Offering a unique look at controversies surrounding Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads, this book invites reconsideration of efforts made by artists and patrons in the 1930s to effect social change and the varied purposes Rivera’s artwork ultimately served.
Collaborations during the Great Depression between the Mexican artist and Communist activist Diego Rivera and institutions in the United States and Mexico were fraught with risk, as the artist occasionally deviated from course, serving and then subverting his patrons. Catha Paquette investigates controversies surrounding Rivera’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, his Rockefeller Center mural Man at the Crossroads, and the Mexican government’s commissioning of its reconstruction at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She proposes that both the artist and his patrons were using art for extraordinary purposes, leveraging clarity and ambiguity to weigh in on debates concerning labor policies and speech rights; relations between the United States, Mexico, and the Soviet Union; and the viability of capitalism, communism, and socialism. Rivera and his patrons’ shared interest in images of labor—a targeted audience—made cooperative ventures possible.
In recounting Rivera’s shifts in strategy from collaboration/exploitation to antagonism/conflict, Paquette highlights the extent to which the artist was responding to politico-economic developments and facilitating alignment/realignment among leftist groups for and against Stalin. Although the artwork that resulted from these instances of patronage had the potential to serve conflicting purposes, Rivera’s images and the protests that followed the destruction of the Rockefeller Center mural were integral to a surge in oppositional expression that effected significant policy changes in the United States and Mexico.
The early to mid 1930s were a period of unrelenting crisis, conﬂict, and change for citizens of both the United States and Mexico. With the devastating impact of the October 1929 stock market crash and the global depression it initiated, and the mixed effects of modernization, industrialization, and urbanization, officials faced extraordinary challenges: how to stabilize ﬁnancial institutions, safeguard the values of investments and currency, fortify industrial and agricultural output, revitalize commerce and trade, resolve labor disputes, and address unemployment, poverty, and public health issues. Efforts to negotiate proﬁtable relations with other nations and inclinations to respond to imperialist aggression had to be weighed against nationalist and isolationist sentiments. Scientiﬁc and technological developments, including the chemical weapons that made mass destruction possible, were matters of heated debate. Workers resorted to public demonstrations and strikes to voice their concerns about lower wages, inadequate beneﬁts, poor working conditions, and insufficient means of negotiating them. Labor unions in turn intensiﬁed recruitment campaigns and government lobbying. The swelling ranks of the unemployed took to the streets in protest. Meanwhile, communist and socialist groups demanded change that was far more radical. When
public authorities and private officials suppressed expressions of dissent with police, military, or paramilitary force, violent altercations ensued.
During these tumultuous times, each instance of turmoil was experienced as a threshold of sorts, a painful stimulus for restoration, reform, or sweeping transformation. Presidential elections, the mechanisms through which circumstances could ostensibly improve (or deteriorate), appeared to many to be of unprecedented importance, but the policies and practices of government agencies, private corporations, cultural organizations, and religious institutions were all under scrutiny. Fundamental ideas about nationality, class, race, gender, and religious practices were shifting. In the midst of this chaos and uncertainty, art was deemed by many to be an indispensable tool, a means of intervening in the crises at hand. Officials in the private and public sectors who trusted in the symbolic power of imagery and action attempted to leverage art and acts of patronage for extraordinary purposes. In these patron-artist collaborations, the complex processes of speaking while giving voice had to be negotiated.
An example is found in the activities of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), a private cultural institution established through the initiatives of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and other prominent collectors in November 1929, shortly after the crash. As the Great Depression intensiﬁed, the trustees and director pressed on with their ambitious project— development of one of the “greatest” modern art museums “in the world.” In their twelfth-ﬂoor galleries in the Heckscher Building on Fifth Avenue (ﬁgure 0.1), they aimed to introduce national and international audiences—people from all walks of life—to the very best in painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, architecture, ﬁlm, and, eventually, industrial and commercial design. From the start, loan exhibitions were global in focus. The ﬁrst three solo shows featured Charles Burchﬁeld from the United States, Henri Matisse from France, and Diego Rivera from Mexico. Internationalist sentiment was also integral to the museum’s acquisition plans in the mid-1930s. The director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., proposed at this time that a permanent collection, which “could be thought of graphically as a torpedo moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever receding past of ﬁfty to a hundred years ago,” might emphasize Europe (France and the School of Paris), Mexico, and the United States (ﬁgure 0.2). His choice of metaphor—an icon of speed, stealth, and explosive power— was arguably apropos. Many critics and historians referred to innovative artists with the military term “vanguard,” and MoMA itself was determined to surpass other institutions in charting the territory of the avant-garde. Yet in a 1934 fund-raising brochure deﬁning the museum’s mission for prospective donors, Barr put aside the torpedo metaphor and earnestly explained that circulating exhibitions, which were a means of raising artistic standards, could be an important factor in international relations, an indispensable means of fostering “understanding” and “sympathy” between nations.
During this period, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his business associates were equally ambitious in conceptualizing the art program for their massive urban development project in midtown Manhattan (ﬁgure 0.3). They surmised that Rockefeller Center, which would include highand low-rise structures for business, cultural, and philanthropic enterprises; international buildings for foreign ﬁrms; studios for the relatively new technologies of radio broadcasting and ﬁlm production; public theatres for music, ﬁlm, and dance; aboveand below-ground promenades and shopping concourses; and underground access to public transportation could be “of the greatest importance for the future of culture, not only in North America but in the world.”4 An array of murals, sculptures, mosaics, tile work, and metalwork by the “most capable” artists, which would be visible to tenants, laborers, and visitors from home and abroad, would exemplify the “best” in “modern artistic taste” and be unrivaled in terms of “scale” and “character.” The art narrative was to provoke fresh thinking about the “New Frontiers” that the nation was crossing and to make evident the nature of the new civilization that “Rockefeller City” seemingly represented. The lobby of the seventy-story Radio Corporation of America Building, “the world’s largest office building,” was especially important. It was to “set a new standard in spaciousness, dignity and harmony of decoration.” Images painted there by the world’s “foremost living mural painters”—Rivera, the British artist Frank Brangwyn, and the Spanish artist José María Sert—were to “stimulate not only a material but above all a spiritual awakening.”
