In many South American countries, the twentieth century is characterized by political instability and repression under dictatorial regimes. Despite vast natural resources, including land and oil, many countries continue to struggle with the social consequences of widespread poverty. In the century following political independence, which comes to most former colonies in the nineteenth century, the South American republics are very often gripped by internal struggles as they seek to define themselves politically.
From a cultural point of view, the twentieth century is also one of independent definition. During the opening decades of the century, South American art bears the mark of European modernism. Breaking with earlier academic traditions, South American artists embrace such European-based movements as Cubism and Surrealism. In so doing, however, many attempt to represent Latin American identity in their art, or to respond to the particular conditions that exist in South America. Indigenous traditions have an important impact on works in all media as well, even those produced by some of the artists who study in Europe and North America.
As certain critics and artists argue, it is not only a case of South American cultural importation in the twentieth century, but also of exportation. In the century’s middle decades, South American literature, music, architecture, and other visual arts experience a “boom” elsewhere in the world. The organic architectural forms of Oscar Niemeyer (1907–2012), as much as the strains of the samba, come to define “mid-century modern” throughout the world. As part of globalization at the end of the twentieth century, South America continues to be connected with cultural developments elsewhere. Moreover, Latin American art enjoys increasing interest among North American collectors, critics, and scholars.