The Power of Art: Rivera & Siquieros


Diego Rivera’s Lenin
Read part 1 of this 2 part series

Now for a brief jaunt into Mexican history. Censorship is not only from governments on a march to war, or brutal tyrants in distant lands. Acclaimed Mexican painter Diego Rivera was famously forced to cover a portion of a mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center. The mural included an image of Vladimir Lenin. Right leaning news outlets and corporate industrialists denounced the painting as being anti capitalist and un-American. It was ordered to be covererd and destroyed. These events came to exemplify perils of corporate censorship. The ordeal demonstrated that the Rockefellers’ fear of bad press and embarrassment among other industrialists posed a threat to their perspective of the world. Fear once again took precedence over freedom of self-expression.

Rivera’s painting was destroyed by unfavorable news coverage. That the completion of an otherwise brilliant work of art was brought to a sudden halt presents not only the powerful force that art can be, but also the issue of defunding public art. Art should not be beholden to the anger, fear, and whims of wealthy patrons, corporations, or even countries.

New Mural at Rockefeller Center in NYC

In events similar to those experienced by Rivera, Los Angeles’ famed Olvera Street kept its own censorship secret for 80 years. Recently rediscovered was a whitewashed painting by another famous Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. The painting was likely hidden from view because of a depiction on the upper right side of two armed indigenous looking peasants, one Mexican and another Peruvian, presumably fighting a revolution against elements of the ruling class. Fearing the painting might inspire social unrest, revolution, or a socialist takeover in the 1930’s, local authorities had it painted over, out of sight. The good news is that  it was fully restored recently and is once again on public display. Freedom of expression won out this time. It only took 80 years.

David Alfaro Siqueiros Mural at Olvera Street, Los Angeles




Shaking of the social order can create powerful enemies. Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer famous for his controversial black and white images. Mapplethorpe depictions included what some characterized as glorified images that included homoerotic and some sadomasochistic themes within his photographs. Mapplethorpe work had displayed in New York and Philadelphia without incident. When it came to Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery conservative critics discovered the funding for the display came from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

His work soon came under scrutiny, first by a Christian conservative group called the American Family Association, then later by Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY). Senator Helms was a well-known critic of racial integration, woman’s rights, public healthcare, gay rights and of course the NEA. Senator D’Amato was also famous for mocking Judge Lance Ito, using an exaggerated Japanese accent while on a radio talk show.


​After the legal and cultural battles ended, Helms and his confederates failed to persuade people of their point of view. Today, Mapplethorpe’s work would not generate the controversy it did then. It can be argued that Mapplethorpe’s work itself created a more tolerant environment, challenging social mores. However, the people who are threatened by the power of art have not given up their desire to censor art.

NEA In Peril

As of 2017, the NEA budget is poised to be slashed by 100%. This will bring the NEA to a point where it cannot effectively fund any art. Despite social victories, its enemies can politically and economically outmaneuver the NEA. Defunding NEA allows a method of blanket censorship, and regrettably, it will end up masquerading as a budget issue rather than a first amendment issue.

​Art and artists have the power to create social change and challenge the status quo, the social injustices, political unrest and censorship.  Though artists often do not see this in their lifetime, they can create a legacy for the future. Many powerful people see artists, not as marginal figures, but as the personification of a knight-errant ~ their lance, a brush of color, their shield an irreverent image. Their work can and has helped topple the most evil and repressive social orders that ever existed. This is as true now as it will be in the future.


D. Berubé


Source Material:
 "Report of the Chilean Commission on Truth and Reconciliation Part III Chapter 1 (A.2)". 2002-04-10. Archived from the original on 2006-12-31. Retrieved 2007-01-06
 Spotts, Frederic (2002). Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. The Overlook Press. pp. 151–68. ISBN 1-58567-507-5.
 The George Costakis Collection. "Russian Avant-Garde Art". New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8109-1556-5. 1981Feb. 6 2003 6:56 PM
 Hidden Treasures 1440 What's so controversial about Picasso's Guernica? By David Cohen For Slate Feb. 6 2003 6:56 PM
 "Rockefeller Controversy". Diego Rivera Prints. Retrieved October 2, 2007.
 Grace Glueck (April 16, 1990), Publicity Is Enriching Mapplethorpe Estate The New York Times.
 The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS The 1989--1991 by Margaret Quigley

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