Discussion of Whitney Museum Exhibition: Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art

Thursday, January 7, 2021
Laura Bonilla Cal/Getty Images

Global Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Latin America Studies, New York University; Author, America Through Foreign Eyes; Former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003)

Curator, Vida Americana, Whitney Museum of American Art

Assistant Curator, Vida Americana, Whitney Museum of American Art


Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; @shannonkoneil

Introductory Remarks

Alice Pratt Brown Director, Whitney Museum of American Art

The Council on Foreign Relations and the Whitney Museum of American Art invite you to join our panelists for a discussion of Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, currently on view at the Whitney. Vida Americana explores how Mexican artists like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros used murals and artwork to depict the fight for economic and social reforms in the country and the influence their work had on U.S. artists at the time.

Panelists discuss the social role of art, particularly how these artists introduced visual art as a way to address societal abuses and injustices, and how this transformation has influenced culture, politics, and the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

WEINBERG: Good evening, everyone. I'm Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney Museum. Welcome to the virtual Whitney Museum of American Art. I want to first thank Richard Haass and the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this virtual discussion on the exhibition, “Vida Americana.” We're, of course, disappointed that we're not able to have all of you in person at the Whitney as was originally planned. But thankfully, after a period of six months closing, the Whitney Museum reopened in the fall, and since then we've had 153,000 visitors to this socially-distanced exhibition. You, too, can come see it in a socially distant and very comfortable and safe fashion before it closes on the 31st of January. We'd be happy to arrange for tickets for any of you, so please let us know.


The two hundred-plus works that make up this exhibition will be heading back to Mexico after a long visit here to New York and probably not returning for quite some time. In a moment, we will be showing you a short video contextualizing this exhibition and its historical moment to the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. This is an exhibition a long time in the making. Indeed it was first proposed by curator, Barbara Haskell, a decade ago. We could not have imagined then how the political context of the last few years and today would make the exhibition's narrative about the cross-pollination of culture and ideas between the U.S. and Mexico all the more poignant today. This exhibition of works by revolutionary artists on the heels of the Mexican Revolution seems evermore relevant this very day. I know the Council on Foreign Relations is deeply committed to the importance of power of dialogue and how all of us, through conversation and education, can better understand one another throughout the world. Through reaffirming our connection to Mexico and its rich cultural traditions, “Vida Americana” is the embodiment of dialogue. The exhibition demonstrates how the United States have long been learning and borrowing from Mexican traditions and learning from each other. It also shows how above all, people in both countries share in the deep belief that art unites, rather than divides. And, I think, what's also revolutionary about this exhibition is that most people think that the great influence of modern art came from east to west, from Europe to the United States. And this exhibition undermines that notion and reminds us that the traditions coming from the south are equally potent and have had great impact on the art of the United States.


I want to acknowledge and thank all of our speakers this evening, and also thank everyone who is joining us tonight from the Council on Foreign Relations. I think there's close to two hundred of you from all over the U.S., from various industries, groups and institutions, but before beginning our video on “Vida Americana,” I also want to acknowledge our funders. All of you know, none of these activities that we do—exhibitions and catalogs and programs, like those programs on the Council on Foreign Relations—happen without sponsors. And I do want to just take a moment to thank our lead sponsor, the Jerome L. Greene Foundation. I'd like to acknowledge Citi and Citibanamex, as well as Delta and Aeromexico. And we also received major support from the Judy Hart Angelo Exhibition Fund; the Barbara Haskell American Fellows Legacy Fund, yes, it is a fund in her honor because she is one of the great treasures of the Whitney Museum; the Henry Luce Foundation, who is always so supportive of art and American art, in particular, and has a long history with the Whitney; the Terra Foundation for American Art; and the Whitney's National Committee. I'd also like to mention of the National Endowment for Arts and the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York, who were particularly helpful. Last but not least, I want to thank our outstanding curatorial team: Barbara Haskell, who has been a colleague and curator at the Whitney for multiple decades, who is considered one of the great masters of curators in terms of American art, but art anywhere; the rising star, assistant curator Marcela Guerrero, who is somebody to absolutely watch, who was a wonderful collaborator with Barbara Haskell, who is a very, very special person; Sarah Humphreville, who is not joining us tonight; Ilana Hernandez and Sophia Silva, all worked on this exhibition. Thank you again to the Council on Foreign Relations and I hope you enjoy the exhibition.