The Mexican government at this time was likewise undertaking a cultural project of exceptional scope—its ﬁrst national center for the visual and performing arts. Officials aimed to complete construction of the Palace of Fine Arts, a structure in the heart of Mexico City that had been initiated in 1904 during the presidential administration of Porﬁrio Díaz (1876–1880, 1884–1911) but whose construction had been interrupted during the revolution and civil war (1910–1920). The Palace (ﬁgure 0.4), which was originally visualized as a venue for theatre, music, and dance, was now to also house exhibitions of ﬁne art and popular culture by artists from home and abroad. Galleries displaying Mexican art from pre-Cortesian times, the viceregal period, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were to make evident to the nation and the world the unique achievements of Mexican artists. Frescoes by two renowned ﬁgures, Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, would illustrate the signiﬁcance of the 1920s mural movement—a presumed pinnacle of national culturaldevelopment and the catalyst for a global mural renaissance. Palace programs were to fulﬁll principles outlined in the 1917 Constitution, which called for educational programs to “develop” the “faculties” of citizens, strengthen “love of country,” and promote “international solidarity,” and to facilitate implementation of objectives set forth in the early 1930s by the governing National Revolutionary Party (Partido Nacional Revolucionario, PNR). President Abelardo Rodríguez (1932–1934) declared at the building’s inauguration in September 1934 that the Palace, which would, in his words, educate “el pueblo todo,” members of elite society and also students, peasants, and laborers, was an integral part of the PNR’s “revolutionary program.” According to officials who collaboratively drafted the party’s 1933 Six-Year Plan—supporters of capitalist development and promoters of socialist reform—revolutionary action was a complex affair, a matter of modernizing industry and agriculture, improving public health, redistributing land, achieving labor reform, nationalizing oil and mineral development, and instituting socialist education in public schools. It also involved strengthening Mexican culture, facilitating cultivation of “aesthetic” and “moral” sensibilities, and thereby revitalizing ideals embraced by early twentieth-century Mexican revolutionaries.
What was remarkable about these cultural endeavors were the officials’ extraordinary expectations about art. They trusted in art’s ability to fulﬁll urgent aspirations for change—greater “understanding” and “sympathy” between nations, “material” and “spiritual awakening,” and stronger “moral” character and “revolutionary” sentiment. What was also notable was their willingness to collaborate with the communist artist Diego Rivera.
The desire to work with Rivera was in many respects understandable. He was an accomplished and internationally renowned muralist whose work epitomized modern art. But governments, businesses, and ﬁnancial institutions were in crisis, the viability of capitalism was in question, and political activism was on the rise. Socialism and communism, including Joseph Stalin’s Five-Year Plan for industrial and agricultural development, appeared promising to some but perilous to others, and relations among leftists were rife with discord. Mural commissions awarded to Rivera, an outspoken communist beleaguered by other communists, entailed opportunity as well as risk, and in the remarkably dynamic politico-economic landscape, the artist did indeed occasionally deviate from expected course, ﬁrst serving and then subverting his patrons. An (in)famous series of incidents that began in New York and culminated in Mexico City involved MoMA, Rockefeller Center, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
The events to which I refer are well known in and outside the discipline of art history. In December 1931, MoMA honored the artist with a retrospective and provided him with a studio with which to create portable murals for the occasion (plates 10–16, ﬁgure 1.16). Several of his panels challenged the sensibilities of New York City viewers. Yet in November 1932, as the Depression worsened, John D. Rockefeller Jr.and his colleagues at Rockefeller Center withstood criticism for awarding the most prestigious mural commissions to foreign artists and offered Rivera the most important location in the development. Rivera proposed acceptable sketches (ﬁgures 2.8, 2.20, possibly 2.19), but in April 1933 while painting Man at the Crossroads in the RCA Building (ﬁgures 3.5, 3.6, 3.7), he modiﬁed it, differentiating between US capitalism and Soviet communism in problematic ways and featuring an idyllic image of a soldier, a farmer, and an industrial worker joining hands with the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (ﬁgure 3.10). When Rivera refused to remove Lenin’s portrait, officials ﬁred him and covered the unﬁnished fresco. In December, Abby Rockefeller (the spouse of John D. Rockefeller Jr.), Nelson Rockefeller (their son), and a few others at the museum and Rockefeller Center made an effort behind the scenes to transfer the mural to MoMA. The transfer, however, never transpired, and in February 1934 the mural was destroyed. Five months later, a Mexican government ministry commissioned Rivera to re-create the composition at the newly completed Palace of Fine Arts. By December, when the artist completed Man, Controller of the Universe, he had intensiﬁed its political tone with a more explicit call for a global communist revolution and unity among communist groups opposed to Stalin (plate 23). He thereby both challenged his Mexican patrons (promoters of capitalist enterprise and socialist reform, but not communism) and exacerbated acrimonious relations among Stalinists and their anti-Stalin communist opponents.
These controversies have been subjects of inquiry for journalists, historians, biographers, ﬁlmmakers, members of the Rockefeller family, and the artist himself,15 and recent publications and exhibitions in the United States and Mexico have focused anew on related artwork. Between November 2011 and May 2012, MoMA re-presented Rivera’s 1931–1932 portable frescoes and his preparatory drawing for Rockefeller Center in the exhibition and publication Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art, which was timed to coincide with the retrospective’s eightieth anniversary.16 While Man at the Crossroads survives primarily in photographic form (black-and-white photographs taken by Rivera’s assistant Lucienne Bloch and press photographers), preparatory drawings and ancillary material from Rivera’s archives have been published by Susana Pliego Quijano in Man at the Crossroads: Diego Rivera’s Mural at Rockefeller Center. Man, Controller of the Universe has long been featured in books about the artist, the Palace of Fine Arts, and Mexican mural art, and it has received additional attention in recent Rivera monographs and publications about the Palace collection.18 But the crowded ﬁeld of accounts of the MoMA retrospective, the Rockefeller Center mural controversy, and the Palace version of Rivera’s mural provides conﬂicting views concerning many issues: his patrons’ aims, the oppositional nature of Rivera’s 1931–1932 portable frescoes, the artist’s motivations in April 1933 in modifying his Rockefeller Center composition, and the circumstances surrounding the February 1934 destruction of the mural. Also, scholarship to date insufficiently addresses the failed transfer to MoMA, the Mexican government’s decision to commission the work’s reconstruction, and the artist’s December 1934 alterations. Perhaps most importantly, broader questions concerning the social functions of public political art remain at issue.
