- Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution
Mechanical equality,Love hate sadnessFor all the letters of the worldHoodlums and presidentsAll write using the same typeface.
The verse transcribed above is "Máquina de escrever," from Losango caqui (1924) by the Brazilian modernist Mário de Andrade. It both summarizes and problematizes the arguments made by Rubén Gallo in Mexican Modernity . The idea is that a political revolution was soon followed by an aesthetic revolution. In Gallo's own words: "[t]aken together, the cultural histories of cameras, typewriters, radio, cement and stadiums present a comprehensive account of Mexican postrevolutionary culture in the age of mechanical reproduction . . . the discourse network that emerged in those years led to another insurrection in Mexico, an aesthetic revolution that was fought using the artifacts of modernity" (p. 28). Organized around five chapters devoted to the five chosen elements of modernity—cameras, typewriters, radio, cement, and stadiums—the book reads remarkably well as a chronicle of the Mexican intelligentsia's love-hate relationship with modernity. Initially uninterested, the avant-garde gradually and selectively embraces modern technology.
But right from the introduction the limits of the argument become clear. Gallo begins his narrative in Detroit, depicting Diego Rivera's murals commissioned by Edsel Ford (1932–33) as a starting point of Mexico's "other revolution." These murals, Gallo suggests, demonstrate Mexican fascination with modernity while at the same time evidencing a lack of interest in "the transformative powers of technology" (p. 11). Both the choice of Detroit as a starting point and the depiction of the Mexican intelligentsia's resistance to modern artifacts contribute to an analysis which divorces the Mexican technological revolution from the political revolution—a separation that seems to be reinforced throughout the book.
In the chapter devoted to photography, for instance, Gallo argues that Mexican "artists of the camera" were not exploring the full potential of its medium until two foreigners, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, started to use the camera in radically new ways. Moreover, in the following chapter, Gallo explores a passage from Mariano Azuela's 1915 novel Los de abajo to make the point that Mexican revolutionaries had no use for the typewriter, even while failing to emphasize that illiteracy was the norm rather than the exception in prerevolutionary Mexico or to consider how much this changed (or did not change) in the years following. [End Page 500]
The third chapter, devoted to radio, promises to be more successful because of the very nature of this new medium and its relationship with the transformative political structure of Mexico in the 1930s. And indeed, the connection between Mexican avant-garde and the new technology is much stronger here, perhaps because radio also fit much better into the political goals of artists in the context of postrevolutionary Mexico. On page 125 Gallo finally concedes that "one reason that radio was infinitely more popular than the typewriter among Mexican writers had to do with one of the gravest problems afflicting postrevolutionary Mexico: illiteracy." But in the following chapter, devoted to cement, he focuses on efforts to popularize the new material via a competition in 1951 to choose the best artistic representation of the new cement plant in Tolteca, ignoring a twenty-year span of Mexican architecture widely celebrated for its innovative use of concrete, from the work of Juan O'Gorman in the 1930s to that of Luis Barragán of the 1950s. Instead, Gallo describes in detail a failed attempt to build cement boats.
Although the book reads well and is based on extensive archival research, it remains unclear to me why Gallo chose to undermine his own argument so many times. The connection between Mexico's political revolution and its aesthetic revolution could have been stressed in a much more cohesive way. As suggested in "Máquina de escrever," the typewriter promoted "mechanical equality" as much as the radio bypassed education inequalities, reinforced concrete accelerated the construction of schools, and photography democratized the access to images...