an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

The Artist and the State: Mexico and “Engineers of the Soul”

Advocating a more “civilized” United States – and simultaneously fighting a cultural Cold War — John F. Kennedy implausibly proclaimed that only “free artists” functioning in “free societies” could produce important art. In the same breath, Kennedy denied the legitimacy of political art. Delivering words written by Arthur Schlesinger, he maintained:

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. . . . In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not [as Stalin put it] ‘engineers of the soul.’ It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.”

This breathtaking assertion was doubtless aimed at the Soviet Union and its “enslaved” writers, composers, and film-makers. Notoriously, Kennedy had no ear for music – perhaps he was deaf to the achievements of Shostakovich. But he was a reader and thinker. Could he possibly have been unaware of the historic Soviet cultural eruption of the 1920s? Of, for instance, the seminal ideological film-makers Eisenstein (Potemkin), Pudovkin (Mother), and Dovzhenko (Earth)?  Well, the USSR was the enemy. 

But what about Mexico? The Kennedy Administration had ceremoniously initiated an Alliance for Progress with the nations of Central and South America, dedicated to fresh efforts at respectful understanding and support. How did Mexico’s artists and intellectuals respond to a cultural Cold War propaganda campaign impugning political art as false and craven?

Mexico’s towering twentieth century muralists were nothing if not “engineers of the soul,” intent on igniting social and political change. And its towering composer — Silvestre Revueltas, long championed by PostClassical Ensemble – was surely the most formidable political composer of concert music produced in the Western hemisphere. 

Revueltas also scored the iconic film of the Mexican Revolution – Redes (1936), with hypnotic cinematography by one of countless artists on the left for whom Mexico was a cultural magnet: Paul Strand. PostClassical Ensemble’s Naxos DVD of Redes, with Revueltas’s score newly recorded by PCE led by Angel Gil-Ordonez, has been hailed in Mexico and Spain as a landmark achievement. And our latest More than Music” film – “Redes Lives!” – explores the pertinence of Redes today.

Redes espouses revolutionary change from below — and yet, as the historian John Tutino explains in our film, was supported by the Mexican government. Certainly one lesson Redes imparts is that, pace John Kennedy, enduring art can be both aesthetically bold and potently political. In fact, a recent sequel “More than Music” zoom chat took as its topic “The Artist and the State.” We explored the reasons Mexico, historically, has been a home to political art — and why the US has not.

We began with an 18-minute presentation – which I have shared above — by the inimitable Gregorio Luke, who brilliantly summarized the achievements of the three iconic embodiments of Mexican mural artistry: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. As Gregorio notes, their art espoused views both aligned with the state and critical of it. But all three practiced a popular, populist, public art bristling with hortatory political content.

Of Rivera, Gregorio states, ‘”Never before had an artist been able to [so] change the way Mexico saw itself and how Mexico was seen by the rest of the world.” If Rivera swung from the left, Orozco’s was a critical voice mistrustful of all ideologies, for whom the swastika, the hammer and sickle, and the cross were quite visibly consigned to “the same trashcan.”

I especially recommend Luke’s riveting treatment of Siqueiros, a Communist who notoriously attempted to kill Leon Trotsky. He was also “one of the most influential artists in the United States, even though nobody knows that.” Gregorio is referring not only to Sequeiros’s tutelage of Jackson Pollack, but his influence on the heroically proportioned renderings of proletarian heroes by Marvel Comics and Walt Disney. He was also the victim of a “deliberate [US] policy to destroy the Mexican school of art.” He denounced modernists for whom visual art became an “intellectual game between artists and wealthy collectors.”

In our chat, John Tutino memorably argued that the Mexican muralists were part of a centuries-old tradition of instructive public art beginning with the art and artifacts of the Mexican Catholic Church. The entire conversation dramatized disparities in the role of the artist in Mexico versus the US. It is no wonder that Aaron Copland, upon discovering Mexico in the thirties, wrote: “I was a little envious of the opportunity composers have to serve their country in a musical way. When one has done that, one can compose with real joy. Here in the U.S. A. we composers have no possibility of directing the musical affairs of the nation – on the contrary, I have the impression that more and more we are working in a vacuum.” Two decades later, William Faulkner opined that “the artist has no more actual place in the American culture of today than he has in the American economy of today, no place at all in the warp and woof, the thews and sinews, the mosaic of the American dream.” As President Kennedy said: “It may be different elsewhere.”

I explored the vexed relationship between the arts and the American national experience in a couple of earlier More than Music blogs:

“The Arts in America — Is the Pandemic a Perfect Storm?” — click here

“The New Deal, the Arts, and Race” — click here

More than Music will return to this topic when we consider Copland the populist in November. Coming up next: “Dvorak’s New World Symphony — A Lens on the American Experience of Race” (streaming September 13). The sequel zoom chat on September 23 will incude comments from students at Howard University, where More than Music films are being used in remote classroom instruction — to sign up for the chat, register here.

PostClassical Ensemble’s More than Music films, and related blogs, may be accessed here.

More than Music is PCE’s distinctive response to the pandemic. Rather than streaming concerts, we are turning our past concerts, CDs, and DVDs into documentary films. This initiative comes easily, because our concerts are cross-disciplinary and tell stories. That orchestras should behave as “humanities institutions” (as museums do) is my diehard conviction, and never more so than today.

an ArtsJournal blog