Upending Trump, Whitney Museum rewrites American history

A new exhibition changes the term ‘American’ in the phrase ‘American art’, to which Whitney is institutionally devoted.

In this April 30, 2015 file photo people are seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]
In this April 30, 2015 file photo people are seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

The United States of America is at war with itself – forces of xenophobic ignorance and fanaticism on one side, visions of hope and humanity on the other.

On the day Donald Trump mocked the Academy Awards for honouring a South Korean movie,  I visited an utterly spectacular exhibition at the New York Whitney Museum of American Art, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, which demonstrates this.

The exhibition lays out a vision of “America” that underlines, and is determined to triumph over, the xenophobic racism now epitomised in Donald Trump’s notorious call for a wall between the US and Mexico, and indeed between the US and the rest of the world. In the words of the New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, “It offers yet another argument for why the build-the-wall mania that has obsessed this country for the past three-plus years just has to go.” 

That obsession with building a real or fictitious wall around this country does not seem to have ever gone anywhere except deeper into its subterranean xenophobic consciousness. But this particular exhibition does more than turn that proverbial wall into a defiant canvas.    

The show celebrates Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros who emerged as cultural heroes of the Americas, soon after the 1920 Mexican Revolution, as they were busy giving their rising nation a sense of aesthetic self-consciousness, political self-confidence, and moral agency.

What is now being recognised so late in this exhibition is that North America was not exempt from their influence, that it is only the symptom of a white supremacist delusion to link the US exclusively to Europe and disregard its link to the continental consciousness.    

Rethinking “America”  

What is being powerfully and beautifully changed in this exhibition is the term “American” in the phrase “American art,” to which Whitney is institutionally devoted.  

The point here is not so much that European masters like Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp are no longer important figures in American art, and another important trio, Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, are to replace them. The point, rather, is to think of a tertiary place where all these artistic factors and political forces they represent come together.    

Given the long history of the hegemonic assumption of Western Europe being the epicentre of the universe, it is good, correct and timely to bring attention back to the Western hemisphere and look at the US as an extension of its own continental neighbourhood.   

The answer to Eurocentrism, however, is not to opt for another fictional centre of art, culture, and politics. The answer is a complete dismantling of such racialised geographies of human experiences, by way of opting for a plurality of spaces that are simultaneously present and interpolated.  

What animates such pluralities are the shared experiences of people who produce or celebrate these works of art. It is crucial to keep in mind that the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project in the US was a major point of attraction for these Mexican artists. Americans struggling to make ends meet during the Depression were not that different from their Mexican counterparts. Their struggles, as perhaps best evident in the murals of Diego Rivera in the Detroit Museum of Art gave Mexican arts new platforms and perspectives and a larger continental scale to articulate.      

The Whitney curator Barbara Haskell rightly speaks of how major US artists like Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Ben Shahn, Thomas Hart Benton were deeply influenced by the Mexican masters celebrated at the exhibition. This is a good and necessary corrective lens. But it should be the beginning of a much superior wisdom, where the question of “impact” and “influence” leads to a different imaginative geography that does not replace a physical wall with a mental barrier over which artists cross to impact each other.  

Both Mexican and US artists were integral to a powerful topography of aesthetic experiences that had a reality rooted in the experiences of both peoples, and their confluence points to the more global landscape of art.    

Traumatic Realism

In my work on Palestinian and other national cinemas, I have written on “traumatic realism” of certain aesthetic movements that are rooted in national traumas, such as the Palestinian Nakbah, or the Russian, Chinese, Cuban, or Iranian revolutions.

The curatorial insight that the rise of this phase of Mexican art was rooted in the aftermath of the civil war that ended in 1920 paves the way for a reading of a post-war Mexico active in mapping and peopling its cultural history and aesthetic character. 

Their northern neighbours could not have but noticed this cultural effervescence. Soon, the leading Mexican artists, Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, headed north for both patronage and for fresher inspirations.    

It is now part of the art history lore that when he saw a mural of Orozco in California, Jackson Pollock declared it “the best painting in the Western hemisphere”. From then on, he was deeply affected by the Mexican master in his own work.  

The more politically poignant and powerful the Mexican masters, however, the more formal into abstraction Pollock moves. To become “universal,” whatever that may mean, Pollock plunged into vicarious abstractions. Figurative art thus became declasse. But most particularly, as Haskell has noted, is the fact that these three Mexican masters were all Marxist revolutionaries and saw no conflict between their aesthetic choices and their political missions. Pollock’s politics, whatever it was, disappeared into the thick brushes of his amorphous abstractions. This does not mean the Mexican muralists were not animated by the abstractions of their own. It means that their aesthetic sublimation is still in need of theorisation.    

Other Walls More Murals

But it is not just the wall that Trump wishes to build around the US. It is also his role model, the wall the Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu has built around Palestinians that today marks the historical significance of this exhibition beyond its stated purposes.    

On that apartheid wall in Palestine, too, there are signs of life and defiance, the abstract and figurative graffiti art that have become the mirror images of the Palestinians’ incarceration in their own homeland.

For those concerned with a more global reading of the artworks on the apartheid wall in Palestine in particular, the catalogue that accompanies this extraordinary exhibition is of immense and particular importance. 

Haskell’s learned introduction to this precious collection of essays, all richly illustrated, maps out the details of the impact of these muralists on American art in the years between 1925-1944. This period is at the same time emblematic of the comparative artistic movements the encounter had enabled. The rest of the catalogue is devoted to such movements.    

Renato Gonzalez Mello, for example, makes an insightful distinction between Eurocentric modernism and Latin American modernismo. This distinction would not be possible were it not for the comparative occasions such exhibitions enable. This theme is reiterated in the essay on, Transcultural Modernists as Bicultural Bridges, by Michael K Schuessler. We find a similar reading in Dafne Cruz Porchini’s essay, Mexican/Modern: Early Promotion of Mexican Art in the United States.  

Such comparative or alternative takes on multiple modernities, rooted in the aesthetic experiences of national traumas have crucial and much larger global resonances, such as the rise of an aesthetic postmodernity under duress in Palestine. But such comparative spectatorships and theorisations are next to impossible in this country where Palestine is systematically demonised or denied.   

The presence of immigrant communities in this encounter between Mexican and US art scenes, addressed by other essays, leads the scholars gathered in this catalogue to examine the impact of this Mexican artistic movement with non-white American artists, such as the one explored by Shipu Wang in, Picturing m Transracial Alliance: Mexican Muralists and Asian American Artists. The same is done by Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, who examined the influence of these Mexican masters in African-American artists like Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Charles White.  

In these and other essays collected in this volume, we see the active dialectic between a peripheralised artistic movement and a plurality of communities at the epicentre of a dysfunctional empire.  

As documented in this exhibition and catalogue, the example of the Mexican muralists’ points to other so-called “diasporic” arts that have today remained on the sidelines of American experience, decidedly marginalised, exoticised, Orientalised, and thus barred from any fruitful interface with aspects of American art. The combination of this groundbreaking exhibition with a Korean film being for the first time recognised as a best film in this year’s Academy awards, much to the chagrin of the xenophobic constituency of the current resident of the White House, is an auspicious beginning.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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