Cultural engineering

How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State
Mary K Coffey
2012, Duke University Press
248 pages, plates

IF THIS BOOK does not quite live up to the promise of the cover, blurb and high production values, lapsing rapidly into a dense, often excessively theorised treatise that at times reads like an unmastered PhD thesis, it nonetheless addresses a fascinating topic and the reader is left in no doubt about the writer’s expertise in the matter of Mexican mural art.

Mary Coffey sets out to examine the transition of muralism from a radical, revolutionary art form into a tool of official cultural policy and its incorporation within public museums, becoming an instrument of state propaganda as the monster of institutionalization ate the great revolution’s children.

This is a very valid and serious object of study, and Coffey provides a rich, nuanced understanding of the works that she examines – from the social realism and drama of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera to the Bahaus abstraction of Mathias Goeritz. She explores how muralism was institutionalised through museum practice between 1934 and the 1960s, the ideological processes at work, and the implications of this for the art form.

Had it been a straightfoward, linear historical account of this process and an explanation for the uninitiated reader of the mechanisms at work – not least the changing relationships between artist and patron (ie state) – then this title would have been a winner. But sadly the writer applies far too much paint to make the point – losing no opportunity to remind us of her comprehensive knowledge of Mexican muralism – and the central focus of the book is blurred as a result. There are some beautiful images in this volume, but too few in relation to the textual content: the reader is pinned down so comprehensively by the tight, detailed academic prose that at times it is hard to breathe, let alone look up at the artwork.

Part of the problem may have been the decision to structure the book around the writing of Octavio Paz and to explore the work of both Roger Bartra and Néstor García Canclini – equally impenetrable cultural theorists who get routinely lost in the labyrinth of their own vast intellects, to the great detriment of those who wish to learn from them. The point being: sometimes you can just be too clever for words. You must remember at all times who you are writing for ie people who know less about a subject than you do. Paz was a great poet, for sure, but one of the great problems in Mexican nationalist historiography is how his rarefied, literary vision of mestizaje has left an indelible and disproportionate imprint on just about every subsequent attempt to rationalise it. Bartra himself uses Paz’s metaphor as the axis for his seminal work, The Cage of Melancholy. And cultural policy remains only one way in which to explore the nationalist condition, and in a country like Mexico will always be shaped in intellectual terms by the vast gulf that exists between a tiny, privileged intellectual elite and the sprawling mass of society.

That said, Coffey clearly has a passion for Mexican murals and her enthusiasm is splashed across every page of How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture. She has identified, and enlightened us about, the central paradox of muralism – its incorporation into an authoritarian project far removed from its revolutionary origins – even if the same could be said of almost every aspect of cultural production as well as of political and social relations.

We come away educated and enlightened, albeit with a bit of a headache. And the author provides us with some fascinating insights here and there, not least into the work of the great maverick José Luis Cuevas, a bitter critic of propaganda for profit who, for those who really wish to understand Mexican art, offers an ideal point of departure.