A New Yorker running a major art musem in Mexico City has become the center of a controversy over just how Mexican modern Mexican art should be. While questions of nationalism in art are considered unacceptably chauvinistic in Paris or New York, they remain a topic of often intense debate in Mexico and other third-world countries which are struggling to establish or maintain their own cultural identities.
The target of Mexico's offended cultural nationalists is Robert Littman, director of the Rufino Tamayo Museum, one of the city's two major modern-art museums. His appointment as director more than a year ago set off a storm among Mexicans who thought it unconscionable that a foreigner, much less a North American, be appointed as director of a major Mexican cultural institution.
A recent show of 17 young Mexican artists organized by Mr. Littman at the Museum has only intensified the controversy over his appointment. Substantial numbers of this city's cultural elite judged the show to be lacking in the essential elements which blend mysteriously to make up a ``truly Mexican'' exhibit.
The show's perceived lack of a Mexican essence was not apparent to this foreign observer. Of the 17 artists shown, at least three dealt with specifically Mexican subject matter drawn from Mexican history and folklore. Several more seemed very ``Mexican'' in their color and imagery. Several, however, had styles which are evident on the walls of art centers throughout the Western world.
Ever since the 1840s when approximately half of Mexican territory was ceded to the United States, Mexican feelings of nationalism have been principally directed against the US. However, cultural anti-Americanism comes from more than merely political reasons. Since the 1950s, Mexico has been inundated by successive waves of cultural Americanization. Jeans have replaced serapes. A massive influx of US tourists has created and perpetuated the market for cheaply made, inexpensive Mexican souvenirs and Kent ucky Fried Chicken reigns supreme.
Many Mexicans, especially more educated Mexicans, resent these developments. They feel that an extremely rich national culture is being eroded and cheapened by new US imports. The focus for much of their resentment is the mammoth Mexican television monopoly, Televisa. These Mexicans believe that Televisa brings a totally Americanized view of life into millions of Mexican homes. It has not helped the US-born director of the Rufino Tamayo, that the museum is owned by Televisa.
Little about either Littman, or the setting in which he works, could be construed as ``truly Mexican.''
An indefinable chic hangs over the Tamayo Museum's offices like a whiff of expensive perfume. Stylish women and sleek young men with good cheekbones and slicked-back hair are as ubiquitous here as they would be in any self-respecting art office in New York, Paris, or Rome. They are set off by glistening white walls and off-white furniture. Littman himself has no pretensions to being Mexican. A tall, thin man, casually but well dressed, he looks and sounds like a New York aesthete. This is a definition w hich would fit him well since he came to Mexico from a position in the modern art section of New York's Metropolitan Museum.
He is, however, very interested in Mexican art, but believes that the local art scene can benefit from someone coming in and examining it from a different, outsider's point of view. ``I'm not Mexican,'' Littman says. ``I don't pretend to be. I come to this with a New York eye.''
What are the prejudices of a New York eye? ``A high standard of quality,'' Littman says. ``You see so much junk in New York, that you have to learn to filter it out.''
Littman's point of view is very different from that of some Mexican intellectuals whose main artistic concern is that Mexican art reflect national characteristics.
``I think it is terrific when there is a talent that rises above merely national art, when you don't have to say, it's very Mexican, or it's very Californian, or it's very Danish. It's good to see artists who transcend any narrow definitions, but it's rare. Look, there's only one Picasso,'' Littman says.
He concedes that the question of what is specifically Mexican about Mexican modern art is a valid one. He is organizing an exposition around this theme later this year. His views fit into the mandate of the Rufino Tamayo Museum. The purpose of the museum has been to expose Mexicans to the best of international art.
There is another museum in Mexico City, the Museum of Modern Art, whose main aim is to show Mexican modern art. It has a collection of the great Mexican painters, such as Diego Rivera, who, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, brilliantly resuscitated Mexican national painting.
Since the time of Rivera there has been a division in Mexico between those artists who tended to follow the changing styles of the international art set in Paris and New York, most of which tended to be abstract and fairly intellectual, and those who followed Rivera's line.
Rivera and his followers (known as the Muralist School) painted politically radical paintings and murals which depicted the lives of average Mexicans in a realistic way which could be easily absorbed by the masses. Backed by the government, the nationalistic Muralists dominated Mexican art until the 1960s. As time passed, Muralist painting lost its freshness. More and more young artists turned to abstract art. As one artist in his mid-thirties put it, ``For my generation to see a mural was to see a PRI m ural. It became for us official art.'' PRI is the Spanish acronym for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has governed Mexico since 1928.
Some Mexican intellectuals remain suspicious of abstract art in Mexico, especially when it closely mirrors prevalent styles abroad. To these Mexicans, abstract art reflects an attitude of elitism and an excessive foreign influence, which is often connected to the US and to big international corporations which sometimes sponsor abstract art expositions.
Unless Mexico's political situation changes drastically, moving either dramatically to the left or right, the Mexican art scene will continue to be a mixture of foreign influences and a direct interest in ``Mexican'' topics and styles of art.