Inspiration plays an important role in art. Its peculiar feature is that no one can understand where true sources of inspiration may be found, as well as to be aware of its results and further growth. All artists are in need of inspiration, especially when they choose politics or social movements as their main topics. The creation of a political message is a complex task that may result in conflicts and ambitions of diverse groups (Pittman 28). Therefore, it requires the evaluation of the current situation in the country, the comparison of past and future experiences, and the necessity to reunify society, offering new goals and visions.
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Muralists are probably one of the most influential groups of painters who achieved considerable success at the beginning of the 20th century. Muralists created their works for the masses who were concerned about such themes as racial identity and capitalism and considered paint as “the only weapon… to fight” (Lefalle-Collins and Goldman 38). Their impact promoted by Mexican muralists on African American modernists has to be mentioned as all these people were not satisfied with current attitudes, emigration conditions, and a historical change. They had to do something for their demands and expectations to be recognized. This paper aims at investigating the impact of Mexican muralism on African American modernists and the idea of social protest as the only means to focus on workers’ rights, unfair labor conditions, and racial prejudice and educate on social freedoms, unarmed demonstrations, and new reforms.
One of the main goals of this paper is to understand the methods chosen by Mexican muralists to demonstrate their dissatisfaction and concerns about unfair and unstable social, working, and political conditions in their countries. In addition, it is expected to clarify how the works of Mexican muralists defined the progress of African-American modernists in the United States. Though this connection is tight and poorly investigated, some works can be rather helpful in discussing the chosen topic. In this paper, special attention will be paid to the information given in such books as In the Spirit of Resistance by Lefalle-Collins and Goldman, The Museum for the People by Pittman, and At Work: The Art of California Labor by Johnson. In addition, it is decided to address the speech by Gary Huck in “Radical Cartooning in the Labor Movement as History” and evaluate the way of how protests and concerns are depicted via cartoons. Finally, the article by Carter helps to create a general opinion about the impact of Mexican muralists and their abilities to represent a revolution.
Each work is a unique contribution to an understanding of muralism in America and its Mexican origins. Though the muralist movement was united under the same goals and visions, Lefalle-Collins and Goldman underline that they “did not follow a single doctrine, did not share the same styles, did not develop the same procedures, did not have the same followers” (9). Pittman’s contribution is the discussion of radical changes that took place because some cultural norms were violated, and a new system of labeling was unfairly promoted (30). Johnson explains why protests and debates were the only forms of communication between ordinary people and the government, introducing work with an impressive weight that may be “akin in gravity to love and loss, life, and death” (xvii). Finally, the chosen material shows how different the forms and contexts of political messages can be, discussing the mythical culture of muralists (Carter 282) and an understanding of political cartoons in the modern world (“Radical Cartooning in the Labor Movement as History”). Each author has a great point to be used in the discussion of muralism and its impact on modernism.
Similarities of Mexican Muralists and African-American Modernists
The impact of Mexican muralists on African-American modernists can be discussed through the prism of the evaluation of their similar and distinctive features. On the one hand, such muralists as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Miguel Covarrubias influenced the decision of American artists to improve the conditions for the Blacks and Mexicans who survived conquests and revolutions. In fact, the idea of survival turned out to be one of the main human concerns in painting, as well as in real life (Johnson xvii). In other words, revolutions were defined as the cause of worries and worsening of living and working conditions. On the other hand, muralists were ready to demonstrate their support for revolutionary ideas because they believed that any cultural revolution was the way for many people to find out their socio-political identity. Muralists wanted to “deploy their images and words to oppose dictatorships, discriminations, racisms, exploitations; the poor, the scorned, the oppressed, the pursued all awakened their sympathy and solidarity” (Lefalle-Collins and Goldman 9). They were successful.
The outcomes of the Mexican Revolution made several muralists, including Rivera and Orozco, prominent examples and inspirations for modern artists who aimed at investigating political and social challenges and concerns. The discussion developed by Legally-Collins and Goldman about why Mexican muralists were politically engaged shows what could unite Mexican and African-American artists in their intentions to find solutions to current political and social problems. For example, there was a “physical and geographical bound” between the representatives of both groups of artists (Legally-Collins and Goldman 9). Muralists and modernists lived in the same cities, with similar traditions and cultural norms being imposed on them by the local powers. Therefore, the work by David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Workers’ Rally,” can be used to understand the past of Mexico, its local traditions, and new ways people wanted to choose in their lives.
New rights for Mexicans were demanded via murals and paintings the same way new rights were implied by the representatives of the New Negro era when African-American modernists tried to prove their rights for education, refinement, and money. The main point is that many non-black artists did not define racial discrimination as a problem but as an already established fact beyond any alteration (Legally-Collins and Goldman 11). Mexican muralists, as well as African-American modernists as their main followers, were not ready to accept this truth. Their cartoons and murals helped to demonstrate their concerns and the necessity to use any possible means to find a solution, even if it included irony, dark humor, or mockery that not everyone could understand. The example of this similarity can be observed in Ollie Harrington’s works and his intentions to promote dark laughter as one of the first true glimpses in African-American life (“Radical Cartooning in the Labor Movement as History”). His Bootsie caused multiple reactions from laughter to tears.
