We must oppose the Mexico of the Zócalo, Tlatelolco, and the Museum of
Anthropology, not with another image—all images have a fatal tendency to
become petrified—but with criticism, the acid that dissolves images.
Octavio Paz
To conclude this study of how a revolutionary art
became official culture, I once again invoke Octavio
Paz’s critique of the postrevolutionary state’s na-
tional culture project. As Paz claims, the ruling
party’s manipulation and symbolic appropriation
of imperial Aztec culture is what links the Zócalo,
Tlatelolco, and the National Anthropology Mu-
seum. His reference to images recalls the central
role of mural art, and the realist idiom in particu-
lar, in articulating an ideologically powerful vision
of popular nationalism rooted in indigenous cul-
ture to the “peculiarities of the state.” Whereas
David Alfaro Siqueiros argued consistently for a
mural- based alternative to the “Mexican curio” in-
stantiated by Rivera and embraced by postrevolu-
tionary museum practitioners, Paz insists that “all
images have a fatal tendency to become petrified.”
The fate of Siqueiros’s murals at the National His-
tory Museum suggests that Paz was right. Thus,
despite the internal quarrel among mural art-
ists and Siqueiros’s attempts to forge a dynamic
mural practice capable of institutional critique,
the power of cultural institutions, and museums
in particular, to overdetermine—indeed to “pet-
rify”—this revolutionary art prevailed.
Yet as the foregoing chapters demonstrate, it
was not the institutionalizing power of museums
alone that facilitated mural art’s slow shift away
from engaged politics and institutional critique
and toward modernist ornament. It was also the
paradoxical effects of the critique of muralism and
social realism on the part of artists and intellec-
tuals in Mexico as well as cultural cold warriors
without. In their sublimation of politics in aes-
thetics and their mythologizing approach to his-
tory, Tamayo and Paz helped to discredit socially
engaged art in a way similar to that of Clement
Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg in the United
States. Their critique was at once an ethical objec-
tion to the paternalist politics of the postrevolu-
tionary state or, in Paz’s words, the “philanthropic
ogre.” But at the same time, by severing art from
the material concerns of history and politics, they
enabled its conversion into a fetishistic emblem
of mexicanidad. Moreover, neither the artist nor
the essayist was able to think beyond a nationalist
framework. Thus while they attempted to convert
the nation’s traumatic history into a fertility myth,
their vision of mestizo modernity was deeply in-
vested in the masculinist imaginary of the fed-
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