Cultural do Brasil (Mythology and the Spirit of Minas. Imagery from Minas in the Political and Cultural Life of Brazil) (São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1990), a study in which she worked with very different material – writers like Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Fernando Sabino, Guimarães Rosa, authors interpreting Minas and political speeches. “I was able to show that there was a much closer relationship than one imagined between, for example, the poetry of Drummond and the speeches of Tancredo Neves, which therefore makes explicit the presence of the generic notion of the cultural system”, the author explains.

In the case of Metrópole e Cultura, Maria Arminda had problems in dealing with the concept of system. “Culture in São Paulo is more fragmented, less organic than in Minas. I had difficulties in understanding it as a system”, she explains. In the course of the research, the notion of language proved to be more productive, because it was able to deal with the cultural plurality of São Paulo. “The culture of Modernism is characterized by fragmented languages, referred to in their own terms. What I try to show in the book is how these languages were linked to a particular context, the city of São Paulo, at the moment when its cultural life was undergoing profound transformations.”

From the post-war period, certain artists and intellectuals emerge, building new identities. Approaching the problem of culture in the metropolis by means of language allowed the author to link the three points of focus that comprise her reflection, which come up in those times: the theater of Jorge Andrade, the sociology of Florestan Fernandes and the renewal of poetry embarked on by the concrete vanguard, organized around Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari. These three points of focus develop some of the questions raised by the Modernist intellectuals, who were the first to look at culture as an urban question, giving esthetic expression to the modernization of the life of the city, and establishing a new order of perceptions that opened up space for a modern conscience. The three points of focus engender characteristic ways of apprehending this new reality.

“Florestan’s language is arduous, full of concepts, but as I went on working on his work, I realized that the existing interpretations did not give a proper account of the object. At times, he would appear as a great socialist revolutionary, at others, he was seen as a functionalist who would later become a Marxist. These interpretations are schematic, and I found them unsatisfactory. When I read his first writings on the city of São Paulo, I realized he was betting on what he called ‘modern society in the tropics’, and São Paulo was at the center of this”, she says. On the other hand, the sociologist was concerned with the construction of a scientific, theoretical language, which would confer academic legitimacy on the discipline. The theme of research went on being expanded, following the reading of Florestan’s work.

“Little by little, I came to realize that there was a relationship between the language of Florestan’s science and the poetic content-less one of the concretists: an idea of the universality of language, independent of the contexts”, says the researcher. In their venture to renew poetic language, the concretists refused the aestheticizing legacy of the previous generation. Their syntax was based on visual, spatial premises, despising verse. Poems were viewed as objects of language, as a technique. They would express their own structure as an object “in itself and for itself”, reflecting the new traces of urban sociability, in a metropolis that was modernizing itself with industry, the consumer society, advertising.

“They pursued poetry that annulled time, excluded history, affirmed the present”, writes Maria Arminda. In the plastic arts, concretism rose up against figurativism, conceiving shapes and colors as eminently visual, universal data, to the detriment of the expression of contents. The image becomes autonomous, referring to itself, thus designating the present time, the very way of contemporary living. Representation is erased, for presence to impose itself.

The author highlights the role played by a reading of the book Viena Fin-de-Siècle, by Carl Schorske, an important source of suggestions. “I noted two possible common approaches between Vienna at the end of the 19th century and São Paulo in mid-20th century: there were very lively cultural dynamics, in two peripheral contexts. They were two cultural, universalistic and unhistorical proposals, against the culture of the past, even though they had different motivations – in Vienna, it was connected with the crisis in liberalism, in São Paulo it was linked to the idea of universal culture, embedded in the notion of progress”, she comments. In both cases, the refusal of history comes from the multiplication of social experiences that institute fragmentation, this discontinuity of languages.

Jorge Andrade is part of this process, as his work synthesizes the characteristic tensions of culture in São Paulo, the dilemmas of a society in transformation, in a skeptical posture in the face of the optimistic visions identified with progress. His dramaturgy is that of a theater of the memory, which does not seek to update the past and to appropriate it, on the terms proposed by Walter Benjamin, but tries to reconstitute the past on order to forget it and so set himself free from it. The urban Nature is very present in his work, since the city presupposes the dynamics that attack the old agrarian order.
From the point of view of language, Jorge Andrade’s dramaturgy is essentially modern, as it digests a wide spectrum of references, which range from Greek theater to Brecht. Andrade gave universal expression to local issues, connected with the cultural environment of São Paulo, always with social concerns, present in the examination of the condition of those who were disinherited by modernity. The universality of his language was shown by the translations of his plays into foreign languages and by their being staged abroad.
As the central thread of the analysis, language provides the logic that determines the order of the chapters. The study addresses itself to Andrade first, because, of the three, he is the least innovative in the use of language. Then comes Florestan – the concretists come afterwards, since language occupies a decisive place in the problematical issues they raise. The critical perspective with regard to modernity is more present in Florestan and Andrade than the concretists, who had an optimistic view, a positive conception of modernity.

Critical and pessimistic
Florestan had always been critical, but he became a pessimist after A Integração do Negro na Sociedade de Classes (The Integration of Blacks in Class Society), the professorial thesis that he defended a few days before the military coup in 1964. “Florestan’s findings were that the ruling project for modernity, in which he used to believe, would not integrate Blacks. He concludes the text saying that unless we solve this issue, we will not succeed in building a basis for modern civilization. From then on, Florestan’s project goes into a crisis. With his expulsion from the university, in 1969, it is the whole of his project of life that collapses”, she explains.
The concrete movement also went into a crisis before 1964. The neoconcrete dissidents – who arose in 1959, in Rio de Janeiro, led by Ferreira Gullar and Mário Pedrosa – attack the mechanicality and the idealist orthodoxy of the concretists from São Paulo, who placed themselves outside history, despising participation in politics and in society. In the immediately subsequent period, the question of participation was to heat up, and concretism suffered further schisms. Just as had happened in Florestan’s trajectory, the vanguards lose force and arrive in the Sixties in a profound disenchantment with Brazilian modernity.

The crisis in Jorge Andrade’s theater also comes from that period. “Like Florestan, Andrade wanted to construct a professional project, to establish himself as a playwright, to make a living from this. The project is a failure, and Andrade comes under criticism from all sides: the sectors connected with the culture of participation said that his theater was old-fashioned, as it talked about memory. When he tried to go into the debate and write plays that were clearly political, he fell into schemes, he lost substance. On the other hand, his theater did not adapt itself to the bourgeois taste either, since Vereda da Salvação (Path of Salvation) put the seal on the crisis of the TBC”, she analyzes. “Andrade is the synthesis of a time, in that he put on stage the tension between the necessity and the impossibility of exclusion from the past.”

With the coup d’état in 1964, the limits of this cultural modernity became explicit. Faced by the cultural industry, which makes the system dominant, languages are unable to respond properly. History skids, the project for thinking out cultural modernity is run over by the political conditions. “As Florestan wrote, there was no bourgeoisie revolution as the bourgeoisie did not attain autonomy for implementing its modern project, but allied itself with the rural, slave-owning oligarchy. The more modern face of this bourgeoisie is the one that refers to the market. With regard to the cultural project, it is problematic”, she concludes.