O'NEIL: Well, welcome, everyone to this Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I'm Shannon O'Neil. I'm the vice president and deputy director of the Studies department, as well as the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America. And so I will be presiding over this meeting. We have three great panelists here. Some of them have already been introduced by Mr. Weinberg, but I will go through it quickly. So we have Barbara Haskell, who comes to us who is the curator of this exhibit, as well as Marcela Guerrero, who was the assistant curator. So they will be able to inform us on all of the things that went into this exhibition. And then we have also with us, Jorge Castañeda. Jorge is a distinguished professor at NYU of political science and Latin American studies. He is the former foreign minister of Mexico, so he knows a thing or two about trying to influence the United States. And he is also the author of a recent book titled America Through Foreign Eyes—so his reflections on the United States. And, you know, the last couple of days are interesting ones to reflect on the United States. But we're here to talk about a different revolutionary time or time of social unrest and uprisings. And that is the one that we just saw a bit about in the video. So I'd like to start off, and I'm going to start with you, Jorge. And we saw a little bit in the video, but lay out to us a bit, set the stage for us on what was happening in Mexico when these artists were beginning to create the art. What was the domestic milieu in which these big three, right, the “los tres grandes,” that they emerged?


CASTAÑEDA: Well, Shannon, thank you. Just for a second because we can't totally be abstract from what's going on, I think this exhibition is a marvelous exhibition. It shows the United States at its best, not only having the exhibition, but what's in it. And as I tried to point out in this book of mine, America Through Foreign Eyes—and I quote Barbara's marvelous introduction to the catalog—this is a time when the United States opens its arms in this particular case of birth to Mexican muralist artists, but throughout its history to people of culture, people of science, people of literature from all over the world. And not necessarily exiled but very interesting about [Clemente] Orozco, [Diego] Rivera, and [David Alfaro] Siqueiros, they were not exiles ever in the United States. The United States, first of all, Americans or American culture, paid them to come and paint and paid them on occasion very generously, but welcomed them, sought them out, brought them, gave them marvelous conditions in which to work, and finally, was porous or receptive to their influence. This is the United States that we have all come to know all over the world, and I think at this particular time with so many people around the world are looking critically or pessimistically or with sadness, as Angela Merkel put it yesterday, at the United States, I think it's important to emphasize this other America, which is the one we all have come to love and respect.


What was going on in Mexico, Shannon, really quickly. You have just finished the revolution pretty much by 1917. It has pretty much come to an end with the Constitution. 1920, the first president, post-revolutionary president, Álvaro Obregón, takes office and he appoints, as minister of education, José Vasconcelos, who was already by then a distinguished writer, intellectual, had lived in the United States and lived in New York, in particular, for several years. He was sort of the revolution's ambassador to the United States. Well, one of its ambassadors, and he quickly understands that in order to—as Barbara puts it in that marvelous introduction, as I said—that in order to try and create a new identity for Mexico coming from the revolution, nothing like art can do it. And he just happens to have around him, the three great muralists. And he immediately commissions walls and walls and walls of Mexican ministries, universities, technical schools, just about, you name it, and they all, particularly Diego and Orozco—Siqueiros will come a little bit later, he's younger than they are. It's also important to point out that, although these are the '20s, the revolution is over. But the fervor of the revolution is still there. It's also important to point out that this is a time when the Mexican cultural figures are all very close, either to the left wing of the revolution or to the newly founded Communist Party, founded by an Indian and by an American, but in Mexico, kind of strange, but, well, that's the way these things happened at the time, and Diego joins relatively soon, I think, by 1921, if I'm not mistaken, joins the party. Siqueiros will also join at the time. Orozco never joined the Communist Party, and it also has to do with his different politics—we tend to bunch them all together. Barbara, in her introduction, is very careful about that, and of course, she knows much more about this than I do, but this is a left-wing revolutionary time in Mexico. And this is what is going to generate this enormous influence of Mexican muralism in the United States. It's not just any Mexico that is influencing U.S. culture, it's the Mexico of the revolution of the Communist Party, if you like, that is influencing all of us.


O'NEIL: Great. Let me turn to you, Barbara and Marcela, and set the stage a little bit here where they're coming and why and how did the United States encourage fervent left-wing revolutionaries to come up and paint in the United States? What was the draw and how did we see that and how did they get here?


HASKELL: Well, so, the murals began to be reported in the U.S. press, and it brought waves of artists to Mexico to work with the muralists and see the murals. And for American audiences, there was nothing like it. Here was a bold, epic narrative that had to do with people's everyday life. There was just the idea of combining stories that related to everyday people on this old modern style, accessible, educational. It was something that just mesmerized the artists of the U.S. So the word of the Mexican muralists had spread all over the country, and they began to be invited, as Jorge said. So Orozco came to New York because he was told he had a commission here to do his drawings of the Mexican Revolution. Rivera was called to San Francisco because he had several commissions that had been arranged by artists who had worked with him in Mexico. And Siqueiros went to Los Angeles because he was offered a teaching job and knew that there was a market there for him. So the idea of an art that was accessible, that was modern, that told of national narratives, was independent of Europe but still drew on the styles of Europe. It wasn't academic, it wasn't conservative, but at the same time was very independent of Europe. It was something that U.S. artists were trying to forge during the '20s. And then, of course, in the Depression, the idea, you know, the Depression challenged the whole notion about capitalism. So artists began to see art as social art, having a social role to really educate the people to create a different future, a future that was more revolutionary, much more equitable, much more socially progressive.


