Columbia College professor studies public art in Mexico and the U.S. and finds big differences.
The United States, he began, is a wealthy society with an economy driven by private capital. This, said Digernes, is reflected in the relatively large number of privately funded works of art in public view in most communities, including Columbia, Mo.
Mexico, on the other hand, is a far less prosperous country which had a one-party state for most of the 20th century. The government consistently had a high degree of involvement in the economy, society and culture than did that of the U.S., and this involvement is reflected in Mexico City's striking early-to-mid 20th century public art.
Murals in Mexico aren't like those found in the U.S. Murals in state capitols nationwide, including the heroic murals of Thomas Hart Benton in Jefferson City, often show the steady, stately progress of civilization, with friendly, nonthreatening Indians; brawny pioneers taming the land; happy families reaping the benefits of consumerism; and benevolent industrialists.
You say you want a revolution
Digernes spent a good portion of his summer in the Hemeroteca Nacional (National Newspaper Library), at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, researching student protests against some of these murals. Protests against public art, while not unknown, is extremely rare in the U.S.
The murals Digernes showed are a shock to the American eye: Indians being massacred and tortured by faceless, automaton-like conquistadors, slaves being whipped and branded, dinner tables of bestial, barely human rich people dining on golden ticker tape as they laugh at workers, haughty well-dressed ladies trampling starving children underfoot.
Mexico at the turn of the century was a country in despair. Foreign domination had been replaced by the tyranny of dictator President Porfirio Diaz, and two-thirds of the people lived in poverty. In 1910 a political revolution began and a cultural revolution that embraced socialism and native rights followed. Siqueiros, Rivera and Orozco helped spearhead the government's effort to change the way Mexicans thought about their country: neither European nor native, but an inspired blend of both.
Though quite different in style and temperament, all three believed that art is for the education and betterment of the people, not, as in the United States, a vehicle for exploring artistic whims and abstractions.
"I'm not an art historian," Digernes confessed. "I don’t know anything about art. I am just taking a sociological perspective."
But, he said, because artists live in and are very much part of society, all art has a political context: Soviet posters of a grim and determined Lenin, pretty ladies and sailboats in Impressionistic work, Andy Warhol's soup cans and Picasso's agonies of war alike. "There is no such thing as neutral art," Digernes said. "Art reflects society and artists' feelings. All art is propaganda."
Rockefeller hires a communist
Rivera was also a certified, active communist who painted for the masses. In Rivera's words, he tried to depict "their pains, their happiness, their simple tragedies."
In this temple of capitalism Rivera painted Marx, Trotsky and working men holding a red banner that reads, WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE. The banner also carries messages in Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet.
John D. Rockefeller and the center's leaders were not terribly pleased and had the mural destroyed. Rivera recreated it in Mexico, however.
But Rivera had actually gone easy on American capitalism. Digernes showed a Rivera mural entitled Wall Street Banquet which featured recognizable likenesses of Rockefeller, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan at a lavish banquet table, about to dig in to a ticker tape made of gold. In his companion piece Night of the Rich, well-dressed swells drink and carouse. In the open doorway is a cadre of grim and well-armed men.
He also contrasted Benton's The Opening of the West in the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., with Rivera's depiction of the disembarkation of the Spanish conquistadors in Veracruz. One, he said, was created for a man of European descent and the political establishment he represented to reflect their worldview; the other for the impoverished masses, to reflect theirs. One is heroic. The other is not.
"We don't like to see dead bodies and torture" in our public art, Digernes said. American public art, he said, is often sanitized and wholesome.
A sociological tour of Columbia
No, said Digernes, the wings of a dove. Columba means dove in Spanish.
These works, Digernes said, have no message at all. In fact, he said, their form and titles may be deliberately abstract to appeal only to their benefactors and a highly educated, artistically inclined audience.
"In Mexico, in Missouri or in the U.S.," Digernes concluded, "art represents the social and political system."