Building an Utopia
Posted on 24 August, 2016
Laura González Matute
This text was read on June 9, 2016, at Aula Magna José Vasconcelos, Centro Nacional de las Artes, during the presentation of the book La construcción de una utopía. Enseñanza artística en la posrevolución (Building an Utopia. Arts Education After the Revolution), Mexico, Conaculta, INBA, Cenidiap, 2015, 168 p.
This recently published study of arts education after the revolution, from 1920 to 1950, seen as the building of an utopia, introduces us to the history of this controversial subject during this controversial period in the history of education in Mexico.
Through a narrative based on archive documents, Guillermina Guadarrama, the author of the book, furnishes this work with a peculiar character, objective and revealing, recounting the beginning, the process and development, as well as the contradictions and problems that derived in the decadence that afflicted this learning initiative.
Arts education was imparted at the basic education level —primary and secondary schools— , as well as in extra school institutions —including at that time the open air painting schools, popular painting centers, the Sculpture and Direct Carving School, the Workers Night School, and the Arts Initiation School, among others.
Basing an analysis on archival collections is laborious work, requiring a refined selection in order to convey the essence of the matter. The dedication of the researcher at the National Center for Research, Documentation and Information on the Visual Arts (Cenidiap) is commendable, in light of her exhaustive research and the results she has obtained.
The author presents in a vast and detailed manner the coming into being and the twilight of this didactic process, while questioning the contradictions that characterized it. Her analysis is both timely and significative, not only because this subject has rarely been approached by experts, but because it provides information that up to now has not been studied, in general, from primary sources. She consulted collections housed at Archivo Histórico de la Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP), Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Promotora Cultural Fernando Gamboa, and Instituto de Investigaciones sobre la Universidad y la Educación at Archivo Histórico de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
The text is furthermore anchored on specialized bibliography, both historical and current. She also consulted a wide selection of hemerographic documents, incuding SEP bulletins, catalogues, magazines, electronic pages, and interviews. This book is enriched by photographs, many of them unknown until now, showing pupils and their creative works (drawings, looms, scaled models, ceramic, wood and stone sculptures, to mention just a few). These images also show the interior of the premises, the basic education classrooms and the large houses with gardens for extra school courses, which SEP rented for these didactic practices.
Only 300 books have been printed for this first edition, which is rather unfortunate since this kind of work is rare and it would be very useful to have larger print runs, to make transcendent subjects like this one more widely known, since they are essential for arts education at all levels: preschool, primary, secondary and technical secondary schools, high schools and professional institutions alike.
The subject matter is inscribed within the historical, political and social context of the Mexican State that emerged from the Revolution, from 1920 onwards. The book states clearly the ruling group’s drive to steer the nation towards “modernity”, casting aside the image of a rural and poorly developed country.
As a leading thread, the author takes us through a long overview of the succeeding governments between 1920 and 1950, examining their particular programs and initiatives, and the numerous changes and adjustments made to arts education. She stresses the fact that these governments fostered an education policy in accordance with their ruling interests. As such, priority was given to consolidating a national identity, in order to buttress the ruling post revolutionary ideology and legitimize themselves as the ruling group.
One of several issues we ought to highlight in this work, that cannot be circumscribed to the so-called “utopia”, is the work carried out by the first Public Education Minister, José Vasconcelos, after his appointment in 1921. As is well known, his tenure was highly valuable in all cultural fields, promoting literacy campaigns, launching cultural missions, setting up countless schools, building libraries, and promoting basic and extra school arts education. An example of this, at the basic education level, is the introduction of the Best Maugard drawing method and the founding of open air painting schools, such as the ones in Chimalistac and Coyoacán.
The book states that in order to carry out this task, Vasconcelos drew on the experience of one of the leading Soviet cultural leaders: “Anatoli Vasilievich Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar for Education, who launched a popular education program after the Revolution in 1917, which included a publishing program, libraries and open air cultural festivals”. It also notes that Vasconcelos also based his education project on experiences developped in the United States, which he must have known when he lived there in the early 20th century: “[Vasconcelos] also drew inspiration from the literacy campaigns and public library initiatives in the United States. He wanted to foster a culture that was far from elitism and close to the masses, that is to say workers and peasants”. Vasconcelos created the Fine Arts Department at SEP, made up of four sections, the Drawing and Manual Works section among them, which as the book explains so clearly, went through countless changes in both its educational initiatives and its nomenclature, and obviously in its managing personnel as well.
Guadarrama narrates the emergence of diverse problems: budgetary, conceptual, and ideological, and how they gradually affected that section. She points out those officials that produced fertile results, as well as those who aggravated the problems and neglected arts education. She states clearly that when Vasconcelos left his post, his successor José Manuel Puig Casauranc, along with Alfonso Pruneda, the National University rector, gave substantial support to arts education in the country. However, it was from that moment on that bureaucratic problems set in, especially those regarding the budget, halting educational initiatives, artistic projects in particular.
Afterwards, the author documents the 1930’s, when arts education made a turn towards socialist notions, especially under the presidency of General Lázaro Cárdenas. She stresses the fact that education followed uncharted routes, providing artistic methods and programs with a firm social root, aimed at erradicating fanaticism, prejudices and all religious doctrines. This pedagogical method was based on Soviet models put forward by Anton Makarenko, Pavel Petrovich and Mosly Piestrak. In charge of these projects was the Chief of the Fine Arts Department, José Muñoz Cota.
