Diego Rivera: public art, private museums

The display of Diego Rivera’s artwork in a private museum defies all that it was meant to represent.

Agrarian Leader Zapata
Rivera's murals such as 'Agrarian Leader Zapata' would be better off in Zucotti Park than in MoMA [AP]

New York, NY – It will cost you $25 to get admitted into the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. If you happen to go there with your spouse or partner, that will be $50. If you have two children who are accompanying you on this visit and they are over sixteen, that will amount to $100 – children under sixteen and senior citizens get a small discount. Any other discount, perhaps, for ordinary folks? “Are you with any corporation,” the kind and polite person behind the ticket counter will ask you if you were to enquire. So if you happen to work for Goldman Sachs, for example, will you get admitted for free? “There are other benefits too,” the helpful staff will tell you at the grand foyer of MoMA. 

Now suppose you like an exhibition at MoMA and you want to buy a catalogue of the artist exhibited. That will cost you somewhere around $50. This whole visit of a family of four to MoMA will amount to about $150.

In New York, depending on your income bracket and where you live, that price tag amounts to one to two weeks’ grocery shopping for an average family of four. Yes, there are folks living in New York whose bottle of wine at a restaurant is more than that – but they are among those who get to go to MoMA for free. 

Now for any regular visit to MoMA this is quite a prohibitive cost – but if you were on a special visit to see the exhibition of “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art”, that amount raises a number of serious questions. 

Some 50 million people in the US (more than 15 per cent of the total population) live under the official poverty line, which means, for 2011, an annual income of $22,350 for a family of four. It is fair to say that Diego Rivera meant his art to be for and about these 50 million people. Divided by four, that annual income amounts to $5,587.50 per person per year, divided by 365 days, that comes to $15.30 a day (let’s for the moment leave the humanity at large aside, for there, “at least 80 per cent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day “). In other words, to get admitted to MoMA to watch and learn about Diego Rivera’s artwork, a family of four among those 50 million poor people has to go without food and shelter for ten days. 

The irony here is so rich. Surely it should be easier for an SUV to enter the foyer of MoMA than for the corporate CEO driving it to be allowed to enter Comrade Rivera’s special exhibition. 

A Mexican revolutionary in the heart of US capitalism

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) came to the United States as a principled Communist and a world-renowned mural artist. Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera had painted murals throughout his homeland and the rest of North America. In 1931, a retrospective of his works at the MoMA consolidated his reputation as a major figure in public art. 

Commemorating the MoMA exhibition of 1931 to 1932, the exhibition Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art brought together, after 80 years, five “portable murals” about the Mexican Revolution and Depression-era New York. 

Up to six feet by eight feet in size, weighing as much as 450kg, and made of frescoed plaster, concrete, and steel, there is no doubt where and for what purpose these magnificent works of art were to be exhibited – anywhere but in a private museum that will cost your family’s daily bread and the roof over their head to visit. 

The MoMA exhibition, which started in mid-November 2011 and will end shortly, in mid-May 2012, featured the murals that, in their sheer size and magnitude, reflected the revolutionary politics and the public concerns of the magnificent Mexican artist. 

Born and raised in Mexico, Diego Rivera travelled to Europe, where in Paris he encountered the works of Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir and Matisse. But his close examination of the Renaissance frescoes of Italy cultivated in him a strong conviction in public art, which he creatively connected to the Mexican revolutionary spirit. Turning to public space, addressing themes central to public life, and a deep-rooted commitment to social causes became definitive to Rivera’s art – a commitment decidedly against privatised (corporatised) museum space. 

Starting in the 1930s, as the US was plunging deep into the Great Depression, Rivera came to the United States, where in three locations – the American Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, the California School of Fine Arts and the Detroit Institute of Arts – he extended the domain of his public art into the ailing heart of capitalism.     

The (un)making of public art 

The US ruling elite did not like what Rivera was showing them. In the mural for the lobby of the RCA building in Rockefeller Centre he opted to depict Lenin leading a May Day demonstration. He was ordered to remove it, which he did not. They ordered him to stop working. That same year, Rivera used the money from the Rockefellers to create a mural for the Independent Labour Institute that had Lenin as its central figure. Such gestures were not accidental to his art – they were definitive to it. “An artist,” he believed, “is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels, if the artist isn’t capable of loving until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself if necessary, if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”

With that kind of ethics to his aesthetics, Diego Riviera was definitive to the formation of a national Mexican art as the template of his deliberately provocative appropriation of the public space for a global revolutionary consciousness. This awareness surpassed his homeland, expanded into Latin America, and finally reached the globalised gears of capitalism in North America. He was definitive to the very idea of “public art” as aesthetic intervention into defining and claiming the public space for revolutionary purposes.

The incarceration of these public arts in the privatised space of MoMA is perhaps the most salient reminder that scarce any public space has remained in a city that forcefully evicted the Occupy Wall Street activists from Zuccotti Park precisely because the park remains “a private space”.      

