Artists try to decipher Mexico's new political canvas

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Since the revolution of 1910, Mexican artists and intellectuals largely have identified themselves with the left. So the recent upset in the presidential race here brought enormous surprises.

Many prominent artists and literati - among them painter Jose Luis Cuevas, sculptor Sebastian, and author Fernando del Paso - stuck with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But an unexpected number of intellectuals announced their estrangement from the fading red banners of Mexico's tortured quasi-socialism. Homero Aridjis, president of the PEN Club International; Carlos Martinez Rentera, editor of the cultural magazine Generation; and, most notably, Jorge Castaneda, author of "Ferocious Differences" and a writer for Newsweek, backed the winner: Vicente Fox, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

No matter how we voted, for many of us in the arts and letters the election of the charismatic Mr. Fox is as bracing as a cold shower. No one really expected the plain-spoken rancher from Guanajuato to win, and we're flummoxed by a world turned suddenly inside out: a political right that has promised to reject its traditional religious, censorious, and invasively straight-laced stances, and a left adrift without a compass. Artists and intellectuals dependent on government largesse are at a loss as to how to court the unknown.

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Many of Mexico's most famous artists and writers prospered over the years thanks to PRI-government support. The PRI of the 1920s drew to its bosom artists like Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Clemente Orozco, who founded the Mexican School of Art and shook the world with their monumental murals. Theirs was a time when an artist or writer could unequivocally embrace both socialist ideals and the PRI. This was harder as the party headed toward more aggressive capitalism while sinking into the corruption it once fought.

But by the late '60s, many intellectuals found a place in the PRI's monolithic machinery, comfortable with the liberal veneer of the Ministry of Education and the National Institute of Fine Arts. Most big artists benefited from PRI corruption. Grants were awarded, and a measure of loyalty was expected in return.

Even the far left enjoyed privileges under the PRI, and it's hard to separate the prudish bugaboos they conjure in Fox from the perks they stand to lose. Artists understandably are alarmed by sporadic examples of intolerance among small-city PAN mayors who've banned miniskirts in government offices and table dancing in red-light districts, or censored nude photos and paintings. Adding to the mistrust, two young Roman Catholic men walked into an art show in the PAN-dominated state of Guanajuato last month and destroyed a drawing by a well-known cartoonist because it insulted the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Fox's campaign mantra was "zero censorship." He's made it clear he knows little or nothing of art. "The only things I know how to read are the clouds and the change in weather," he said before his July victory.

That sort of honesty is never bad. And Fox's cultural ignorance may not be our real problem. Unfortunately, artists, writers, and even some rock musicians who are hard-line leftists seem unable to hear the call of change. They've already begun their own witch hunts, mistaking anti-PRI sentiment for blind pro-Fox passion. Some in the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) even recently accused Fox supporters of Nazism, warning the public against those who would "collaborate" with the new government. Unease is understandable - PAN is traditionally the party of a rigid church and a cut-throat business class, and the new president proudly identifies with his family's counter-revolutionary tradition.

It is the artist's task to remain loyal to art's basic dictum: free speech and the liberty to create. Plenty of artists and writers are enthusiastic about building careers in the unknown land of democracy. Leftist hard-liners will have to move aside to make way for those willing to play a part in the new social experiment, be it as collaborators or as critics.

*Felipe Ehrenberg, an artist and critic, is a recipient of several PRI-government grants. He voted for the rightist Vicente Fox for president, and for the left-leaning PRD for Congress.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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