In the chapters that follow, I weigh in with fresh data and new observations. The portable frescoes that Rivera produced at MoMA, his preparatory drawing for the Rockefeller Center commission, his unﬁnished mural, and his completed fresco at the Palace were without question historically and aesthetically important, as were the acts of patronage and censorship associated with them. Relational dynamics between Rivera and his patrons at MoMA (a private cultural organization), Rockefeller Center (a private business enterprise), and the Palace of Fine Arts (a governmental entity) arose from and shaped social upheavals and aspirations for change in the early to mid 1930s, and they were catalysts for important period debates. In analyzing these upheavals, aspirations, and debates, I make use of theoretical proposals and interpretive methods from the ﬁelds of discourse theory and discursive psychology, which serve as useful frameworks for understanding the possibilities inherent in art and art patronage for effecting social change. Also, I treat artwork and the protagonists’ actions as hybrid speech, collaborative endeavors through which the artist and his patrons each attempt to speak. In the process, I identify the conﬂicting objectives that public murals and acts of patronage were expected to fulﬁll, the legislative issues and corporate policies they had the potential to inﬂuence (those of national and international relevance), and the interests they may have served.
RIVERA’S (COUNTER)REVOLUTIONARY ART: PERIOD DEBATES
When the authors of the 1917 Mexican Constitution granted the government the authority to establish educational and cultural institutions, they presupposed a close relationship between politics and art. Government conceptions of what might best serve the Mexican public, however, varied. Postrevolutionary presidential administrations initiated diverse executive, legislative, and judicial actions. In some instances, they followed the principles that political groups fought for during the revolution and civil war, which authors of the Constitution highlighted: restitution of communal lands, labor reform, restriction on church involvement in state affairs, secular education with a focus on science, and national ownership of natural resources. On other occasions, they took more conservative approaches to governance and policy making, protecting the interests of large landowners and foreign investors. Mural commissions awarded in the 1920s and early 1930s to Rivera, Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and other artists were fundamental to state efforts to effect political consolidation and legitimize socioeconomic policies.
During this period, Rivera, an artist trained at Mexico City’s renowned National Academy of San Carlos and seasoned by a thirteen-year sojourn in Europe, established his reputation as a leading ﬁgure in the Mexican mural renaissance. His aims and strategies, like those of his patrons, changed over time. When he joined the Mexican Communist Party (Partido Comunista Mexicano, PCM) in 1922, the revolution he envisioned was both a Mexican and a communist phenomenon, and when military generals in 1923 led an insurrection against President Álvaro Obregón (1920–1924), the artist joined the Union of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters, and Sculptors in signing manifestos that protested the “counter-revolution,” denounced easel painting as individualist and bourgeois, lauded popular taste and indigenous traditions as authentically Mexican, and advocated public, collective, and monumental forms of art as a means of circulating propaganda. The group’s creative endeavors were dedicated to the ongoing Mexican “social revolution” and to Marxist advocacy for “the proletariat of the world.”
As presidential administrations during the 1920s leaned increasingly to the right, Rivera tacked to the left, and in murals commissioned by the state, he both met and confounded expectations. At the Ministry of Public Education between 1923 and 1929, the artist began by celebrating peoples, landscapes, labors, and cultural traditions of regions of Mexico and concluded with a scathing caricature of US industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller Sr. (plate 1) and an explicit call for a communist revolution that featured Frida Kahlo distributing arms (ﬁgure 0.5). In the chapel at the National School of Agriculture in Chapingo between 1924 and 1927, he likened the agrarian reform movement to a natural phenomenon moving through stages of biological growth and culminating in communist revolutionary politics. At the National Palace in Mexico City between 1929 and 1935, his interpretation of Mexican history from ancient times through conquest, colonization, and independence to the present day was informed by Marxist views of class struggle, and his ﬁnal panel in 1935 was unreservedly communist with its references to Karl Marx and Das Kapital (plate 24, ﬁgure 5.12). When art patrons in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York offered the artist commissions, he found subtle and at times not so subtle ways to exceed thematic requirements. In 1931 at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), the tiny object he featured on the shirt pocket of the engineer at the center of the composition was a red star, a communist symbol. At Rockefeller Center, he introduced the far more scandalous portrait of Lenin. Regardless of outcome—whether or not Rivera’s transgressions were deemed excusable and forgiven—the marked contrast between his aims and those of his patrons raised questions about the function of public murals and the interests they served, and artists during this period vigorously debated these issues.
While Rivera in 1929 expressed the desire to create “art with revolution as its subject,”23 he acknowledged in 1932 that it was his patrons who made his work possible. Such “guerrilla” warfare called for compromise. The artist proposed that a “revolutionary” artist could simply be “class-conscious,” producing quality art with subject matter of interest to workers, and he maintained that “revolutionary” art did not have to be produced by workers themselves. It could result from “collaboration” with artists who “sympathize[d]” with them. Rivera, who believed it was important to “adapt” the “most advanced technical achievements of bourgeois art” to workers’ needs,24 employed the time-honored method of buon fresco, applying pigment to wet plaster to create durable painted surfaces. In these murals, however, which generally feature laborers in industrial and agricultural settings, peasants in native dress, and native landscapes, he innovatively adapted the stylistic features of ancient, early Renaissance, neoclassical, and modern forms of art to devise a distinctive modernist style, one characterized by clearly deﬁned contours, volumetric forms, and antinaturalistic manipulation of space. In his dense but carefully balanced compositions, which illustrate events from different times and places from varied viewpoints, ﬁgures and objects emerge and recede cinematically. Many art critics and political activists inside and outside Mexico saw these murals as revolutionary, a radical form of public art that was physically accessible, conceptually clear, and politically persuasive—one that articulated and served the interests of the working class.
