PRINT October 1989


the Art of the Monument

READERS WHO WANT A GUIDE to the Aztec or Mayan ruins that the title Mexican Monuments may connote should not buy this book. For the contributors to this volume, the Aztec and Maya are by definition not Mexican but pre-Hispanic. Mexican monuments draw on the idioms of pre-Hispanic art (the giant head, the decorated pedestal, the pyramid shape) but can only refer ironically to these motifs of a distant past. Tourists will be disappointed, but readers interested in the situation of nations like Mexico or in questions about public art will not. Although written in an entertaining tone that is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, this book addresses serious questions: it not only reveals how monuments function within the “given political rhetoric” of Mexico but also highlights questions about public art, whether in the first or third world.

Many of the monuments reproduced and described in Mexican Monuments are the equivalent of Polish jokes told by intellectuals about Mexican life and politics. A section called the “Juárez ldentikit” tells us how to recognize among thousands of monuments those that portray the rugged Indian features of the Father of the Country: like Paul Simon, he can be recognized, when all else fails, by his bow tie. A section called the “ Hidalgo ldentikit” performs the same function for Father Hidalgo, the Mexican equivalent of Paul Revere: he wears a cassock, has flowing hair, and carries either a broken chain or the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Another section collects the massive heads so typical of Mexican sculpture; the caption to a photograph of a monument that lines up Juarez, Hidalgo, and Carranza wryly notes that “they died violently, but not by decapitation.”

This book is hugely funny, sometimes belly-laugh funny. And its humor reflects one authentic tone of the third world today: it is self-deprecating but also bitter humor, a candy-coated lemon slice offered to first world audiences. Yes, Mexicans are crazy, mixed up, and sometimes tasteless, these writers seem to say, spending millions on monuments where monuments can only be ironic—Progress and Hope at the gates to slums; but you have made them this way and your laughter resembles theirs—it is at yourself, and also against yourself.

As a commentary on third world life intended for first world readers, the book makes points similar to Octavia Paz’s in The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1961, or Edward Said’s in Orientalism, 1978: the West has created Others in such a way as to endanger Others’ ability to create themselves. As Paz puts it, Mexican men, beneath their macho, perceive themselves as “los hijos de la chingada,” sons of violated women; the national ethic then becomes (as Carlos Fuentes says in The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1964) “to screw” (chingar) others before they can “screw” you. Mexican Monuments thus illustrates an important truth about the global culture celebrated by writers such as Marshall McLuhan and James Clifford; but it pinpoints the painful self-loathing of third world citizens in the global culture, a self-loathing to which first world intellectuals like McLuhan and Clifford are too often blind.

Some of the perspectives Mexican Monuments offers are undeniably most relevant to what we in the West like to call “developing” nations. Mexican monuments provide “irrefutable evidence of the advent of the nation’s maturity . . . a definition of the governmental power that made [them] possible.” In the context of Mexican history, with its colonial past and postcolonial betrayals and counter-betrayals, certain figures are government approved for monumental statues and others are forbidden: Juárez, Hidalgo, Villa, and Cuauhtémoc (an Aztec warrior), ; Cortés, no. The statues, intended to certify national identity, instead reveal the precariousness of that identity by eliding the traumas of colonization. In Europe and the United States, there are subjects that monuments tend to avoid (e.g., slavery, the Watergate scandal) but there are no precise equivalents for the wholesale censoring of history to which historical monuments in Mexico must be committed. Imagine for a moment that Hitler had overrun Britain and the United States and that the Reich had lasted not quite a thousand years but more than one-third that long. Then imagine that the liberated Anglo-Saxon powers, after centuries of being “screwed” by the Nazis, became addicted to monuments that skipped from Roosevelt and Churchill to the petty elected officials of the year 2341. That is roughly the political situation commemorated by Mexican monuments.

For all the richness of the information it conveys about the third world today, however, Mexican Monuments is not just about the third world or the specific part of the third world that rests “south of the border.” It raises questions about public art that are far more general. What, for example, is the difference between a sculpture and a monument? How do civic monuments draw on and transform the idiom of religious statuary? Who pays for public monuments and why? What is the proper relation of art and landscape, statue and base? What is the necessary scale of monuments: grand and impersonal (the usual choice of government-funded projects) or small and intimate (the usual choice of towns commemorating local heroes)? Can a monument be spontaneous? Can a monument be defaced if such is the public will? Such questions are as relevant along Grand Army Plaza as along the Paseo de la Reforma, as relevant in Central Park as in Chepultepec Park. This book asks astute esthetic and political questions. Indeed, in relation to monuments, it shows how the political cannot be separated from the esthetic.

Mexican Monuments is dedicated to the proposition that there’s an enormous (often quite literally enormous) amount of folly in public art, and to the proposition that public art is more likely to include the bad than the good, the ugly than the beautiful. It also slyly insinuates that the reproduction of monuments commemorating the same figures and events demonstrates how “excessive recall is but a facet of oblivion,” in that the repetition of certain subjects and the omission of others prevents us from really thinking at all. But this collection of photographs and essays is finally motivated both by love and by a hope sometimes only thinly veiled.

The love is for Mexico, whatever its political past, and for the scraps of beauty occasionally to be found in the massive official commissions. The hope is that monuments sometimes, and often in spite of themselves, achieve something authentic: the “graceful” proportions one contributor finds in the base that holds a bust of a hard working local doctor; the “alive,” multicolored, art-deco gilt of the polychromatic concrete favored by the lower classes and isolated towns rather than by the middle classes and the national government; the “lovely” decorations on certain monuments, which are “lovely” because they successfully evoke the geometric stylization of pre-Hispanic art. The adjectives here are the contributors’ own—and they are not ironic. For the contributors to Mexican Monuments are in love with Mexican folk culture, though at odds with official Mexico.

Mexican Monuments, like Mexican monuments themselves, yearns for a past that is separated from the present by a gap of centuries. Its strength is that it knows both the source and pointlessness of that yearning, and that it works ruthlessly with the materials and monuments at hand.

Marianna Torgovnik is professor of English and associate chair of the English Deportment at Duke University. She is the author of Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modem Lives, forthcoming in 1990, on issues of first world perceptions of other peoples.