Translated to English by Tanya Huntington Hyde
During the fall of 2007, when Carlos Monsiváis visited Houston, Anadeli Bencomo had the opportunity to talk to the author for Literal
Anadeli Bencomo: While discussing some of the themes of your book, Imágenes de la tradición viva (Images from a Living Tradition, 2006), you referred to a specific episode in the history of Mexican art: the inauguration of National Museum of Anthropology (1964). As you mentioned during your talk, this museum played a leading role in terms of Mexican imagery by consolidating what is considered to be the nation’s cultural patrimony. Following this same train of thought, I’d like to ask you if you believe in the concept of “Mexican Art.”
Carlos Monsiváis: One cannot believe in the concept of Mexican art, because in such matters simply being genteel isn’t highly relevant. What I do believe in is the concept of art made in Mexico, art made outside Mexico by Mexicans, art that above all has to do with Mexican themes, and art that a community adopts as its own because of its subject matter, or out of custom, or out of an attachment to something that they believe belongs to them. But I don’t believe Mexican art exists, because it would be as if the hands of an essence could paint, print, or draw… I believe that what you experience, and how, is what transforms custom into national sentiment in terms of how art is seen.
AB: What role do cultural policies play within this transformation?
CM: They play a definitive role. For example, the presence of muralism was felt as early as the 1920s through conflicts generated by its artists, and the way they were rejected by the conservatives. But right when the big international exhibitions began, when the idea that Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, Tamayo represented Mexico came about, at that moment, there’s a change. The national community (or whatever you want to call it) discovers that it likes these artists not necessarily because they like what they’re painting, but because they are Mexican. And from so much liking what they do because they’re Mexican, they wind up accepting that they like it because it’s art, but this is already a longer and harder process. Without the cultural policies of the PRI’s government, much of what is now established would never have taken place. One great advantage of the National Action Party (PAN) administrations is that they don’t understand art at all. They aren’t the least bit interested, and therefore, they won’t impose an offi cial party line. Besides, Nationalism is already outdated, so—all of a sudden—they’d have to sponsor minimalist installations, or whatever, and that disconcerts them because they sincerely loathe art. Thus what we arrive at is a time when cultural policies oscillate between the desire for prohibition and bewilderment at what they can’t understand. But that grand stage when a whole series of painters and artistic trends was working, because behind them there was a government driving them, is over.
AB: However, despite this tendency you see in the PAN government, the official project of the Vasconcelos mega-library was forged in Mexico City during the Vicente Fox administration. What do you think of this initiative: was it a necessary project, or a useless enterprise?
CM: This mega-library business is typical in every Mexican administration, since governments need a monumental work that consecrates them and one can associate with them: the Temple of Diana at Ephesus… but they’re not pagan; the hanging gardens of Babylon… but that would require an architectural masterpiece; the pyramids of Egypt… which can’t be done because there’s no more room in the Federal District and they’d have to expropriate too much land, which would be very costly… So what do they come up with? The National Center for the Arts, which is a disaster, because they never integrated it. Simply put, they’re buildings linked only by the impossibility that buildings could ever run away. They haven’t captivated an audience or created a different ambiance. So then what occurs to Vicente Fox, or whoever’s idea it was? Something monumental, which is then connected to the notion of a Mega-library in the Mexican capital. They’d previously launched a campaign called “Mexico, a nation of readers” which was very interesting, because the day it was launched they brought in a soccer player, an actress from Televisa and a journalist (none of whom were highly qualifi ed in terms of their fondness for books) to promote this project led by Fox, who as a candidate had once told a group of artists and intellectuals: “Unlike those of you who were educated reading books, I was educated cloud gazing.” But instead of taking the next step and forming a cloudiary, he takes on (or is convinced to take on) this Mega-library, which, from the name itself, is truly deplorable. Objections are raised: what’s truly needed is to strengthen the regional library system, and with all the technology and data we have today, constructing a mausoleum is absurd; he doesn’t have to create a library like Harvard’s, or anything of the sort. Yet Fox couldn’t care less whether or not there are objections because, among other things, to him the book is an alien object that, having been denied place in his home, has no place in his imagination either. Therefore he relentlessly embarks on a library with a gargantuan budget of 2.1 billion pesos, a ridiculous sum, in a part of the city that borders on highly impoverished neighborhoods. Forgetting that it’s been built on a freatic layer, which is going to evolve into a situation lethal to books. Then they build a botanic garden that they say, with a generosity that still makes me blush, will be looking good within the next fifty years. This garden will also have dramatic consequences for the books. And then they have a storage capacity for 300,000 books in this megalibrary, none of which were printed before 1980. The entire project is so absurd that I find it hard to believe, although criticism no longer does any good at all. The problem with criticism around the world today is that it doesn’t matter; criticism already blends into the background noise, criticism has no infl uence, it doesn’t determine anything and from so much non-determination, it becomes inaudible. That’s where the trouble begins. Overall last year, thirty thousand books were lost to water: they were damaged beyond repair, because books aren’t used to swimming… The disaster goes on from there until, recently, they had to close the mega-library due to other numerous problems. This project was doomed from the start. I think that from now on, what we need to demand from cultural projects is humility; the era of gigantomachia has passed, because these projects aren’t feasible either in terms of the State’s economic capacity, or the demands of citizens, which revolve mostly around projects that are within reach.