The problem with the Rivera’s exhibition at MoMA is not just with the inhibitive price tag for a visit. It affects the very experience of trying to come to terms with a public art in a private confinement. The compositional power and audacity of Rivera’s “Frozen Assets” (1931-1932), for example, shows the vertical might of skyscrapers overriding the flattening horizontality of the subway cars, all receding in the background of a morgue-like space where the bodies of the homeless are gathered like sardines in a can. The compositional audacity of the picture, spun on the multiple projected cranes, projects the skyscrapers as the alienated space of the capitalist modernity Rivera faced when coming to the US, all punctuated at the very bottom of the picture, where the wealthy New Yorkers are depositing their precious belongings – all during the Great Depression. 

Watching that picture in a small gallery at MoMA is like listening to a Beethoven symphony in an attic, where not even the full orchestra fits, let alone their instruments – forget about the audience. 

It is the formal defiance of the picture that demands a much wider arena to gather and reveal itself. It is bold, brave, angry, defiant, in your face. Rivera had brought his murals home to New York high society, showing them what had happened in the Mexican and Russian revolutions, and what was in the offing in the Great Depression. The whole aesthetic magnitude of that momentous occasion is now formally compromised (and thus aesthetically vandalised), in this exhibition. 

There is something uncanny about watching these pictures at MoMA in the company of the bourgeois gentility of the Upper West Side, entirely alien to the world and worldliness that once produced these pictures. There is no animus in the air, of the sort that Diego Rivera must have experienced – but nor is there any verve. The site of this museum is planets, many moons, and much sentiment away – not just from those revolutionary times and desperations, but also from the fact and phenomenon of life, even as close as those lived by millions of New Yorkers who could never afford to come anywhere near MoMA, let alone to forego two weeks of their daily sustenance to pay to visit their own painter show them to the world. 

These murals are site specific – for public art, as opposed to, for example, Persian, Indian, or Chinese miniature painting that are court affiliated arts – and vastly different also from the bourgeois origin of European and US museums. These things – Rivera’s arts and the art galleries – do not match. There is a false and discomforting proximity to these works when one looks at them so closely. They are, in their very being, indices of public spaces in a city that its citizens cannot even go to a park to demonstrate against the tyranny of the capital that rules their lives without being violently evicted, for they are trespassing into a private space. 

Measures of the common

As public art, these murals were meant to be seen in public, and thus their magnitude and proportionality corresponds to a public space, effectively embracing the public that beholds them, as they behold the public. Neither normatively nor imaginatively, were these pictures imagined in the spirit of high bourgeois museum settings, its galleries, corridors, lighting, and meandering foyers. As public art, Rivera’s masterpieces also implicate a certain kind of casual look, when people are on their way to work – for working and workers are definitive to these artworks. They defy direct, unmitigated, and close encounter gaze; they are simply too powerful to be gazed it. Their spatial presence fills out squares and piazzas and thus, perforce, overwhelms the entangled limitations of a room within a gallery. Diego Rivera imagined his murals the way Beethoven composed his symphonies, when art was leaving the courts and cathedrals and rushing to embrace history in the much vaster spaces of the public. Now some 50 million Americans among them are beyond the imaginative geography of MoMA.

Rivera took his art where it mattered – to the public space, opted for larger than life sizes precisely because he meant for his art to be seen in streets and alleys, in public squares, in the crossroad of history, in the moods and manners of rebellion against tyranny and injustice. When misplaced from a public space into a privatised museum, that art loses its soul and becomes an alienated shadow of itself. 

The souls of these public pictures have long departed from their privatised bodies. They sit there in elegant halls at MoMA like mummified remnants of once a magnificent edifice to the indomitable spirit of revolutionary arts. Capitalism sells everything, even – or perhaps particularly – remnants and relics of once revolutionary insignia. 

Come every fall, as the incoming class at any North American college bids farewell to their parents and adolescent bashfulness and check into their dorm rooms, street vendors suddenly surface, selling posters of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, doing brisk business selling radicalism to the young students to hang on their walls for a year or two before they have to take their studies seriously and get ready for Wall Street. 

For a similar, or perhaps a bit more expensive, price are also on sale posters of Diego Rivera’s “Frozen Assets” (1931), or his “Agrarian Leader Zapata” (1931), or “The Uprising” (1931). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Walter Benjamin, 1936) has scarce been more mechanically reproductive, organically self-alienated, visually vaccinating generations against an ethics of responsibility. 

The spirit of Diego Rivera has long since abandoned MoMA and is now hovering somewhere between Zuccotti Park in New York and Tahrir Square in Cairo – hovering over the Syntagma Square in Athens, Azadi Square in Tehran, the Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid, and the remnants of the Pearl Square in Bahrain – where young artists are plotting the proportions of their organic tenacity between the beautiful and the just. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is scheduled for publication by Zed in May 2012.