The artist, the commissions he secured, and his practices, however, provoked debate. Siqueiros, who held a different stance on questions concerning art production and patronage, was scathing in his criticism. In Mexico City in February 1932, he denounced what he called “Mexican curious painting” (art with folkloric imagery that appealed to tourists) and stated that much of Rivera’s work exempliﬁed this tendency.25 In Los Angeles later that year, he called for “dialectic subversive painting”:26 subversive subject matter for and about laborers, collective endeavors that indoctrinated artists to communist thinking, and the use of industrial tools and materials. These, he argued, were necessary to express the views of the “modern industrial proletariat,” convert them to the idea of a global revolution, and change “the economic system of the world.”27 Siqueiros put these principles into practice in producing both Street Meeting at the Chouinard School of Art (ﬁgure 0.6), which features a communist soapbox orator working the street in guerrilla fashion to defy public authorities and convert multiracial working-class audiences, and Tropical America at the Plaza Art Center (ﬁgure 0.7), which challenges conceptions of exotic “tropical” America, critiques the global expanse of capitalism, draws attention to the victimization of indigenous and mestizo laborers, and advocates intervention by Latin American revolutionaries. In the 1934 issue of New Masses, Siqueiros intensiﬁed his attack on Rivera, accusing him of “surrender[ing]” to government pressure and functioning as a “counter-revolutionary.” Rivera, he claimed, lacked real-life experience with workers and trade unions. His “understanding of Marxist doctrine” was not “profound,” and his tools and methods were “technically backward.” The artist, he concluded, was a “bourgeois intellectual dilettante,” a “corrupting hand” in the Communist Party, and an “Aesthete of Imperialism.”28
The conﬂicts between Siqueiros and Rivera concerning the essential nature of revolutionary art can be attributed in part to their professional rivalry. In the 1920s and 1930s, Rivera was more successful in acquiring commissions in Mexico and the United States, and his fame surpassed that of Siqueiros. Their feuds, however, also followed from their partisan views. While Siqueiros was ousted from the Mexican Communist Party in March 1930, he continued to support the party, the Comintern, and Stalin.29 Rivera, on the other hand, was aligned with Leon Trotsky and other communists opposed to Stalin. While Siqueiros and Rivera occasionally indulged in boastful rhetoric, personal ridicule, and absurd misrepresentation, they substantively debated fundamental questions about the capacity of public mural art to serve political purposes.
In a 1937 review of Portrait of Mexico, a 1934 publication narrated by Rivera and Bertram Wolfe and illustrated with reproductions of Rivera’s murals, the US art critic Meyer Schapiro made an insightful observation about the complexity of the issues at hand. He referred to Rivera as a “revolutionary artist” and asserted that the Mexican mural renaissance was politically and aesthetically important, but he noted that “slogans,” “phrases,” and “images” could be “manipulated in contrary ways.” Subject matter avowed as socialist could promote fascist thinking, and apolitical art could effect social change. Schapiro proposed that what characterized “revolutionary art” had yet to be adequately deﬁned, and he posed a question that art historians today continue to wrestle with. He asked whether “revolutionary” force inhered in the intentions of the artist, those of the patron, the characteristics of the work, or the “momentary effects” of “changing circumstances,” and he concluded that it was in the “larger context of the social movement and its positive historical results” that the work’s “practical signiﬁcance” had to be “judged.”30
Legions of art historians since that time have attempted to ascertain the functions of mural art in a “larger context”—its success or failure in leftist activism, state politics, and transnational relations. Much like Rivera and Siqueiros, however, they have reached varied conclusions. Their positions concerning its oppositional force range from conviction about its effectiveness to ambivalence about its seemingly mixed results to suppositions that official patronage neutralizes its adversarial tone. The history of Mexican mural art and Rivera’s frescoes in particular is a contested narrative, in some instances an impressive tale of revolutionary fervor, in others a disillusioning story of institutional appropriation. Ironically, while the ambiguity inherent in Rivera’s work is acknowledged, the power of the murals to shape attitudes and behavior is often not questioned. What is generally debated are the nature and source of that power, whether its inﬂuence lies in the images, the activist sentiments of the artist, institutional frames, or the attitudes and actions of viewers.
Leonard Folgarait has argued that at the National Palace, where Rivera illustrated Mexico’s history from pre-Cortesian times to the mid-1930s, the artist’s murals reproduced dominant ideology. He writes that given its “lack of restrictive, ordering emphasis,” the imagery on the west wall depicting events from the viceregal period through 1930 is “multivalent” rather than “didactic,” that “it does not coerce a particular and overt message into being.” Folgarait, however, sees a “dialectic” relationship between the “ﬁgurative” and the “discursive” and suggests that period viewers “superimpose[d] a verbal, discursive logic upon [the] visual one,” a textual history known to the viewer. He argues that while members of partisan groups might have interpreted the imagery in other ways, the artist’s nonlinear complex of fragmented images, prioritization of words over images, crowding of ﬁgures, and use of abstract symbols occasion “homogenization of content.” As a result, “real class struggle and real social change” in the past and present are made “timeless,” “leveled” to a “visual, historical, and conceptual ﬂatness.” He goes on to state that imagery on the south wall, which depicts Mexico’s future (plate 24), is “imprinted” with “a double code of political content”: an “explicit” message about class struggle culminating in “freedom for the oppressed,” and an “implicit one” about “the inevitability of a rigid power structure.” “Partisan inclinations,” he writes, are thereby “compromised.” Folgarait concludes that during the increasingly conservative era of the Maximato (1928–1934), when former president Plutarco Elías Calles wielded inﬂuence with three consecutive presidents, and during Cárdenas’s socialist administration, Rivera’s murals initiated viewers in the manner of ritual into the state’s ideological belief system, instilling a sense of nationalism and contributing to the illusion that the restorative processes of the revolution were continuing. Class consciousness was neutralized, and state politics were legitimated.
David Craven, on the other hand, maintains that these murals were socially subversive and that their force stemmed from both Rivera’s pictorial focus (the “real ‘heroes,’” he proposes, “are anonymous members of the popular classes”) and his “epic modernist” style (manipulation of the “snake-like boustrophedon narrative format” of pre-Columbian screen-fold codices, cubist simultaneous space, and compositional characteristics of 1920s Soviet cinematic montage). Craven argues that the ambiguity inherent in Rivera’s work makes it possible for viewers to conceptualize oppositional views. By “decenter[ing] compositional logic,” the artist encourages new ways of looking, and spectators actively “decipher[ing]” the images of “class and ethnic struggles” are free to “act” on them.32 While Craven concedes that state officials in the 1920s and 1930s leveraged the artist’s murals for state purposes, he maintains that Rivera enjoyed “considerable autonomy” and was able to express radical views because the government had the “urgent need to orchestrate a united front” against conservative backlashes.
