On the third-floor balconies beneath the central dome of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, two extraordinary murals stare at each other across a great divide. Both were painted on state commission in 1934, by rival artists who opposed each other in every way. Diego Rivera’s work, Man, Controller of the Universe, shows capitalist and communist futures of the industrial mass production system that emerged in the early years of the twentieth century. As Rivera understood, that system had entered a profound political crisis. José Clemente Orozco’s mural, which was left untitled but has come to be known as Catharsis, is also about the effects of the machine on human existence. But here the machine is a power of lust and disarray, of horror and murder – a force of pure violence.
Orozco knew very well what Rivera’s composition would be, and he responded directly to it. Both men had just returned to Mexico from extended stays in the United States, and in both cases their art was informed by the US experience. Rivera’s multi-year journeys between San Francisco and New York included an intense engagement with Detroit, where he painted the social and technological articulation of the new Ford plant on the River Rouge: the prototype of the vast production complexes that would be built during the Second World War. As a communist, Rivera believed that the new machine system could have overwhelmingly positive consequences for the future development of proletarian society, but only if its control could be wrested from capital interests. He reiterated that belief in the initial version of the mural in New York, under the title of Man at the Crossroads. But the politics of the work resulted in its destruction by the patron who had commissioned it, Nelson Rockefeller. The mural would therefore take its final form in Mexico.
As for Orozco, he lived in New York City from 1927-34, where he attracted the critical attention and patronage of the philosopher Lewis Mumford, author of Technics and Civilization (1934). Mumford’s anti-Enlightenment concept of historical alienation beneath the reign of the mechanistic principle is given pictorial form in Orozco’s fresco cycle Epic of American Civilization, at Dartmouth College. Orozco was a humanist whose vision of the future entailed liberation from the factory. His fresco cycle culminates with Man Released from the Mechanistic to the Creative Life. Nonetheless, he returned obsessively to the theme of industrial domination, for instance in the late 1930s at the Hospicio Cabañas in Guadalajara where he painted a gigantic steel-limbed Cortez striding through the New World with a bloody sword. The history of Latin American exploitation by the European powers was condensed in this devastating image. As Mumford wrote in 1934: “War, mechanization, mining and finance played into each other’s hands. Mining was the key industry that furnished the sinews of war and increased the metallic contents of the original capital hoard, the war chest; on the other hand, it furthered the industrialization of arms, and enriched the financier by both processes.” For Orozco, as for Mumford, industry and domination were two sides of the same coin.
I knew nothing of Orozco’s philosophical outlook in the fall of 2010, when I returned to Mexico City for the first time in thirty years and went straight to see the Rivera mural once again. I rediscovered the grand narrative sweep of the composition, which pits capitalist armies in gas masks against wailing women in red scarves, while a central medallion contrasts dissolute bourgeois gamblers to a portrait of Lenin clasping hands with workers of all races (the very image that had so infuriated Rockefeller). In the middle ground, Soviet gymnasts in white tunics stand gracefully in line, while demonstrators on New York streets call for bread and mounted police beat them with clubs, as they still do to us today. Like everyone I was fascinated by the central figure of “man the controller,” an engineer thrust into the future by some sort of dream propeller whose surrealistic wings are decorated with the macro- and microcosmic dimensions of scientific research. Groups of people gathered in study look on at the scene through giant lenses prefiguring television. On the controller’s left, a Greek statue holds a fascia emblazoned with a swastika: but its head has been cut at the neck. On the other side, a similar statue reveals severed hands. Rivera foresaw that the decisive conflict of the coming decades would not be between fascist and democratic culture, but between capitalist and communist economics.
Yet these are all familiar ideas, histories you learn in school. Like a hungry tourist I went seeking more, circling around the balconies, drinking in the other murals, especially those of Siquieros and Camarena. Then I was stopped short by Orozco’s strange and bloody composition. What does it depict? A jumble of girders and gears and metal housings, flames in the background, rifles in the foreground, a man getting knifed, a blade-wielding assassin who emerges headless from some twisting metal camshaft – and a bank vault sprung open, a bejeweled woman lying legs outspread with a rictus of pleasure, terrified faces, scattering crowds… What we see here are the passions of mayhem, driven onward by the relentless power of the machine. As I stared at this apocalypse, then back across the gap at the confident Rivera mural, I realized that the two works were in dialogue, I was sure of it. In the mid-1930s, having witnessed the first major crisis of organized corporate capitalism along with the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, the two artists were looking into dramatically different futures of the industrial system. Rivera’s ideological masterpiece was directly contradicted by Orozco’s premonition of mechanized horror – an image of what Mumford called “the new barbarism.”
The paradoxical thing is that both these artists were right, even while both missed the essence. Orozco understood that the coming decade would be traumatized by the industries of war, whose destructiveness was rising to planetary scale. Yet he had nothing to say about the government of a machine system that had already become an integral part of human civilization. Rivera understood that technological progress would continue beyond the phase of global conflict, offering newfound prosperity and agency to untold millions of human beings. Yet his ideological picture was mistaken: American capitalism, not Soviet communism, would bring postwar industry to its pinnacle.
What I found so impressive about this historical site in Mexico City, so promising and challenging all at once, was the simple fact that individuals with diverging ideas and ideals, real people with eyes and hands and hearts, could stand within a great economic, social and cultural crisis that affected them directly, that they could try to analyze it and assess it, and that they could use all the means at their disposal to engage a political debate about what would happen next – what kind of society would emerge from the crisis. In Mexico in 1934 that effort could be made monumental in a public institution: no one censored it or moralized it. And even though no particular effort is currently being made to communicate the stakes of this dialogue, still the paintings are there for all to see. The public dimension, the absence of censorship, the effort of analysis, the courage to present an ideology and a cosmovision, and finally, the frank disagreement between the two artists, which also bears witness to close attention and mutual respect, all that made me feel more alive, more in tune with the present – even if what I was seeing was only a relic, an historical ruin among so many others.
The question that struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is this: How could we do such a thing in our time, today? Are we not embroiled in a great historical crisis? Do we not perceive the major outlines of this crisis, at the same time as we are viscerally oppressed by the absence of any public debate? Doesn’t the direction that will be taken by our society, and indeed by civilization in the future, depend crucially on decisions that are being made now and that will be made over the next five or ten or fifteen years? Isn’t it high time to begin analyzing and assessing the present crisis, in order to find the means of expression that could lead to a meaningful debate and from there, to political action? But when and how and where to do such a thing? And above all, who is the we that could do it?
This website, and the multiple collaborations and public seminars from which it springs, are attempts to answer these questions.