O'NEIL: Great. And maybe, you know, Marcela, if you want to add to that, but let me pose to you and then to Barbara, as well, so let's talk a little bit about—so they come and they're doing these amazing works and bringing it, how did they influence the art scene? What was it that, you know, that they transmitted? Or how did it change what was happening the United States in the art space?


HASKELL: Well, so, they came, they worked with artists, they interacted with artists. People in the art community knew about them. So even artists who didn't have a direct contact with them were inspired by this vision of an art that was bold, that was dynamic, that told stories that were relevant, that really had the goal of changing the world and creating a more equitable, revolutionary world. And during the Depression, this was very important. And then with the WPA [Works Progress Administration] and President Roosevelt's idea that art, again, could tell a story based on the example of the Mexican muralists. So, artist George Biddle, who was part of the circle of President Roosevelt, came from a patrician Philadelphia family, wrote a very now famous letter to Roosevelt saying that Obregón had commissioned artists to paint the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution, and there were artists in this country who wanted to do the same for Roosevelt's revolution, and that letter really led to artists being part of the WPA project. And in that project, like in Mexico, and very similar, that the idea of creating a national narrative that would sustain a nation, give the nation a sense of identity and purpose for the future, that would show people themselves, tell stories that were relevant, but also give people a sense of themselves, that was more inspirational, more positive in the face of this just terrible economic collapse that was happening.


O'NEIL: Let me ask you one more question on that. And so there's a lot of you can see how people would identify and artists would identify and even Roosevelt with the New Deal and WPA and the like, but I can imagine there was some pushback and, you know, looking around today, we still have capitalism—it didn't fall. And so talk a little bit about, I can imagine some of the ideas that were coming up didn't sit so easily with the patrons or with other parts of society, so talk about that relationship if you would a bit.


HASKELL: Very interestingly, so Rivera went to San Francisco. He did three murals—all for capitalists. He went to Detroit and created an image that we saw in the film, this monumental mural in the courtyard of the Detroit Art Institute, funded by Edsel Ford. And then he was commissioned. He showed at the Museum of Modern Art, he had a retrospective in 1931—the museum was associated with the Rockefellers—and then, of course, when Rockefeller commissioned him to create a mural for Rockefeller Center. But up until then, Rivera was quite happy with sort of this exchange between Mexico and the U.S., it went both ways. So that Rivera came and was impressed with industry, saw it as a potential for the future but also had the potential for evil. That was part of, you know, all of his murals had this kind of dichotomy built into them. The Detroit industry was something that would either be the beacon of light for the future or would have negative effects. Orozco had very little pushback from his murals, you know, they weren't political. As Jorge said, he was never a member of the Communist Party. His murals were more mythic than they were political. Siqueiros got into trouble right away as Marcela had said in the film. You know, all three of his murals in Los Angeles were very political, were whitewashed, and his visa was not renewed after its expiration date. But in the U.S., the mural conditions for the WPA were very strictly monitored. So there was this tension between artists being commissioned, being paid. These were artists that were unemployed, needed to have some economic support, and yet there was always a little bit of tension between what the people that were commissioning the work and what the artists wanted to create. Now, of course, artists that weren't part of the WPA and were creating just independent prints and easel paintings were very keen on bringing attention to the injustices in order to encourage people to fight against them.


O'NEIL: I'm going to ask one more question on the side, and I'm going to go back to Mexico, Jorge. So, tell me, as we've talked a little bit about the politics and influencing that and coming in, how about on the artists—and I mean you have a picture of Jackson Pollock, he's probably the most famous of the artists there that were influenced—but talk a little bit about how the style, not just the political content or the social content, but the style influenced where we've ended up today in the United States.


HASKELL: So I think that each of the three muralists were very different, both politically and stylistically. And so each one of them influenced artists in different ways. And oftentimes, an artist would be influenced by two of the muralists. So Charles White, for example, was influenced by Siqueiros, but also influenced by Orozco. That this idea of a more of a powerful, bold, monumental style that could still tell stories about everyday life, I think, was the essential message that came across and then artists pulled from that stylistically. It's fair to say that the WPA murals were more influenced by Rivera, the kind of illustrational-packed composition, the cinematic quality, the multiple perspectives, the kind of scenic organization, but sometimes it was influenced by the fiery brushstroke, the color, the mythological undertones of Orozco. And then, of course, by Siqueiros, this idea that you could throw away all the conventions of paint and still make a painting, you know, throwing paint on a canvas was something that Pollock learned in the Orozco workshop and obviously became central to his, what we consider, signature style, the drip paintings.


