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  • How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture. Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State
  • Jacqueline E. Bixler
How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture. Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State. Mary K. Coffey. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. xiv and 234 pp., photos, maps, notes, and index. $24.95 paperback (ISBN 978-0-8223-5037-8)

While books devoted to the Mexican muralists abound, most of them are expensive, luxuriously illustrated books destined for the coffee table and the occasional glance. Mary K. Coffey's book merits much more than a glance. The murals of Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, Tamayo, and others are still there in full color, along with the aesthetic, political, and at times personal squabbles that are known to have occurred among the muralists, yet the context of Coffey's study extends well beyond this to include the museum spaces in which the murals are displayed, public reception, race, gender, and and relationship between art and the State.

The author begins her study of Mexican mural art in 1934, when Rivera and Orozco were called back to Mexico to paint monumental works at the new Palace of Fine Arts, and follows its evolution to the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and the crumbling of state authority. She shows how, over time and "through the institutional apparatus of the museum, mural art became a technique of didactic museology and, as such, a technique of exercising power" (p. 20). Following Tony Bennett's application of cultural studies to the museum, she argues that "the political effects of mural art should be sought not only in their representational strategies or through the ideal viewers their aesthetic arrangements posit but also [...] in how they were inscribed within the programmatic, institutional, and governmental programs for postrevolutionary modernization, nationalism, and citizen formation" (p. 17). She also makes good use of Foucault's theory of governmentality to explain the intersections of power and subject formation through the "production of truth," in this case the truth of "Mexicanness," or what it means to be a Mexican. As she explains, "the museum is a truth-telling technology wherein the forms of popular identification are articulated and social conduct is shaped to create citizen-subjects who act in the interests of the state" (p. 19). In short, she demonstrates how murals created in the name of "revolutionary art" became, through federal patronage and through the voice of intellectuals like Octavio Paz, a national icon of postrevolutionary official culture.

Coffey focuses on what she terms the "great cultural projects of the postrevolutionary state" - The Palace of Fine Arts, The National History Museum, and the National Anthropology Museum - each of which was founded with a different ideological objective. She describes the Palace of Fine Arts, for example, as a Kunsthalle wherein the murals are presented as fine art and left to speak not only for themselves, but also for the government under whose patronage they had been painted. At the National History Museum, on the other hand, the murals provide visual support to a particular, elaborate, historical narrative. Finally, in the National Anthropology Museum, the murals serve as didactic supports for the exhibition of pre-Hispanic artifacts and as decorative objects meant to enhance the museum's spectacular architecture and displays. In Coffey's words, these three museums are where "Mexican culture has been codified, historical citizenship defined, and Mexicanness, as a mestizo identity, represented". Drawing heavily on the writings of Paz, Coffey uses these three [End Page 203] museums to illuminate the intersections of mural art, national identity, and cultural politics.

Chapter One traces the history of the murals commissioned for the Palace of Fine Arts (1934) and synthesizes the public, and at times highly personal debate that raged among mural artists over the proper relationship between art and politics. Throughout the chapter, she provides a fascinating comparative study of the murals based on style and objective, both personal and propagandistic, highlighting the process of what happens when purportedly "revolutionary art" is commissioned by the government and installed, forever, in a symbolically loaded edifice. She highlights the role that Paz played in consolidating los tres grandes into one monolithic icon and shows how his criticism of these "sacred" muralists ironically...


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