The role of public art in society

Columbia College professor studies public art in Mexico and the U.S. and finds big differences.

Mural by Diego Rivera
Assistant Professor of Sociology Dr. Yngve Digernes recently presented the results of his Mexican summer research in a lecture in Dorsey Chapel on the Columbia College campus. The talk included some trenchant sociological commentary and eye-popping Mexican murals.

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

Siqueiros - Torture of Cuauhtemoc
The murals of Mexico City, painted from the 1920s to 1940s in the Palacio Nacional, covering the entire interior of a government building, an electrical company's headquarters, a library, a subway station or a school, are different. They reflect that country's poverty, socialism and willingness to confront its ugly colonial past in forging a new cultural identity.

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.

Yngve Digernes, lecturing
Digernes, a slim, bespectacled man originally from Bergen, Norway, took the Dorsey Chapel audience for a dizzying tour of this government-funded Mexican public art, especially the murals of the big three of Mexican muralists: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco.

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

Diego Rivera - Workers of the World Unite
And sometimes that propaganda doesn't translate to other cultures. For instance, Digernes said, Rivera, a world-famous artist in the 1930s married to fellow artist Frida Kahlo, was commissioned to execute murals in Rockefeller Center in New York, the epicenter of capitalism.

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.

Thomas Hart Benton – Independence and the Opening of the West
Rivera – Disembarkation of the Spanish in Veracruz
Digernes also showed Orozco's The Trench in which three dead or dying men litter a trench; and Siqueiros' Catharsis, a disturbing mural populated by machine parts, guns, a naked prostitute, corpses and grinning figures.

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

La Columba by Peter Chinni
Digernes then embarked on a public art tour of Columbia, Mo. He showed a slide of Peter Chinni's privately funded la Columba, the brushed stainless steel beams sprouting across the street from the library on Broadway and Garth. What is it supposed to be? he asked the audience. A book? someone ventured.

No, said Digernes, the wings of a dove. Columba means dove in Spanish.

Cypher by Albert Paley
He then showed Albert Paley's quarter-million dollar, privately funded Cypher, the giant, much-maligned abstract yellow sculpture in front of the library. What does it mean? Digernes asked. Does it refer to a hidden symbol, a letter, a code, perhaps the intricacies of language itself?

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."