GUERRERO: And again, a couple of other examples, Shannon, and I think that's a little bit of the beauty of the exhibition that the American artists that we're showing, which are in the majority of the artists in the exhibition, are not a one-to-one correlation with the Mexican artists. It's not that you can say it's derivative art. And, you know, a perfect example is Jacob Lawrence, and, you know, the ideas that he takes from Orozco in creating kind of more architectural figures, but showing that through small paintings, which is not what you might, you know, think of someone who's influenced by a muralist. And so, you know, we have in the show ten or several more of the “Migration” series, which was a series composed of sixty panels. And so when you put them together, it reads in that same narrative form and that same sequence as a mural so that's, I think, the beauty in something that our audience, kind of, can take away from the exhibition of seeing very clearly, oh, they're drawing from this, but it's not necessarily an imitation of the work of the Mexican artists.


HASKELL: And one of the things that, I think, in the show is has been very powerful is the idea that the Mexican muralists really celebrated the indigenous population that had been marginalized under the dictatorship. And the idea of celebrating people who had been marginalized and making it a sense giving them an image of themselves that change their ideas about themselves was something very important to the African-American artists, many of whom went to Mexico to work with the muralists but then incorporated those ideas in the murals and artwork that they made in this country. They told stories about their own racial experiences, the history of coming to America as slaves and resisting, rebelling, and then finally gaining liberation was something very embedded in the trajectory of the Mexican muralists who painted the story of subjection, resistance and ultimately, revolution.


O'NEIL: Great. Jorge, let me turn back to you, and you know by the 1940s, these artists were returning to Mexico and they were returning to a much less revolutionary and perhaps a less fervent Mexico and one that was solidifying one political party and a very different political system than perhaps the one that they had left or that they had begun their careers. And so, could you reflect a little bit on their return but also how the new political system that was solidifying use their art in politics and in strengthening this one-party rule?


CASTAÑEDA: Well, there's no question that what Barbara was describing in terms of the, I would say, positive or very significant influence that the muralists had in the United States in terms of having them depict people as they were and having, by definition, masses of people being able to see the murals, whereas a single painting but you can only see it once it's in a museum, and even then, it's not that simple. That was all marvelous. In the case of Mexico, it's more complicated because the system, the political system that emerged from the revolution, the PRI system, the single-party system, began to use the three muralists and a few others, some of which are in the exhibition, as symbols as a way of creating this identity, which was a bit false in many ways. In other words, it wasn't an indigenous identity, it was a mestizo identity. And so all of a sudden, Mexico became this one homogeneous mestizo society with a few indigenous groups in one area and a few European-origin groups in another area, but it created this [inaudible] partly by Vasconcelos himself, the minister of education, who commissioned the murals at the beginning, that what he called "la raza cosmica," and this began to be part of the Mexican system. Mexico is a homogeneous mestizo society where everyone gets along, where there is no racism, where there is no exclusion, where the government gives out land to everybody, provides jobs to everybody. Today it provides vaccines to everybody in the pandemic, etcetera, etcetera. And this became much more complicated because, first of all, some of them of the muralists were not very happy with this or weren't happy with the system. Siqueiros was jailed repeatedly in the '30s and '40s and, much more significantly, at the end of the '50s and early '60s. He spent many, many years in jail. Some of them, for example, for having attempted to have led the first assassination attempt on Trotsky, perhaps justifiably so. It's not nice to go around trying to kill people, that's [inaudible] jail or very often. Diego never was and Orozco never was either, but they began to be less associated with a system that began to be seen, even by them, as very corrupt. Diego ended up in the '50s doing a lot of easel work, and a lot of his easel work—Barbara can correct me, please—a lot of easel work were portraits of Mexican celebrities, movie actresses, tycoons, etcetera, and he was also a little bit criticized at the time for that. Let me just have one single small point about the influence that they had on African-American artists in the U.S. Yes, but there was cross-semination also. Langston Hughes spent many, many years, several years in Mexico during the 1920s, and one of his very close friends, Jacques Roumain, from Haiti, who later lived in the United States and also spent time in Mexico a little later in the '30s and '40s. And there was a lot of contact and that’s between the sort of Harlem Renaissance and these people and the Mexican progressive, either former communists or communists or Trotskyites a little bit later, and the muralists and them. So this was going in all directions at that time.


