Research Western

Juan Luis Suarez: Going for Baroque

Currently undergoing a renaissance, so to speak, baroque customs may hold a key to better understanding cultural diversity.

In music, the term baroque refers to emotional, highly stylized and flowery presentation. In visual art, it denotes dramatic light and shade, turbulent composition and exaggerated expression. Rising to prominence 450 years ago, baroque culture swept across the globe in what historians refer to as the first stage of globalization.

Modern Languages & Literatures professor Juan Luis Suarez is looking at how artistic expressions generally considered baroque in the Hispanic world emerged from a larger system of interactions between 1550 and 1750, coinciding with the establishment and ascendency of the Spanish imperial presence in Central and South America.

He is also interested in the current baroque revival and by the extent to which the contemporary world has been shaped by this first Atlantic Empire.

Suarez attributes the globalization of baroque culture to interactions, relationships and information exchanges developed through mestizaje – the fusion of cultural traditions, including language, religion, food and music between groups in Spain and Latin America. Once it permeated the culture, it spread across the world.

“We would like to develop a clear model of how cultures co-exist while allowing for a certain cultural autonomy and interdependence at the same time,” says Suarez. He also hopes to explain why the baroque strategy of communication – where a single cultural message is communicated with enough ambiguity that it unfolds in different ways to people with different backgrounds – is emerging in other places around the world.

Las Vegas is one of the most visible current cities where baroque characteristics are evident.

“Sin City is the perfect baroque example because it’s the ideal combination of spectacle and technology used to fully impact the spectator in much the same way rhetoric was used in the first baroque period,” says Suarez. “Seeing and being seen are just as important as the spectacle itself, which is a characteristic that can be traced to baroque times.”

In the true spirit of globalization, Suarez leads an international, multi-disciplinary team of scholars from diverse fields, including music, literature, mathematics, computer science and anthropology. Called the Hispanic Baroque – Complexity in the First Atlantic Culture, the study received a $2.5 million-SSHRC grant in 2007, the largest ever in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

By learning from the past, Suarez believes the Latin American baroque era will provide valuable information to help countries around the world deal with issues related to diversity.

“History is a great repository of knowledge,” he says, “but I’m merely working in the past because we think the solutions are there.”

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