Varied positions have likewise been taken regarding Rivera’s murals in the United States. Craven argues that his 1932–1933 murals at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, which feature the technologically advanced manufacturing processes of the Ford Motor Company, did have oppositional force: “The considerable popularity of Rivera’s murals with the more militant members of the popular classes who have been unionized is well documented in several cases both in Mexico and in the United States. When, for example, there was a public drive in 1933 by conservative Republicans in the USA to censor Rivera’s Detroit murals, a united front of twelve thousand industrial workers immediately notiﬁed the Mayor of Detroit that they would defend the murals were any further efforts by the right wing made to destroy them.”34 Craven notes that the Detroit murals were later “actually used by labor leaders in the successful drive to unionize the Ford auto plant.”35
Craven’s position stands in contrast with that of Anthony Lee, who suggests that while the artist aimed to create a socialist vision of unalienated labor, the imagery could not be read that way because of inherent contradictions, which Lee attributes to the artist’s ambivalence about the worker’s place in the factory and society. He proposes that Rivera was unable to resolve the contrast between the “leftist fantasy of the American worker” and the fractious nature of leftist politics, and as a result produced “a compensatory picture of the working classes in an effort to avoid and perhaps overcome the sticky problem of working-class racism.” Despite Rivera’s “wish for unity on the left” and his desire to create “an image of a stable, coherent communism,” his murals can be read as “a capitalist vision of harmony on the assembly line.”36 In his monograph on public murals in San Francisco, Lee suggests that the ambiguities and contradictions in Rivera’s actions and artwork—his “sympathy” with and betrayal of Marxist principles—were at times a matter of opportunism and disingenuousness but also an indication of his “habitual ambivalence toward organized radicalism.”37
Renato González Mello likewise concludes that in Detroit, Rivera functioned as a “mature artist” but not, unfortunately, as a “revolutionary artist.” While in New York, Rivera innovatively merged occult or otherwise esoteric symbols, journalistic-type portrayals, an ultramodern geometrical framework, and an epic utopian narrative, but his fresco was fraught with discontinuity and contradiction. González Mello asserts as well that Rivera’s portrait of Lenin and image of interracial brotherhood were poorly received by the public.38
Anna Indych-López, who analyzes the controversies over Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural and other frescoes produced earlier in the United States by Orozco and Siqueiros, affirms Lee’s conclusions concerning the counterproductive nature of Rivera’s ambiguous imagery in Detroit (which elicited protests from the right and the left), reiterates an earlier assessment by Craven that “the critical edge of the murals was ‘blunted,’” and refers to his imagery at Rockefeller Center, Lenin’s portrait in particular, as newly “overt,” “graphic,” and “unequivocal.” She explains that mural controversies result from many factors, including the “heterogeneity and instability of places, audiences, and communities”; notes the signiﬁcance of political differences; and concludes that the dynamics of miscommunication, misreading, and misunderstanding are also important determinants: “As with many public art projects, the controversies about the Mexican murals in the United States suggest the inadequacy of murals to communicate in certain environments, the extent to which communities are often fragmented, and the inevitability of misreading symbols and imagery not widely shared or broadly understood.”39
Alicia Azuela occupies middle ground on these issues. She concedes that Mexican artists’ varied constructs in Mexico of history, nation, and race helped validate the political programs of postrevolutionary regimes,40 and she acknowledges that Rivera, with his visual rhetoric of revolution and liberation, was a leading exponent of official propagandistic art. Azuela proposes that his incongruities and inconsistencies were a means of navigating the dynamic politics of the period. She cites as evidence his treatment of Calles over a ﬁve-year period at the National Palace: his decisions to initially exclude Calles, then to depict him among historical ﬁgures as a revolutionary hero, and ﬁnally to highlight the degree to which he compromised with industrialists. While she emphasizes that there was a constant tension between Mexican artists’ need to subordinate ideas and images to state interests and their desire to assert independence, she concludes that the artwork did not solely serve hegemonic interests.41
Robin Adèle Greeley, who underscores the polarized nature of debates about the roles the muralists played relative to the masses and the state, likewise argues that “the reality . . . lies somewhere in between.” She emphasizes that government commissions over time were “an ad hoc response to diverse social and political situations” and that “the state . . . was forced to accede to some of the muralists’ aspirations and to the essential indeterminacy of art’s formal procedures.”42 Greeley, however, intimates that Rivera’s compositions fulﬁlled the needs of public and private patrons more often than those of his peasant subjects. One example she cites is the mural cycle commissioned by US ambassador Dwight Morrow for the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca, speciﬁcally the panel featuring the agrarian revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (ﬁgure 0.8). Greeley calls attention to scholarship illustrating the degree to which the government “used the iconic image of Zapata to fuse the rural masses and the self-proclaimed revolutionary state,” and she suggests that Rivera “effects that fusion subtly.” In featuring Zapata in the last panel in the series, Rivera intimated that “Mexico’s long history of oppression,” which he “schematized” as “primarily colonial, rather than modern,” “culminates in Zapata.” Greeley writes:
The mural makes all viewers—whether peasant, elite, indio, or gringo tourist—not active historical actors but part of the undifferentiated mass who are merely implementing Zapata’s vision. Thus, the modern state, although deliberately left out of the mural, is ﬁgured through its very absence, in the empty physical space in front of the mural where spectators stand. In that space, viewers automatically do what the state commands; they stand passive, whatever their class position, before the mural that asserts the triumph of Zapata’s land reform, which the caretaker state has purportedly implemented in the absence of Zapata himself.
Greeley suggests that in rendering us “impassive,” the artist “helps co-opt and disempower the revolutionary forces that Zapata represented” and “deﬁnes Mexico’s modern state—not its rural peoples—as legitimate heir to Morelos’ leader.”