O'NEIL: I'm going to open up to member questions in just a little bit. So I'm going to ask a couple more questions. So those of you who are here with us, please think about what you want to ask and you can raise your hand. But I want to take us in these last minutes here, in our closed conversation, I want to take us up to the present and ask a little bit about what happened, you know, eighty, almost a hundred years ago, what this may mean or the reverberations we see today. So, you know, Jorge, I want to start with you, and you know, you brought up this at the beginning this concept of porousness and the porousness between the United States and Mexico. And as I look at U.S.-Mexico relations, and I often look at other areas, you know, it's one of our number one trading partners. It's one of the number one source countries of people who live here in the United States. It's one of, you know, there are issues that we have such close cooperation on everything from security to the environment to water to health to myriad other issues that I don't hear as much today or where is the arch? Do we see sort of this vibrancy in this cross-border influence and Mexican artists coming up? Or how is this porousness and interconnection expressing itself today in the cultural space?


CASTAÑEDA: Well, I think it continues to exist, Shannon. Again, I insist on this a great deal in my book because it really is one of the most distinguished and redeeming features of American civilization. And one which is most often neglected or dissed by foreigners, Mexicans, of course, but the French, the Germans, the Brits, etcetera. That porousness is still with us today. It's not necessarily in the plastic arts. It's true that, for example, the great painter and great muralist like Rafael Cauduro, who painted the murals of the Supreme Court in Mexico, the newer Supreme Court, is extraordinary—also very political murals is largely unknown in the United States. And many other aspects by the other artists are also unknown. But you have two main channels, if you will, of Mexican cultural influence in the United States, which at the same time show this American porousness. The first and best known, Shannon, of course, is our film directors. It was Alejandro Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and [Alfonso] Cuarón who have monopolized Oscars over the last five or six years, some with better films than others. The photographers like [Emmanuel] Lubezki, who has won, I think, three or four consecutive Oscars or something like that, and all of their films not only have enormous success critically at the box office, but also in terms of the influence they have. It's not that Americans haven't been doing black and white films recently, before they have, but after Roma, I think we'll be seeing more and more black and white films in the U.S. by American directors. And the other area, which is very important, is music. It's Mexican music or Mexican-Latino music, which quickly transforms into something strange, whatever you want to call it—Latinx music or different forms—but you have people with enormous success in the United States, mainly among Mexican Americans and Latinos, granted, but also in other areas. People like Juan Gabriel, people like Luis Miguel, Cubans, Puerto Rican's like Ricky Martin, etcetera, where you have enormous Latin or Mexican cultural influence in the United States today. So I think, you know, American porousness and receptivity is more alive than ever despite the last four years.


HASKELL: And I think it's fair that in a sense the Mexican influence never ended, that there's been a vibrant street art. The idea that public art is for everyone that it can tell stories about a community about people's lives has begun right after the '40s. And it's definitely continued up to the present. During the '60s you had agitation art, Chicano murals, street art all over American cities across the country. And in a sense the seeds of that was the idea that murals were public. They were for everyone and in Siqueiros's case they were outdoors.


O'NEIL: Marcela, do you want to add?


GUERRERO: Yes, I mean what Barbara said I would stress the continuation of the Chicano/Chicanx population, especially in Los Angeles and in Southern California and they have really continued throughout the '60s and up to today. At the Whitney we had a program a couple of months ago with Judy Baca, the really incredible Chicana painter who did the Los Angeles mural, which, you know, covers miles. She will be adding even more and so that's something that I wouldn't undermine or downplay in any way. I think it's a very important to recognize that that legacy continues from the muralists up to today.


O'NEIL: So now I'd like to open it up to members to begin taking their questions as well. I'm going to go to our operator to give you directions on how to do that. And then we will take our first question.


STAFF: We will take our first question from Welby Leaman.


Q: You noted the interrelationship between the Mexican Revolution and these muralists. That was the Third Transformation as AMLO [Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador] emphasizes and now he is working on the Fourth Transformation in Mexico. Is their art that is emerging with an interrelationship with the AMLO age, with the Fourth Transformation in some way and whether there is or there isn't, what would art that relates with that is useful to the Fourth Transformation and that emerges from the sociopolitical economic context of the Fourth Transformation be like?


O'NEIL: Jorge, that might be for you but anyone can comment in on it.