AB: Within this panorama of official gigantomachia and grandiloquence, cultural alternatives arise such as the recently inaugurated museum of El Estanquillo, which exhibits many of Carlos Monsiváis’s private collections. What is the importance of initiatives like this one? Might we say that a different kind of cultural policy is to be found behind these projects?
CM: In Mexico today, there’s enough room for alternative museums, a space that is being fi lled nicely. But this is fundamentally true in Mexico City, with very few exceptions in some provincial locations. You’d have to say that this alternative space also has something to do with the gigantomachia I referred to before, but in a different sense. The museum we’ve attempted (“El Estanquillo”)—and in whose execution I was not involved—seeks to recover a past sustained by personal taste, not history, not sociology, and not nationalist desire. I like prints from the People’s Graphics workshop, I like comic books, I like pro wrestling, I like photographs —both of the caliber of Lola and Manuel Alvarez Bravo or Nacho López, as well as historic photos, photos of Zapata’s cadaver—but everything has to be “vintage.” If not, it doesn’t fulfi ll the requirements of my collections. For thirty-odd years I dedicated myself to collecting and one night, I found myself at dinner with these two guys. I told them what I was gathering and they offered to help me and I thought, well, maybe they really mean it, right? One was the city mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and the other a businessman, Carlos Slim. Both of them came to an agreement, and they helped me with the museum project. López Obrador gave us a magnifi cent site, a neoclassical building, and Slim gave us the profi ts from a record store he owns to help us pay the salaries of museum employees. That was our starting point. This alternative curatorial concept really works, as demonstrated by the fact that “El Estanquillo” was inaugurated four months ago and already 65,000 people have visited it, which is quite a lot for Mexico City. “El Estanquillo” isn’t the only museum in this regard, there’s a museum of Economic History that is doing extraordinarily well; there’s a place called Indianilla Station for new, postmodern art that is also working optimally, which demonstrates that there’s a public for this sort of less traditional museum. However, the museum par excellence in Mexico City continues to be the Museum of Anthropology because it founded an idea, slanted if you will, on a historic trend of tradition and national patrimony. The next museum in order of importance is Frida Kahlo’s, due to any explanation you prefer: she’s a great painter, a woman who suffered, of feminist attitudes. The third in terms of visitors is the National Museum of Art, and then comes us, which is really saying something. The fact is that between the Museum of Anthropology, the Frida Kahlo, the National and the other museums in Mexico City there’s a historic gap; but what the example of “El Estanquillo” shows us is that there’s also room for places that young people visit. The recreation of Mexican taste at “El Estanquillo,” has caught a lot of attention. Now there are going to be ten traveling shows, because there are 15,000 pieces in storage and 480 being exhibited, so the idea is to have traveling shows of José Guadalupe Posada, Miguel Covarrubias, and Diego and Frida—on a minor scale—, because basically it consists of representations of both fi gures. However, this example doesn’t speak to us about cultural policy so much as a desire to demonstrate that taste has a way of imposing itself over big budgets. Taste that requires a minimal investment because it’s popular taste, but not in the sense of being the opposite of Art with a capital “A,” given that what I proposed for the museum was a blend of high and pop culture. Not to set them at odds, but in order to show how they’re integrated within popular taste, because an appreciation for what surrounds us is what reveals its artistic quality.