Mary K. Coffey, who investigates the patronage of mural art by Mexican public museums between the 1930s and 1960s, argues that the Palace of Fine Arts, the National History Museum, and the National Anthropological Museum were “agents of social governance,” striving to reinforce “modern subjectivity,” “civic consciousness,” and particular notions about “Mexican identity.” Didactic murals elaborating nationalist themes and depicting popular revolutionary struggle for “a broad and often illiterate citizenry” facilitated their efforts, and Rivera’s “narrative style, realist aesthetic, populist iconography, and socialist politics” were particularly useful. Coffey adds that museums, now as then, present mural art as “monolithic” in both “aesthetic” and “conceptual” terms, eliding differences among artists. While museums “endeavor to explain and instrumentalize the political messages . . . they also constrain the radical potential of this art form” through “singular and authoritative interpretations” of content and style, in ways that “at times . . . contradict the artists’ intentions.”44 Coffey proposes that this “museum effect”45 was solidiﬁed during the 1940s, when the government established the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA) and created the National Museum of Fine Arts in the Palace of Fine Arts, which offered the “ﬁrst coherent narrative of national aesthetic progress from pre-Hispanic times to the present.”46 In government exhibitions, including the 1949 homage to Rivera at the Palace, muralism served as a symbol of culture rather than politics.47 The aesthetic and political strategies inherent in the making of mural art, which was now accorded “ﬁne art” status, became “invisible” to the “average viewer,” and the “vibrant cultural debate” from earlier periods was “muted.”48
A FEW WORDS ON THEORY AND METHOD
Regardless of their conclusions, all the historians mentioned above concede that symbolic meanings are neither universal nor static, and they either emphasize or intimate that viewers played a role in interpretive processes. Scholars, however, have a challenge in ascertaining period reception by nonelites. Coffey notes the root of our dilemma: “While it is relatively easy to assert the instability of meaning or to cleave to a faith in resistant reading on the part of active institutional subjects, it is much more difficult to demonstrate instances of this.” She openly acknowledges the lamentable result: “There is an ongoing tendency to treat institutional culture as fundamentally oppressive.”49
Art historians interested in gauging popular reception in the early to mid 1930s have a difficult task, since concrete readings by citizens (other than critics and other artists) are few and far between. We have, therefore, often characterized patrons and viewers in static or reductive terms. Also, in our efforts to explain the political functions of mural art, many of us have not unreasonably assumed that substantive social change occurs slowly, manifesting signiﬁcant shifts after long intervals. As a result, we tend to focus on broad time frames. Such approaches have pitfalls. As Hayden White notes, the historical record comprises numerous data fragments, myriad actions, utterances, and incidents. In our efforts to construct coherent narratives, we set aside unwieldy information, highlight particular details, identify causes and effects, and smooth out contradictions. Much like authors of ﬁction, we thereby “emplot” the historical record.50 Our accounts are in no way comprehensive, and as James Clifford has said of the supposed “truths” of ethnographic observations, they are “inherently partial ” in the sense of being both “incomplete” and “committed”— predisposed to a particular manner of seeing and analyzing.51
In this book I, too, isolate and link subjectively data from a series of historical moments and surmise cause and effect, and my narrative framework for understanding the “power” of Rivera’s mural art is admittedly no less biased. I focus, however, on a relatively short time frame: the years 1931 to 1935. One might view this period in both the United States and Mexico in generalized terms, as the point in which the Republican presidential policies of Herbert Hoover gave way to the Democratic New Deal measures of Franklin Roosevelt, and the conservative Maximato in Mexico yielded to Cárdenas’s socialist governance. I nevertheless aim to present this period as an era not of binary transposition but of unceasing modiﬁcations, transpositions, and adaptations, one when holds on and challenges to power were tenuous. I strive to make evident the continuing shifts in contexts, issues, and discursive constructs. My goal is to surmise, as Schapiro would say, the “momentary effects” of “changing circumstances.”52
My sources of data are varied. I make use of visual evidence from artwork; documents from private and public archives in the United States and Mexico; period publications such as the New York Times, the leftist New Masses, the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, the Lovestoneites’ Workers Age, the Trotskyites Militant, and PNR documents. I also incorporate the ﬁndings of academics in several ﬁelds: New Deal politics and labor relations, the period of the Maximato, US-Mexican relations, and US-Soviet relations. In analyzing these materials, I take what Marianne Jørgensen and Louise Phillips have termed a “multiperspectival” approach.53 I have in mind theoretical proposals regarding the ways in which language, broadly conceived as image, text, and behavior, is shaped by and shapes social processes and, by extension, is affected by and affects relations of power. My interpretive method is informed by diverse approaches to discourse theory and analysis.54
The discourse theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deﬁne discourse as a structured and historically contingent totality of broadly dispersed articulations. Any given articulatory moment, whether linguistic or nonlinguistic, constitutes an effort to negate the polyvalent nature of signs and restrict meaning. Discursive constructs offer individuals subject positions with which to identify, and the identities of these subject positions, which may relate to class, race, gender, nationality, or other notions, are both deﬁned through logics of difference and linked in chains of equivalence that stand in opposition to other associative chains. This, importantly, is a matter of not celebrating identities as undifferentiated, but of promoting conceptions that their status, value, function, or needs are commensurate. It is through such processes of signiﬁcation that individuals and groups are contrasted, preferred forms of social relation and organization are suggested, courses of action are encouraged, social norms are reinforced, and hegemonic relations are maintained. Hegemony, nevertheless, is tenuous. Antagonistic discourses that offer conﬂicting understandings of identity or make evident the contingent and oppressive nature of the constructs they challenge can unsettle predominant meanings. They have the potential
to reshape suppositions about what is reasonable, fair, morally right, or natural, and to serve as catalysts for new hegemonic relations.55
Laclau and Mouffe note that hegemonic relations can be oppressive or egalitarian, emphasize that discursive constructs make shifts in power relations possible, and suggest that hegemony is therefore important to socialist strategy. The radical democratic politics they advocate is possible only with a “de-centring and autonomy of . . . different discourses and struggles, the multiplication of antagonisms and the construction of a plurality of spaces within which they can affirm themselves and develop.” This “plurality of spaces does not deny, but rather requires, the overdetermination of its effects at certain levels and the consequent hegemonic articulation between them.” In other words, antagonism and equivocality are an essential aspect of an egalitarian hegemonic force. Laclau and Mouffe conclude that it is ultimately through “radical” forms of “democratic politics” in civil society and state government—productive forms of discursive polyvalence in which the logic of equivalence and difference is not oppressive—that the needs and demands of a broad front of politically conceived groups can be articulated.56
Laclau and Mouffe, who identify the lines of reasoning that underlie discursive structures during particular historical periods, do not offer tools for analyzing instances of social interaction. I therefore consider approaches to discourse analysis taken by discursive psychologists, social psychologists who integrate poststructuralist ideas about language, subject positions, and power relations with sociological perspectives concerning social interaction. Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell view discourse as a social action that is context oriented,57 a rhetorical tool deployed for speciﬁc purposes in particular circumstances. They stress the importance of contemplating the “function and consequence” of speech and writing58 and propose that functions occupy “a continuum,” ranging from “‘interpersonal’ functions such as explaining, justifying, excusing, blaming and so on,” which are relevant to “the local discursive context,” to broader social functions, such as “legitimating the power of one group in a society.”59 Functions, which are likely to be multiple, can be clearly evident or inexplicit and ambiguous, and neither the speaker nor the receiver “need be intentionally aware of . . . consequences.” Wetherell and Potter emphasize that functions, which “are not in general directly available for study,” are “the endpoints of discourse analysis”—“the ﬁndings rather than the raw data.” The articulation of ﬁndings is the result of an interpretive process in which suppositions are formulated. “Essentially,” they concede, “discourse analysis involves developing hypotheses about the purposes and consequences of language.”60
Discursive psychologists presume that at any given historical moment, speakers strategically deploying symbolic language and identity constructs have at their disposal an interpretive repertoire, “a lexicon or register of terms and metaphors drawn upon to characterize and evaluate actions and events.”61 Nigel Edley writes that “culturally dominant or hegemonic” constructs, which are more “available,” are presumed to be a matter of fact or nature. “Transforming the status quo” is therefore “a matter of challenging and changing discourses” and providing different descriptors for identity. Edley notes, however, that the elevation of a particular identity construct to “an incontrovertible matter of fact” has “to be negotiated,” and the power dynamics involved in securing agreement on meaning are complex. Also, the dissemination of a particular identity construct and the negotiation of its meaning have to be allowed politically.62
While I do not explicitly refer to these theories and methods in the chapters that follow, my analyses are informed by them.63 Along with Laclau and Mouffe, I presume that art imagery, textual documents, and acts of patronage, critical reception, and censorship are contingent articulations competing for particular understandings of group identities and interrelations, and like discursive psychologists, I treat them as strategic social actions that are relevant to immediate and broader contexts. I focus in particular on the varied logics of difference and equivalence for the following signiﬁers: the United States, Mexico, and the Soviet Union as nations; the working class versus the corporate and social elite; capitalist, communist, and socialist systems of social organization; the sites of Rockefeller Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Palace of Fine Arts; the character of individuals, including the artist, his patrons (members of the Rockefeller family and others), and prominent ﬁgures such as Lenin; and political organizations, such as the official Communist Party, groups supporting Trotsky and Jay Lovestone, and Mexico’s National Revolutionary Party. I track the degree to which groups and individuals were deemed commensurate or incommensurate by way of perceived characteristics—level of technological modernization, material progress, morality and ethics, social order and disorder, and peace and warfare.