CASTAÑEDA: Well, let me just say that without prejudging whether there is any reality to the Fourth Transformation or whether it's just a chaotic, erratic, and terribly incompetent government. The important point to make, I think, is that Obregón, and even [Plutarco Elías] Calles in the '20s devoted a lot of money and political capital to the Ministry of Education, not the Ministry of Culture, but the National [inaudible] Institute of Fine Arts, the [inaudible], and this was one of their priorities. López Obrador has practically dismantled the Ministry of Culture in Mexico today. He has cut the budget dramatically. He has faced rebellions by artists, creators who were sympathetic to him at the time of the election, because of these budget cuts, and because of a certain anti-cultural, anti-artistic, anti-creative sentiment that they detect in his attitudes. So it's a very different situation in terms of where culture stands in relation to the 1920s and in relation to López Obrador's government today. Whatever the judgment you may have about López Obrador, in general, mine is obviously very negative, but even among those people who do support him, there has been somewhat of a disappointment regarding his support for the arts and for cultural agenda.


O'NEIL: Let's take the next question.


STAFF: We will take the next question from David Rockefeller.


Q: Thanks very much. I'm with Rockefeller Brothers Fund. It was a great exhibition. Thank you so much all of you who had something deeply to do with it. Especially overwhelming, of course, to see the day after the storm of Congress, just amazing. And it made me wonder, more generally, where is political art of the ultra-right? Has it traditionally been more of the tool of the left in Mexico? In the U.S.? Globally?


HASKELL: Yes, I think it's fair to say that artists are generally more progressive than generally on the left. And certainly in the U.S. right now there's waves of artists that are dealing with political issues over the last, probably, ten years but ever growing. But they do tend to be, you know, the idea of the artist as the Bohemians, the outsider that looks and can comment on society. They're very few, very conservative artists in the field.


GUERRERO: And the [inaudible] that support art tend to be also leftist, if you will, or more open-minded. The ideas of freedom are central to museums, to everything that really supports the infrastructure of art. So I would add that to Barbara's answer.


O'NEIL: Jorge, do you concur with Mexico, that it leans—


CASTAÑEDA: Well, yes and no. I mean, for example, Siqueiros's last work, the Polyforum, which is this monumental, I don't think particularly attractive, sort of auditorium theater—hard to say exactly what it is. But in any case, it's there, it's spectacular. This was done in the last years of his life in the early '70s under President Echeverría, who was one of archetypical, authoritarian, very anti-communist, who liked Siqueiros because it was Siqueiros. But other communists he threw in jail. And he was a typical sort of conservative, authoritarian, single-party president that we had in Mexico for many, many years. Since then, there hasn't been a whole lot. The Supreme Court, as I said, commissioned these extraordinary murals by Rafael Cauduro, which took almost ten years to paint. But that was the court that commissioned them. It wasn't the government. In Mexico, some artists of the last twenty or thirty years, perhaps, have been somewhat more conservative. And since most of the governments have been conservative, there hasn't been really a whole lot of support for the arts. One would have expected a so-called left-wing government, like López Obrador, to do more but at least so far, he hasn't.


O'NEIL: Let me just ask that in comparing the Mexico and U.S. situation, in terms of where the funding for all of this comes. I mean, it's interesting, the story that you see from these big murals is, it was some private individuals, right, the Rockefellers and others. But then it was also the WPA in a way coming from the United States with the government behind it. Where does that stand or how did that change in the time from these 1930s on and how has it changed as we go up today in the United States? Where's the funding coming from for these things?


HASKELL: Well, I think it's still coming from the capitalist class for the most part. But that's what's so different about the street art that really comes out of Siqueiros that this is art that oftentimes is being created by local artists that are unknown, that are just creating a mural for their community but without any funding. The art that we see in the museum, the art that we show tends to be art that is supported by the elite.


CASTAÑEDA: I would add, Shannon, that in the case of Mexico, some of the Mexican elites of the capitalist class, if you like, to use the same language, have been very supportive of the arts the last forty or fifty years and particularly the last twenty or twenty-five. There are two very significant museums. The Slim [Soumaya] Museum, which has mainly his paintings, Carlos Slim's paintings, which tend not to be pertinent Mexican in particular, and then the Jumex or Eugenio López Museum, which is a beautiful museum right next to Slim's, which has all sorts of exhibitions. And the Monterrey elite, the industrialists from Monterrey, have been funding art for many, many years. They have extraordinary collections of their own, but which they make available to the public in many ways. They have their Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey. And they tend to be very generous with commissions for sculptures, for paintings, etcetera. So there has been a change in Mexico in that sense, I think for the better, though, of course, it can't replace public funding in such a state-controlled country like Mexico is.