Finally, Mexican muralists showed the way of how art could depict people’s attitudes to work and the opportunities they got. The example of Elizabeth Catlett, a Mexican-born female artist who was raised and lived in the United States, showed how difficult it was to become a citizen and deal with oppression with dignity. Mexican painters and muralists influenced African-American art by the necessity to go deep into details. Siqueiros offered to follow art as if it “has to do with something more than our little aesthetic thrills, it has to do with man and with the true faith of the better man of our time” (Lefalle-Collins and Goldman 13). Mexican artists taught that race and the color of skin should not define the future of the nation in case its representatives can express themselves in the ways they find the most appropriate for them.
Distinctive Features of Mexican Muralists and African-American Modernists
Regarding a number of similar features and powerful examples observed in the works of Mexican muralists and African-American modernists, it is also important to admit a list of distinctions between them. They allow saying that both groups achieved certain results and made the necessary contributions to the field of art, as well as politics and society in general. Some Mexican muralists participated in the revolution intentionally, and some of them became the participants by chance. Still, almost all of them described it as “a very patchy and unsystematic affair” in terms of which the government cannot promote the required balance of power (Carter 286). African-Americans did not want to focus on definitions for their activities. Their main goal was to act and achieve certain results.
The difference that existed between modernists and muralists was based on their attitudes and the abilities to control emotions in regard to the burning themes. For example, John Wilson was one of the most furious and determined artists who focused on a Negro problem and criticized the people who did not want to search for real answers but use available prayers (Lefalle-Collins and Goldman 43). He demonstrated his anger and despair when he observed how many black soldiers had to defeat fascism in battles and faced racism as soon as they returned home. It was not enough for him to introduce a problem. His protest gained the form of open anger and dissatisfaction with everything that happened around him. Rivera wanted to represent the people not as “agents of products distributed in social classes, but as an accumulation of individual citizens” (Carter 284). Mexican muralists developed their dangerous and provocative ideas in a careful way, and African-Americans got the main lessons and improved them by personal interests, experiences, and fears that equality could be hardly achieved.
The impact of muralists on modernists includes the importance of protests and the masses. Pittman underlines that it is not for one group of people to be concerned with their effective representation in the art (30). It is the responsibility of society to give voice to the people who are deprived of something or poorly treated (Pittman 30). At the beginning of the 1900s, not all people were aware of the right to speak, and, as a result, they continued working and following the tasks and demands of their employers. Many cartoons developed by modernists showed how unfair and terrible the actual situation was even in regard to white people, proving that racial discrimination and labor inequalities were two different things. Fred Wright’s cartoons proved that labor organizations existed all the time; the only difference was the names and the obligation to hide opinions at different epochs even if all people knew what these organizations were about (“Radical Cartooning in the Labor Movement as History”). People were provided with a voice, but not all of them were able to speak confidently.
Results and Lessons from Muralists and Modernists
The connection between Mexican muralists and some black modernists cannot be ignored. In addition to a portion of inspiration the Mexicans offered to the African Americans, these muralists and cartoonists were able to raise the discussion of topics that were crucial for different groups of people. However, regarding the presence of pressure on people because of their color of the skin, their origins, and their opportunities, the Black people had to address their racial identities in the shortest possible time. The works by Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros promoted interest in social reforms. However, compared to the Mexicans, the African Americans did not want to wait or find explanations for their decisions. Protests helped to build and share a voice for people who were deprived of something. These forms of communication were not supported by the government and other groups of people who had power in the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, they were not forbidden. Therefore, such issues as social protest and art were combined to present a new approach, known as protest art.
Protest art originated from the works of Mexican muralists and supported by African-American modernists included a number of creative works, the goal of which was to explain the urgency of social movements and the recognition of history and civil disobedience. The peculiar feature of this form of art is that all artists have to consider the importance of knowledge about their past and exchange the experience. Though the representatives of the school organized by Mexican muralists did not have similar goals and did not share similar visions, their unity was in the intention to negotiate “power, culture, knowledge, and rights” between all people, regardless of their social status or job (Carter 289). Muralists, as well as modernists, were fierce and rejected outside influences. Their aim was the creation of a new movement in terms of which they could achieve personal expression relying on public services and resources.
In general, inspiration and influence demonstrated by Mexican muralists are frequently observed in the works of many African-American modernists. Though these two movements existed in different periods of time, their connection cannot be neglected. Muralists proved that protests had to be used to spread visual and contextual messages to all people, including an illiterate part of the population. Therefore, cartoons and simple messages were created. Socialism and the necessity to avoid red colors portrayed the essence of industrial, social, and cultural revolutions proving that the solution of such problems as racial inequality, unfair labor conditions, and human rights was possible through art. However, compared to muralists whose intentions were to support unarmed demonstrations, moral freedoms, and reforms, African American modernists wanted to underline their place in society and make sure their voice was heard globally with all their anger and fierceness.
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Carter, Warren. “Painting the Revolution: State, Politics, and Ideology in Mexican Muralism.” Third Text, vol. 28, no. 3, 2014, pp. 282-291.
Johnson, Mark Dean, editor. At Work: The Art of California Labor. Heyday, 2003.
Lefalle-Collins, Lizetta, and Shifra M. Goldman, editors. In the Spirit of Resistance: African-American Modernists & the Mexican Muralist School. American Federation of the Arts, 1996.
Pittman, Sharon A. The Museum for the People. Common Ground, 2014.
“Radical Cartooning in the Labor Movement as History.” YouTube, uploaded by Carnegie Mellon University. 2011, Web.