The researcher analyzes the fact that the curriculum emphasized the visual arts within general education, and that Muñoz Cota argued, in a socialist/marxist tone, that “already existing cultural forms should be employed, those that are called superior and classical, such as music, painting and literature, [which] elevated and trained the working classes, contributing to the economic emancipation of the masses”. It seems contradictory to Guillermina Guadarrama that manual works education should have been imparted with a gender bias, considering that it was supposed to be a “socialist education”. She mentions, for instance, that boys were taught, among other subjects, how to build industrial objects, while it was recommended that girls be preferably trained in sewing and embroidery work, “proper to their sex” (sic).
The study centers afterward on the governments in the 1940’s and 1950’s, whose little concern with arts education was detrimental to the cultural development of the students.
This work, objectively focused and well substantiated in primary sources, constitutes an essay stating without simulations or artifices, both the genuine interest of public officials who fostered arts education, and the hindrances placed on the development of this project by devious officials driven by political and financial interests. The historian traces the trajectories of the leading figures in this process, and the results deriving from this well-termed “building of an utopia”.
Reading it, it’s interesting and paradoxical to find the names of the most renowned intellectuals, visual artists, musicians, dancers and theater directors, who were employed as managers, chiefs, commissars and council members at the Arts Education Department. It is worth noting that while some of them made proactive proposals and projects, others tried to hinder them because they did not fully understand them or did not acknowledge their transcendence, and because these clashed with ruling interests at the time. Among the distinguished officials, advisors and council members mentioned in the book are the painters Rufino Tamayo, Manuel Rodríguez Lozano, Diego Rivera, José Chávez Morado, Alfredo Zalce, Jesús Guerrero Galván, Máximo Pacheco, Juan Manuel Anaya and Julio Castellanos, as well as the sculptor Fernando Olaguíbel; the musician Carlos Chávez; and the writers and intellectuals Celestino Gorostiza, Xavier Villaurrutia, Antonio Castro Leal and José Muñoz Cota. This demands some pause for reflection, as it becomes apparent that in the succession of appointments and resignations, each official ignored his predecessor’s work and launched a new project from scratch. The author singles out one personality who was always there, unquestionably supporting the development of arts education: Víctor M. Reyes.
As a backdrop to most of the chapters and the issues raised in this book, there seems to be the researcher’s disappointment, as she notes the scant interest that the Mexican State, through its education institutions, such as SEP, showed towards arts education and its students, to the point of devaluing the whole project. However, she never fails to stress the worthy efforts of some officials, suchs as the aforementioned Víctor M. Reyes, José Muñoz Cota, Fernando Olaguíbel and Moisés Sáenz. Regarding the teachers who gave unwavering support to these educational ideals, it suffices to mention Alfredo Ramos Martínez, who greatly fostered the open air painting schools (as early as 1913, when he founded the first of these extra school institutions); Fernando Olaguíbel, who made forward-thinking artistic pedagogy proposals and created the Pulgarcito newspaper, written, illustrated and edited exclusively by primary school children; and Francisco Díaz de León, who succeeded through his tireless efforts in creating the Arts of the Book Workshop, a titanic task that took more than a decade to come to fruition.
As determined by its sources, this book provides, above all, the official, bureaucratic side of this subject; relevant, authentic documents affording an official perspective within the wide spectrum where the history and the problems of post revolutionary arts education is inscribed. It must be stressed that works of this kind open up research fields, acting as a spearhead for further essays that will provide supplementary approaches and perspectives on this transcendent subject. For this very reason, Guillermina Guadarrama’s work is significant and substantial. Together with previous studies that offered different and interesting angles to engage with these educational issues, her book will contribute to a wider understanding of this controversial didactic method employed in post revolutionary arts education.
This essay highlights one specific issue that had never been so clearly stated before: the enervating and dramatic reality of tacitly corroborating, through documents from official archives, how the arts education proposals, projects, plans and programs, extremely valuable and enriching, were underestimated by several top officials at different times, contributing to the decadence and eventual elimination of these important arts education centers, along with a lack of organization, continuity and budgetary support.
This deeply-rewarding book evinces the lack of sensibility, culture and educational projection of several governments that prevented such a transcendent work as basic and extra school arts education from continuing its development and projection; had it been properly supported, it would probably had led today to the consolidation of the artistic trajectory of countless artists, the organization of art exhibitions in several museums, the staging of theater, dance and musical works which would undoubtedly have had a national and international projection.
Finally, Guillermina Guadarrama describes the current situation in arts education:
Today, official discourse states once again the importance of the arts, viewed now as a means to modify pernicious behavior and contain violence. The federal government issues cultural programs to the states, but outside the basic education curriculum. They are not integrated, as they were in the first decades of the 20th century. Two questions arise: if enough resources will be provided this time, and if these programs will be continuous and for the long run. […] It is to be desired that it be so.
La construcción de una utopía. Enseñanza artística en la posrevolución,
by Guillermina Guadarrama, is the fruit of exhaustive research, showing through the analysis and study of original documents, the genesis of the contradictions and problems besetting arts education, which together with other factors, triggered the educational maladjustments and deficiencies that plague our country today.