GUERRERO: And if I can add something, I think your question is really interesting especially for an exhibition like “Vida” that had a vida, that had a life pre-pandemic times and even during the pandemic. And, you know, it was obvious even before the pandemic that funding that the arts received back in the '30s came a lot from the government. And obviously we don't have that to the level that we had it back in the ‘30s. But now, after the pandemic, we know that that's going to decline probably even more, so I know that Barbara and everyone, you know, who's in the arts and who is a curator, you know, we want to establish connections of exhibitions. We want people to relate, to see their lives, to see society, even through historical materials like the paintings in “Vida.” And so that's something we, I think, you know, we want our audience to pose, to think about that question, what is art patronage? What is it going to be in the future? Should the government have a bigger role in supporting the arts? And, you know, we couldn't have ambition that the pandemic wasn't going to happen, but that's certainly a question that's at the heart of the exhibition.


O'NEIL: We’ll take another question.


STAFF: And we'll take our next question from Stephen Blank.


Q: Hi. Certainly a fantastic exhibition, fantastic story. But my wonder now, if the level of cultural penetration into the United States isn't far more segmented, there's nothing like, it seems to me, the national interest in the great muralists. Maybe music, but I don't think so. Mexican cultural participation in the United States seems to be very focused on the Mexican communities, Mexican-Latino communities. I work for companies, for example, for whom the United States, [inaudible] comes. The United States is one of the largest markets and yet it is limited to Mexicans in the United States. I wonder that whereas we think of it today this penetration has to be seen as highly segmented, focusing primarily on the Mexican community and Latin communities in the United States, rather than our broad national interest that was explained to us by Jorge in the 1930s with these muralists. Thank you.


O'NEIL: How do you see that the sort of the fragmentation of influence or can you have this broad influence as they did in the 1930s on the art scene?


CASTAÑEDA: Well, you know, I agree with Stephen and to the effect that we in the Mexican government, the last thirty or forty years, have not really been able to carry out as strong a cultural projection in the United States and mainly a broad-based projection as we would have wanted and that would have been desirable. But there are exceptions. One that comes to mind, and I'm sure many of you who are watching us saw was the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992, "Splendors of Thirty Centuries," which was an extraordinary exhibition with all of the Mexicanisms of corruption and exclusion and inclusion. That's the way we do things. But that said, it was an extraordinary exhibition and it was not directed specifically at the Mexican American or Latinx or Latino community. On the contrary, it was at the Metropolitan precisely by the Salinas government trying to reach beyond that. The Mexican cultural institutes, including the one in New York that helped to sponsor this exhibition, a good friend of mine, of ours, Barbara was presiding the [inaudible] for some time, [inaudible], wonderful job, has tried and most of the cultural institutes have tried to obviously concentrate on occasion on the Mexican communities. In Chicago, for example, in Los Angeles, it's very difficult not to, but also to try and reach beyond that in a more national sense. But there we run into issues of funding, the same problems that Marcela was talking about. They're real for an American government, Mexican government, a Mexican government in Mexico, and a Mexican government trying to project Mexican culture, Mexican art abroad, and in the United States in particular. It's very difficult, these are very difficult choices. I think Stephen is right that we don't do enough and we haven't done it right. But there have been good exceptions like the one I mentioned and I'm sure there are many more.


O'NEIL: Can I reframe the question for Barbara and Marcela? I mean, could today in the art community, could three muralists from anywhere come and have the impact that they did at that moment, given social media and TikTok and fragmentation and the way we digest the world? Could it happen today?


HASKELL: I think what made the muralists so unusual is that they were so fresh. I mean, they offered a vision about what art could be that hadn't been seen before in this country. It hasn't been seen really anywhere in Western Europe, so that it was something totally new. And I think today with all the—there's so much media and global technologies that are spreading information everywhere, that there's nothing quite so new. That the idea that these three muralists would come and change the idea of what art could be, that just won't happen now because there's too much information that everyone already has. But getting back to the other question, it's interesting that in the '20s, the Mexican government actually promoted not only Mexican art here in this country, but Mexican folk art. And I think that's very important. There was a big show in LA about Mexican folk art. It came to New York. There were a lot of exhibitions about folk art. The department stores began bringing art and bringing furniture and crafts from Mexico. And there was this idea, it was called "The Enormous Vogue for Things Mexican." But it was really promoted initially by the Mexican government itself, Obregón, who funded this first show that came to Los Angeles.


GUERRERO: I have a slightly different view of that of your question. I think, there are some artists who I would argue who, you know, they're worldly renowned, like Pedro Reyes [inaudible], who perhaps wouldn't be interested necessarily in having that recognition only in the U.S. or creating those links the way we saw in the '30s and '40s who are more interested in having a world reputation as a global artist. So I think what happened in the '30s was the alignment of many great things that perhaps are not happening today. And that's why, you know, we don't see something akin to the muralists coming to the States. But I would argue that some of the contemporary artists are more interested in having a reputation that is worldwide, not just that conversation directly with the U.S.


