Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Q&A with Catha Paquette on Diego Rivera

Collaborations during the Great Depression between Mexican communist artist Diego Rivera and institutions in the United States and Mexico were fraught with risk, as the artist occasionally deviated from course—serving and then subverting his patrons. In her book At the Crossroads, Catha Paquette investigates controversies surrounding Rivera’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, his proposed and revised
More info
compositions for his Rockefeller Center mural titled Man at the Crossroads, and the Mexican government’s commissioning of the mural’s reconstruction at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. She proposes that both the artist and his patrons were leveraging art for extraordinary purposes—to weigh in on debates concerning labor policies and speech rights; relations between the United States, Mexico, and the Soviet Union; and the viability of capitalism, communism, and socialism.

We asked her a few questions about her research and the role of art in public and political life.

Briefly set the scene for Rivera’s dynamic relationships with his patrons at MoMA, Rockefeller Center, and the Palace of Fine Arts during the early to mid 1930s—the circumstances behind their collaborations and conflicts.

The circumstances Rivera and his patrons faced were extraordinary—the intensifying financial crises of the Great Depression; the mixed effects of technological modernization, industrialization, and foreign investment; the competing pressures of nationalism and internationalism; and escalating union, socialist, and communist activism. Relations between the US and Mexico, the US and the Soviet Union, and Mexico and the Soviet Union were in flux. Many US politicians and corporate leaders were intent on thwarting communism, but others wished to exploit trade and investment opportunities in Mexico and the Soviet Union. Although workers’ and activists’ opportunities for public speech and assembly were restricted, recent Supreme Court rulings legitimized independent union organizing and oppositional expression.

What’s interesting is that in the U.S., Mexico, and the Soviet Union those attentive to what was politically and economically at stake trusted in the communicative power of visual culture. Competing constructs of national and class identity and notions of social equivalence and difference were kept in play in works of fine art, commercial art, and popular arts and crafts. Also, art museums and galleries were increasingly emphasizing the social function of art—acknowledging that art was a valid means of characterizing national character, history, and experience, including the status, value, and problems of laborers.

In your research, how important were the intentions of Rivera, patrons, critics, and viewers versus the functions visual discourse likely served? How much of a challenge was it to parse motivations and functions?

Intentions and functions are not easy to ascertain, but I felt it was important to explore both. I consulted internal planning documents, press releases, artist guidelines, and the writings of John D. Rockefeller Jr. to determine the aims officials had for the Rockefeller Center art program. For Rivera’s mural commission at the Palace of Fine Arts, I looked at political documents produced by the ruling party, especially its Six Year Plan. In discerning Rivera’s aims at both Rockefeller Center and the Palace of Fine Arts, I considered his writings as well as his artwork—preparatory drawings and completed compositions.

The Rockefeller family, which was instrumental in establishing and supporting MoMA and was undertaking the massive urban development project of Rockefeller Center, had much at stake—investments in Standard Oil, which had assets in Mexico, and Chase National Bank, which was attempting to secure Mexico’s repayment of foreign debt. In an effort to forestall attempts by independent unions and communists to organize laborers, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was struggling to protect company unions. In Mexico, competing officials in the ruling National Revolutionary Party—supporters of capitalist development and promoters of socialist reform—were implementing a Six-Year Plan that involved not only modernizing industry and agriculture but also achieving labor reform, redistributing land, and instituting socialist education. Rivera, who was lauded as one of the world’s greatest living painters, was increasingly drawn to the political solutions proposed by anti-Stalin communists—Jay Lovestone in New York and Leon Trotsky.

While their aims and interests were complex, Rivera and his patrons each desired change—either restoration, reform, or dramatic transformation in public and private policies. They believed art, exhibitions, and commissions had the potential to effect that change. But exhibitions and commissions were a challenge because each aimed to speak through the other. In giving voice to the artist, officials at MoMA, Rockefeller Center, and the Palace of Fine Arts hoped themselves to be heard; in fulfilling art commissions, Rivera aimed to speak both for himself and the groups he was aligned with and to test institutional restrictions on art imagery and ideational content.

It was fascinating to see how often art images and transactional documents were ambiguous, not in the sense of indiscernibility but equivocation. I argue such ambiguity as strategic. Rivera and his patrons wielded strategic mixes of clarity and equivocality in their efforts at collaboration and exploitation.

In ascertaining the functions that artwork and acts of patronage and censorship served, I was primarily interested in the degree to which they promoted notions of national, racial, and class equivalence, made possible political alignment on public and private policies, and brought pressure to bear on legislative and judicial initiatives. While I conclude that the aims of neither the artist nor his patrons were fulfilled, I propose that Rivera’s imagery and the groundswell of protests against censorship of his Rockefeller Center mural were integral to a broad array of oppositional pronouncements concerning labor rights, which culminated in important legislation, congressional action, and judicial rulings.

At the center of your study are images of workers and the political functions these representations served. Were labor unions able or interested in shaping how they were visually represented?

The working class was crucial for all parties, those advocating the reform of capitalism, the adoption of socialism, and the institution of communism. Because it was a targeted audience, the image of the worker became an indispensable icon. Rivera and his patrons were all interested in infusing images of workers and work itself with symbolic meaning.

Communists in the Soviet Union and the US were initially interested in facilitating creation of global “proletarian” art—images by workers of working conditions, oppressive labor relations, and “revolutionary” action. Communists and sympathetic leftists involved with New York’s John Reed Club initially organized art classes and exhibitions at workers’ clubs. But they eventually concluded that leftist middle-class artists and writers were better suited to the task. The question of how individual workers responded to these efforts to train them in art warrants further investigation; the challenge lies in securing evidence.

Given the current political climate between the U.S. and Mexico, and between the U.S. and Russia, is it conceivable that governments still “trust in art’s ability to fulfill urgent aspirations for change”?

Images, words, and actions still matter. Entities in the public and private sectors continue to leverage visual culture in their efforts to defend and challenge the status quo. Art exhibitions and commissions remain important means of communication. Thanks to desktop and mobile technology, visual and textual information can be circulated through a variety of social media. But, as always, equivocation abounds. So questions concerning functions and consequences are generally at issue.

Given your research findings, what further study would you like to see?

I mention in my conclusion that circumstances today somewhat parallel those of the 1930s. There are debates about the role of artists and the function of art, the impact of global capitalism, the benefits and risks of science and technology, the needs and speech rights of workers, and the nature of national, racial, class, and gender identities. I think it’s important to investigate the broad range of declarations about these issues—the varied meanings of images, words, and actions. Also, who is now able to speak publicly and give voice to others? What is said and not said? Do possible meanings and interests converge or diverge? In the case of identity constructs, is social equivalence or difference intimated? How is censorship perpetuated and challenged? And ultimately what impact does speech—artistic and otherwise—have on coalitional efforts and relations of power?

No comments:

Post a Comment