Model Prospectus from a First-Year Student

Stephanie Henderson

During the 1930s, in an attempt to provide jobs for the unemployed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a series of programs that funded the arts in the United States. This was not the only artistic revelation of the decade; it was also at this time that the three great muralists of Mexico came to paint in the United States, while several American artists crossed into Mexico. Yet this Depression-era art support also saw the destruction of two murals painted by one of “los tres grandes,” the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. One of these, Street Meeting, was Siqueiros’ first mural in the United States, in which he began to experiment with new techniques. The other, Tropical America, was both technically and stylistically innovative, and yet was whitewashed twice in the time after its completion. The reason: the mural, with its centerpiece of a crucified indigenous man beneath an American eagle, was perceived as both anti-U.S. and Communist. Current literature focuses primarily on interpretation of this mural, and, since it has been badly damaged both by time and its dual whitewashings, on issues of conservation. Many scholars have also striven to place Tropical America in the broader context of both Siqueiros’ career and the Mexican mural movement in general. They have argued that Siqueiros’ use of modern technology, such as airbrushing and cement, marked not only a pivotal point in his work, but a departure from the traditional techniques of muralism. However, the technique was not the only revolutionary aspect of the mural; the subject has also been described as “the final affirmation of the break with “folklorism” and “picturesqueness” which started with his murals in the National Preparatory School in Mexico” (Goldman 324). This “folklorism” is perhaps the mural movement’s most prevalent theme, but in this particular mural it is exchanged for a scene of violent domination. My intention is not to attempt a detailed interpretation of the mural’s content, nor to argue of its relevance with regard to Siqueiros’ artistic career or the mural movement as a whole. However, those arguments provide a foundation for another course of research that has been neglected by current literature. Although Tropical America has been placed within the context of Siqueiros’ life and ideology, within the mural movement and its expression of both stigmatized and governmentally-sanctioned sentiments, there has been little discussion of the manner in which it functioned in the network of ideas that crossed back and forth across the border between Mexico and the United States, and the reception of those ideas on either side of the border.

While it has been said that the mural was whitewashed because of its political ideology, it has not been fully explained whether it was the government or the people who truly generated the demand for this action. This question is further complicated given the harsh treatment of migratory Mexicans in Los Angeles at that time. Thus, even if the mural was expunged as a result of pressure within the community, it is necessary to clarify whether the pressure came from the entire community, including Mexican-Americans, or whether it arose solely from participants in the dominant narrative.

Both of these questions relate to the interaction between ideology and community, as ideology travels across borders, and is either accepted or rejected by the local communities to which it is transported. However, in an interconnected world, the local is inseparable from the global, as political pressure between nations influences the policies of governments and, in turn, alters the pressures those governments exert upon their citizens. As can be seen with the policies of the Mexican government after the revolution, art can become a powerful medium for expressing political sentiments and presenting ideas to the public. So long as it continues in the ideological vein approved by the government, art can be accepted and even applauded; it is only when art removes itself from the dominant discourse of ideology that censorship replaces patronage, either on the community or the national level.

Based on the information I have gained from studying photographs of the mural, newspaper articles from the Los Angeles Times, and scholarly books and articles concerning the three great Mexican muralists, it is clear that government of support of the arts is highly influenced by the awareness of its capacity for promoting ideologies, and is often contingent on governmental approval of ideological content. My hypothesis, in studying Tropical America, is that during the 1930s, certain ideologies were taboo not only within countries, but across borders, and that both governments and communities attempted to bar their expansion partially through the control of art. The confluence of government and community can be seen especially clearly through the muralism propagated by Siqueiros and his contemporaries, since outdoor murals, in being constantly visible to the entire community, become part of community life in a way that other art forms do not. The acceptance of their ideologies is thus policed with particular care in order to enforce the continued dominance of certain ideologies and even, through those ideologies, of specific power relations.

However, in order to better understand the nature of community sentiment in response to the Siqueiros mural, I need to continue my research, particularly with regard to primary sources. The articles of the L.A. Times, while intriguing as a representation of community sentiment, cannot be assumed to represent the minority voices of the Los Angeles Mexican community. In order to gain a better understanding of both Mexican and Mexican-American perspectives, I intend to research periodicals produced by these groups. I also intend to consult the interviews conducted with both Siqueiros and other members of the art community, as well as the writings of Siqueiros himself. If possible, I hope to obtain access to governmental records of Siqueiros’ political treatment in both the United States and Mexico, which would allow me to ascertain the official reasons for his ultimate rejection by both administrations. Finally, but by no means least important, I intend to visit Olivera Street in Los Angeles to see the place where Siqueiros painted Tropical America. There is currently no viewing platform for the public, but the visit may serve to help me gain an understanding of the space in which he worked, and may also permit me to see firsthand the damage inflicted on the mural that is and was both local and international—painted on American soil, defined using Mexican symbolism, and dedicated to the Mexican-American community of Los Angeles.