The young revolutionary state had need of a sort of legitimization or cultural
consecration, and what better consecration than mural painting? That was
the way in which a mistake began which ended with the perversion of Mexi-
can mural painting: on the one hand, it was a revolutionary art, or one that
called itself revolutionary; on the other, it was an official art. Octavio Paz
Octavio Paz’s observation about the oxymoronic
status of Mexican mural painting pinpoints the
central paradox at the heart of this book: how a
revolutionary art—or at least one that intended
to be revolutionary—became an official art that
helped to legitimize an authoritarian state. For
some, Paz’s words may come as a surprise, as
Mexican muralism represents, arguably, the most
important example of art on the Left in the history
of modern art.1 Since 1921, when José Vasconcelos,
Álvaro Obregón’s minister of public education,
first invited artists to paint monumental works
on public walls, Mexican muralism has been ad-
mired by Marxist scholars and progressive intel-
lectuals for its commitment to popular struggle,
social justice, and radical politics. Commenta-
tors ranging from contemporary chroniclers like
Jean Charlot, Anita Brenner, and Bertram Wolfe
to subsequent historians like Laurence Hurlburt,
Desmond Rochfort, and Raquel Tibol have cred-
ited the Mexican mural renaissance with convert-
ing the violent energies unleashed by the revolu-
tion into an ethical impulse to “socialize artistic
expression”2 and to place art in the service of
building a new, more equitable society.3
And yet, as Paz’s remarks reveal, a less heroic
view exists. Penned in 1978, ten years after the
state massacre of protesting students at Tlate-
lolco revealed the limits of democracy within the
so- called institutionalized revolution, Paz’s self-
interview crystallized decades of his own—and
others’—skepticism about the politics of mural
art and its dominant idiom, social realism. From
this post- 1968 vantage, mural art is neither revo-
lutionary nor populist but rather a cultural tech-
nique in the formation of the postrevolutionary
state and its authoritarian ruling party (the Party
of the Institutional Revolution, or Partido Revo-
lucionario Institucional [pri]). In the chapters
that follow, I chronicle Paz’s implication in the
very thing he critiques. Nonetheless, his voice,
while certainly not disinterested, is essential to
the story of postrevolutionary national culture.
For that reason, excerpts from his most famous
critical essays provide guiding epigraphs for each
The critical perspective that Paz helped to
crystallize first emerged in the 1930s when leftist
artists attacked Diego Rivera for accepting com-
missions from capitalist patrons and a federal gov-
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