CASTAÑEDA: I would add, Shannon, I mean, one example of the difficulty of doing this is the fourth muralist, so to speak, Tamayo, who, I think, of course I'm no expert, but is as talented as diverse as reinventing himself as the other three perhaps, perhaps not as Orozco and Diego, but I think certainly as Siqueiros, and who has painted enormous and extraordinary murals or mural-sized paintings in Mexico, in many places, and in many ways, is a more sort of, because he's from Oaxaca, not from the city or not from Guadalajara because he was, you know, had very important, more indigenous roots to his painting. He fetches enormous prices at Sotheby's and Christie's every year, but he has not had the repercussion, correct me, Barbara, that the three main great muralists did have despite his enormous talent. And the same is true for Toledo. Toledo has some marvelous murals in Mexico City, but somehow the times weren't the same.


HASKELL: But there was such a need in the U.S., as Marcela said, it was a certain moment when, one, American artists were trying to break free of Europe, European dominance. And here was a style that was both national and modern. And also the Depression was a very unique time. I mean, Americans were, you know, desperate about their country. There was a sense of the faith in the very survival of the country was being questioned. And so the notion that an art could describe national stories, that there could be epics about American history that would give the country a sense of the possibility of the future building on what other men, as the poet, John Dos Passos, said that, you know, the country has never needed to know before what firm ground other men had stood on. But also the idea of political engagement, and there was a coming together of so many factors that just doesn't seem now as if it could be replicated but it certainly isn't being replicated right now. It was a very unique time.


O'NEIL: I think we have time for one more question.


STAFF: We will take our last question from Lewis Alexander.


Q: Thanks very much. This has been great. My question starts with Jorge about could you put the impact of the Mexican Revolution on the politics of the United States? This has all made me think about what was the influence in the '30s and put the art in that context? And then for Barbara and Marcela, are there other examples of revolutions that have sort of had an impact on the U.S. through the arts that we should be thinking about in this context? Thanks.


CASTAÑEDA: Certainly, Lewis, I mean, it was a very multifaceted influence and not an enormous influence, because there were a lot of other things going on in the world and in the United States. To begin with, of course, after 1917, the Russian Revolution, and the U.S. entry into World War I, etcetera. There were influences, for example, many of the Mexican revolutionaries, Flores Magón, in particular, had ties to the Wobblies to the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] folks. John Reed, of course, before he went to Moscow, came to Mexico and wrote a lot about the Mexican Revolution and went back to the United States before going to Russia to create the different clubs and write and everything and was very active in that sense. Several other Americans came to Mexico, as I mentioned before, the Mexican Communist Party was founded by Americans. Mainly they were what, you know, people who did not want to be drafted in 1917 and who came and then went back to the United States and contributed to founding or witnessing the growth of the Communist Party USA. So there was a certain Mexican influence, but it was very relative. The revolution was really a very Mexican affair, it had a lot of impact on bilateral relations. Shannon knows more about this than I do, but within Wilson's time, these were very complicated years in U.S.-Mexican relations, the United States occupied Córdoba, Veracruz, for over a year, but that was a different story.


HASKELL: And the revolution in the Soviet Union was something that was very, very much on the consciousness of the American left, the John Reed Clubs was a communist organization that was really fighting the fight for the new future. And actually, interestingly enough, was very negative about Rivera, who they thought had sold out to the capitalists and vitriolic accusations about how he was a sellout and a charlatan. So that I think that both the Mexican and the Soviet Revolution at that moment exerted a powerful impact. The two of them together suggested that there was this possibility of redefining, realigning society. And I can't think of anything that has happened since then and the other revolution that has had the same kind of impact on this country.


CASTAÑEDA: Well, just a tiny conclusion, Shannon, the Cuban Revolution, with its enormous impact all over Latin America, all over the world, and even in the United States in the early '60s, did not have the cultural impact, the cultural projection, [inaudible] that the Mexican, and of course, the Soviet Revolution had despite enormous talent on the part of the Cubans, everyone, until today. Some of the greatest Latin American painters today are Cubans who either live in Cuba half time or part of the time, like Tomás Sánchez and others. But there never was the same impact despite the enormous charisma of the Cuban Revolution, or the sex appeal, if you prefer, in the very early '60s.


O'NEIL: We have reached the end of our time, and now you've heard a lot about the exhibit. So for those who haven't gotten there, you have three more weeks to go. So please go. It is just an incredible experience. And I think especially given the way that 2021 has started out, it's a welcome respite for those of you who are in New York and can go and see something of such beauty but also of a time of great social and economic and technological turmoil that was facing these artists at the time. But in the meantime, I want to thank all three panelists—thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for the Whitney for sponsoring it here with CFR and everyone stay safe and stay well. Take care.



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