While Laclau and Mouffe intimate that articulatory moments are often organized in a way to minimize ambiguity, I note abundant examples of it in the articulations of both the artist and his patrons—ambiguity in the sense not of indiscernibility but of equivocation. While some instances may well be manifestations of indecisiveness, confusion, misunderstanding, or deceit, I nevertheless contemplate their interpersonal and broader social rhetorical functions. Like discursive psychologists, I interpret the creative mixes of precise and imprecise communication elements, as well as variations, inconsistencies, and contradictions, as strategic.64 In their efforts to leverage artistic production and patronage for supra-artistic purposes (to give voice and at the same time to speak), Rivera and his patrons at MoMA, Rockefeller Center, and the Palace of Fine Arts—once again, a private cultural organization, a private business enterprise, and a governmental entity—wittingly deployed strategic mixes of explicit and inexplicit terms. They did so to generate not confusion but a profusion of meaning, symbolic forms conducive to multiple interpretations and applications. In the chapters that follow, I highlight articulations in which meanings were rendered more or less obscure, ascertain the degree to which clarity and ambiguity were rhetorical, and contemplate their possible effects—the actions or reactions they may have provoked, the norms they may have reinforced or challenged, the public and private policies they made possible (concerning international relations, labor relations, and the civil liberty of free speech), and the shifts in power relations they facilitated.
While discursive psychologists do not view speech as predictive of behavior or indicative of ﬁxed beliefs, attitudes, or emotions,65 and are therefore not concerned with motivation, I speculate on personal and institutional intentions by way of the protagonists’ articulations and data from the historical record. I do so because in many instances the artist, individual patrons, organizations, and critics were actively engaged in policy debates. Readings (including so-called misreadings) of mural art were productive instances of articulation, a means of inviting alternative understandings of the crises at hand. In contemplating their capacity to effect change, I consider their relationship to other instances of articulation and attempt to assess both the density of such articulations and their breadth of distribution. My data sets, discussions concerning historical context, and interpretive ﬁndings will, I hope, constitute catalysts for further exploration. Importantly, I have aimed not to identify the full range of signs comprised in interpretative repertoires, but to parse visual and textual material for the interests they may have served and their potentialities in maintaining or challenging power relations. Rather than deﬁne what Laclau and Mouffe would presume were overarching orders of discourse, such as capitalist, communist, and socialist discursive structures, I seek evidence of discordant and concordant articulations, analyze the degree to which signiﬁers had the potential to promote new meanings, and surmise their instrumentality.
My analyses in individual chapters are synchronic. I treat episodes of patronage and art production as distinct historical moments and highlight speciﬁcities of time, place, and relational processes. This enables me to consider the complexity of patronartist relations, the polyvalence that characterized artworks born of collaboration, and the convergence and divergence in interests, motivations, and representational practices. I move beyond reductive dichotomies (such as state versus popular interests, and official versus revolutionary culture) to identify the diverse constituencies that composed them, and to consider the issues these constituencies were negotiating. In moving from chapter to chapter, I work in diachronic fashion, calling attention to transformations in context, rhetorical strategies (which ranged from negotiation, collaboration, and exploitation to imposition, resistance, and conﬂict), articulatory practices (clarity versus equivocation), and possible functions. In the process, I highlight the dynamic nature, porous texture, and unsteady momentum of discursive practices and ascertain expected and unexpected consequences.
THE ARTIST AND HIS PATRONS: NEW YORK AND MEXICO CITY
In part I, chapter 1, I focus on the December 1931–January 1932 MoMA retrospective, a project integral to both US and Mexican mechanisms of cultural diplomacy. I explore the matrix of interests that the museum and the Rockefeller family were a part of: the triangular nature of US, Mexican, and Soviet relations; material assets at stake; and competing symbolic constructs for national and class identity. I highlight the degree to which the works MoMA selected for display, the exhibition catalogue, the portable frescoes that Rivera painted on site, and critics’ reviews responded to such constructs, and I identify the government and corporate policies they had the potential to impact. Rivera, his patrons, and art critics, I argue, used one another for distinct purposes, and their strategic blends of discursive clarity and ambiguity made mutual exploitation possible. But given the equivocal nature of images, text, and behavior, conﬂicting purposes were undoubtedly served.
In the three chapters that make up part II, I investigate the dynamics of patronage and censorship at Rockefeller Center. In chapter 2, I focus on officials’ efforts in 1932 to coordinate the art program, their decision to offer a mural commission to Rivera, their efforts to secure an appropriate vision from him, and the artist’s proposal. The art program, I argue, was designed to respond to criticism from across the political spectrum of labor relations under capitalism, risks inherent in scientiﬁc and technological advancement, and the nation’s global status and role. Crucial terms such as “frontier,” “brotherhood,” and “progress” (material and spiritual) were distinctively combined and thereby invested with new meanings—a new portrait of American civilization. The unifying potential of the planning document and, by extension, the art program lay in the rhetorical use of equivocation and clarity: no clear references to political or economic agendas, but straightforward delineation of the ideals and values by which they were advocated. The planning document rendered the art program suitable to the diverse needs of individuals and organizations in and around Rockefeller Center. The Rivera commission, in turn, which was a means of modeling harmonious relations between the United States and Mexico, capitalists and communists, and management and labor, was likewise an exercise in hybrid speech, and in their effort to give voice to Rivera but suppress his radical views, Rockefeller Center officials resorted to ambiguity and self-censorship. Their art guidelines made consensus on acceptable abstractions possible. In his proposal, Rivera likewise obfuscated and self-censored, skirting divisive issues. His polyvalent terms were relevant to his patrons’ views and his own concerning material and spiritual progress, labor, technology, science, health, medicine, and international relations.
