The Americas 60.4 (2004) 656-658
[Access article in PDF]
Based on documentation of some 300 murals, extensive interviews with artists and residents of Mexico City, and participant observation in mural projects, Campbell describes and explains the changing conditions and modalities of contemporary Mexican mural production. His time frame is the prolonged, post-1968 crisis of the Mexican regime's political and cultural hegemony. The book's title can be read as a nod to Shifra Goldman's classic ContemporaryMexican Painting in a Time of Change (1981)that documented the first aesthetic challenges in the 1950s and [End Page 656] 1960s to the then still dominant "Mexican School" of art, which was deeply implicated in the construction and maintenance of that hegemony.
Art historians and critics have often proclaimed that Mexican muralism died along with Mexico's "three great" muralists: Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros. Campbell challenges this assertion: "The much lamented 'disappearance' of mural art in Mexico after the Mexican School is, upon closer inspection, a visual illusion created by the continued capacity of official Mexico to control the terms and reach of public discourse" (p. 17). Before presenting his research on what he calls the "unofficial" muralism of recent decades, Campbell offers new insights into the familiar history of "official muralism" by showing how mural production both reflected and helped to constitute the post-revolutionary regime's shifting strategies of accumulation and domination from the 1920s to the 1970s. The author provides lucid, detailed analysis of particular murals by Rivera and Siqueiros, for example, to illustrate how "popular" social sectors, their concerns, and identities were subordinated to "national" development and modernization strategies in the post-Cárdenas era. Campbell then persuasively links the regime's embrace of transnational, neoliberal policies in the 1980s to the "generation of multiple localized cultural projects" associated with new oppositional social movements, including new "unofficial" mural practices, which constitute the book's central focus.
With 48 (poorly reproduced) black and white photographs to illustrate, Campbell effectively describes key elements of the new muralism's visual field, including iconography that gives varying emphasis to "local experience and identity" (as opposed to abstract, grand national narratives); a "feminization" of the mural image; "an appropriation and syncretic adaptation of 'national' elements now marginal to official discourse"; and use "of the mural as a vehicle of cultural authority" for oppositional publics (p. 110). The author also describes new mural forms, such as graffiti art and mantas (mobile images on cloth), and new techniques deployed by the artists, including efforts to create a distinctly Mexican mode of aerosol painting.
While the author's passion for the aesthetic quality of the murals themselves is clear, Campbell's interests are ultimately broader and essentially political. This book is primarily concerned with what the new mural practices can tell us about the dynamics of public space, discourse, state power, civil societal movements, and the ways in which "the Mexican crisis is made publicly significant" (p. 75) through cultural production. "The cultural labor of the mural work is political," he writes in his conclusion, "in the sense that it responds to the interests and motives of the social world and aims to transform (albeit in limited manner) the space in which these move" (p. 207).
The interdisciplinary scope of Campbell's analysis is impressive, as he deploys with equal competence diverse conceptual frameworks from political economy, new social movements and regime change literature, semiotics, and art history. Indeed his penultimate chapter presents a challenge to art historians and cultural critics to broaden their theoretical and methodological approaches to include an "ethnographic point of view" (p. 178), or what he also describes as "an interpretive, ethnographic [End Page 657] formalism" (p. 206). Campbell's prose, particularly in the passages that expound on his theoretical framework, can be off-puttingly dense and hard to unpack, and the quality of the illustrations could be much improved by printing them on better paper. But these are minor...