Chapter 3 concerns Rivera’s decision in April 1933 to modify his composition and the decision by Rockefeller and his colleagues to ﬁre the artist and remove his mural from public view. Rivera at this time explicitly differentiated New York from Moscow, the United States from the Soviet Union, and capitalism from communism and socialism, and in doing so challenged his patron’s conceptions about the viability and morality of “American civilization.” To advocate the United Front against new government policies in the United States and Germany, the artist shifted his strategy of collaboration, compromise, and subtle subversion, along with his tactical use of equivocal terms, to a different audience: competing communist factions. The polyvalent image of Lenin accommodated political differences among them. Although the decision by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his colleagues to dismiss Rivera and conceal the mural yielded conﬂicting interpretations, it was likewise politically constitutive. In the public debate that followed—at a time of groundbreaking judicial and legislative actions—both artists’ and workers’ speech rights were emphasized, as was, importantly, the relationship between them.
In chapter 4, I explore the effort to transfer Rivera’s mural to MoMA (December 1933 and January 1934) and its destruction (February 1934). The transfer was proposed as a solution in the midst of public assertions concerning the mural’s artistic and social value, new labor legislation and debates over it, the US government’s efforts to strengthen trade relations with Mexico and the Soviet Union, and the need for Rockefeller Center officials to build out the project. Yet the proposal posed a dilemma for MoMA and Rockefeller Center officials, who were struggling with complex and conﬂicting objectives—essentially, a liberal cultural program that facilitated liberal economic and philanthropic internationalism, and a conservative and ﬁnancially expedient program of acquisition and display that precluded political contestation. Destruction of the mural coincided with efforts to establish an endowment to secure the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest of European art, escalation in labor strife after the passage of the National Industrial Relations Act, the impending demise of company unions (John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s solution for labor problems), and Rivera’s attacks on NIRA, company unions, and the Rockefellers in his December 1933 murals at the New Workers School. While this extreme act of censorship was powerfully symbolic, its meaning was (again) contested. I nevertheless propose that the many acts of oppositional expression that resulted—a groundswell of diverse articulations concerning the importance of labor rights and the need for opportunities for unrestricted public speech—contributed to substantive legislative, judicial, institutional, and organizational changes.
In part III, chapter 5, I address the Mexican government’s decision in June 1934 to commission a reproduction of the Rockefeller Center mural for the Palace of Fine Arts. While the commission was at odds with the government’s stance on the Mexican Communist Party and its efforts to maintain productive relations with the United States, Rivera’s imagery was in keeping with “revolutionary” principles outlined in the PNR’s Six-Year Plan. With its strong and positive focus on labor, visual assertions concerning peace and social stability, and decidedly moral defense of socialism, the Rockefeller Center composition would have echoed the governing party’s moral and policy discourse, and in its ambiguity it would have accommodated the conﬂicting concerns of competing officials. Yet Rivera in December 1934 chose to modify the composition and thereby challenge both his patrons and pro-Stalin leftists. His revisions, nevertheless, which provoked diverse reactions, ultimately served the interests of the Cárdenas administration.
What I argue in these ﬁve chapters is that in speaking and giving voice, and either collaborating or disengaging, the artist and his patrons appropriated and reappropriated units of symbolic meaning. What was in contention in each venue at each historical moment were not simply political and economic policies but also the visual and textual terms by which diverse constituencies advocated them. Images of laborers in particular—a targeted audience—were sites of discursive struggle. All constituencies deployed them to encourage particular conceptions of equivalence and difference and to advocate distinct policies and programs. The works of art Rivera produced at MoMA, Rockefeller Center, and the Palace of Fine Arts, and the acts of patronage and censorship associated with them, were mechanisms through which crucial debates were waged: those concerning national identity; class status and relations; the beneﬁts and risks of modern technology; the viability of capitalist, communist, and socialist policies; the roles of artists, patrons, and viewers; the function of art; and, importantly, the rights to public visibility, speech, and representation.
At the Crossroads, the title that Rockefeller Center officials conceived for Rivera’s mural, aptly illustrates the nature of patron-artist relations: their transitory interactions, urgent needs, and difficulty in discerning end points and outcomes. The metaphor speaks to their varied endeavors, their shifting dispositions, their potential to both sway and be swayed, and their changes in strategy—from likening to differentiating, agreement to disagreement, rapprochement to disengagement. The image of the crossroads evokes the elastic nature of the artwork and the multiple functions that mural art could be made to serve. It also brings to mind a distinctive feature of antagonistic discourses—the utility of discursive elements for competing purposes and resulting contests over meaning. The notion of a crossroads enables us to visualize the dynamic circumstances in which the protagonists attempted to negotiate their differences. It is suggestive of the hope, despair, and unrelenting change that characterized the early to mid 1930s, when capitalism was in crisis, communism and socialism constituted promises as well as threats, and the US and Mexican governments implemented radically new public policies and programs. Government ministries, private corporations and organizations, and individual citizens all lived “at the crossroads,” facing crucial decisions again and again. In the pages that follow, I map the paths taken by the artist and his patrons, charting the points at which their worldviews and representational practices intersected. Importantly, these moments of encounter and collaboration, in which adversaries attempted to both speak and give voice, yielded strategic mixes of clarity and ambiguity, which invite consideration of the possibilities inherent in discursive practices.
“The commissioning and censorship of Rivera by the Rockefellers in the 1930s is a well-known episode in American art history, and much has been written about it. And yet, the story has become somewhat simplistic. Paquette’s book enriches the story and reveals that, in order to understand this episode in American art history, we need to consider more than simplistic or Manichean conceptions of good socialist art versus bad capitalist patron. No one else has gone into such rich depth in their analysis of either the mural or the relevant contexts in which its meaning was debated, shaped, and determined. I believe this book will have a wide readership within and beyond academic audiences.”
Mary K. Coffey, Dartmouth College, author of How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State