A certain idea of the avant-garde posits the possibility of a total rupture with the past. The Unfinished Art of Theater pulls back on this futuristic impulse by showing how theater became a key site for artists on the semiperiphery of capitalism to reconfigure the role of the aesthetic between 1917 and 1934. The book argues that this “unfinished art”—precisely because of its historic weakness as a representative institution in Mexico and Brazil, where the bourgeois stage had not (yet) coalesced—was at the forefront of struggles to redefine the relationship between art and social change. Drawing on extensive archival research, Sarah J. Townsend reveals the importance of projects and texts that belie the rhetoric of rupture and immediacy associated with the avant-garde: ethnographic operas with ties to the recording industry, populist puppet plays, children’s radio programs about the wonders of technology, a philosophical drama about the birth of a new race, and an antifascist spectacle written for (but never performed at) a theater shut down by the police. Ultimately, the book makes the case that the very category of avant-garde art is bound up in the experience of dependency, delay, and the uneven development of capitalism.
About the Author
SARAH J. TOWNSEND is an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Penn State University.
Read an Excerpt
Rehearsals of the Tragi-Co(s)mic Race
April 27, 1924, was not a good day for José Vasconcelos, the man who would go down in history as the premiere "cultural caudillo" of the Mexican Revolution. With only a week to go before the inaugural ceremony of the new National Stadium, the founding director of the Secretariat of Public Education was struggling to hold his own against a barrage of negative publicity. The sixty-thousand-seat arena was supposed to be the crowning achievement of his sweeping cultural reforms — proof the Mexican people could accomplish constructive goals and the new government could deliver on its promises, even if large parts of the country had yet to be "pacified" and political assassinations were still a common affair. Instead, his pet project had been plagued by controversy from the start. First, he had tangled with the architect, who had trouble wrapping his unimaginative head around the fact that the stadium was meant to be not a mere "racetrack" but a revival of the ancient Greek open-air theaters. Then Diego Rivera had requested some modifications in the design to accommodate his plans for the interior murals, causing his diehard enemies to howl and every architect in the city to protest that painters, sculptors, and other "decorators" should stick to their area of expertise. Now Rivera was all riled up and on the verge of lambasting his critics in the press as semi-civilized vestiges of the prerevolutionary bourgeoisie. And as if all of that weren't enough, rumors were flying that Vasconcelos was either about to quit or be fired — rumors he knew were true.
All of that, and now this. Five thousand schoolgirls were assembled in the stadium, rehearsing the songs they would sing en masse while others formed improbable pyramids or danced a traditional jarabe tapatío. Everything seemed to be going fine, but the day was exceptionally hot and no one had thought to bring refreshments, so around high noon the children began to collapse. It was just a mild case of sunstroke, though try telling that to the parents watching in the stands who descended in a panic, setting off a stampede out of which several girls emerged even worse for wear. Still, none of the injuries were serious, and surely a hundred heat-frazzled schoolgirls out of five thousand wasn't such a bad tally. Alas, the daily Excélsior disagreed. The next day its front-page headline screamed, "More Than One Hundred Girls Were on the Verge of Dying of Sunstroke in the National Stadium." Then a string of subheaders such as "Great Alarm in the City" led up to the article's histrionic first line: "Yesterday, over thousands of homes in our capital and outlying areas of the District, the horrifying grimace of tragedy appeared." Never one to hold his fire, Vasconcelos immediately dispatched a communiqué to every classroom in the city urging students to ignore the newspaper, a commercial rag in cahoots with the bullfighting impresarios and other purveyors of dishonest entertainment who recognized the stadium as a threat to their ill-gotten gains. Yes, he conceded, the incident was unfortunate, but in fact a mere fifty girls had fainted, and it only demonstrated the urgent need for a "theater-stadium" where "our race" would forge its physique and create the "art of the future" — an art that would put an end to all the ensayos, all the rehearsals foiled by the foibles of the human, all-too-human flesh.
The National Stadium was demolished in 1949 due to cracks in its foundation, and today few residents of Mexico City recall its existence. Far more often Vasconcelos is remembered for his messianic cultural "missions," which sent newly trained teachers into rural areas to spread the gospel of good hygiene and teach impoverished peasants to read the Iliad and the Mahabharata. But despite his penchant for the classics and his eventual transformation into a peevish librarian, Vasconcelos is a hard man to pin down, not least because he was instrumental in creating the conditions for the emergence of the Mexican avant-garde. Shortly after assuming office he reached out to Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, still on extended sojourns in Paris and Barcelona, and offered to subsidize their studies of Renaissance fresco techniques in Italy before luring them back to Mexico with commissions to adorn the walls of government buildings. He also encouraged artists to immerse themselves in indigenous cultures (even if he drew a clear distinction between such sources of inspiration and actual "art"). Some avant-gardists mocked his spiritual rhetoric and political pretensions, especially after his self-exile and return for a failed presidential run; yet few were as focused on the future as Vasconcelos, and it is possible his grandiose plans for radio and other new media would have intersected with the technophilic dreams of the avant-garde had his time in office not been limited to a few turbulent years. Such connections, both uncanny and concrete, make his cultural politics difficult to define and undermine any easy understanding of the avant-garde as contrarian to institutional authority. The one thing on which almost all critics agree: whatever connections or stylistic similarities they might share, Vasconcelos was an ideologue, not an artist.
This distinction relies on his status as the author of a singular and very powerful idea. What now goes by the name of La raza cósmica was first published in 1925 as the prologue to a narrative of his diplomatic travels through South America, but the body of the book has gradually withered for lack of attention even as the preamble has usurped its name and become a discursive double for the cosmic race — an idea Antonio Cornejo Polar aptly described as "the hymnal exacerbation of some sort of supermestizaje," an overwrought expression of the metaphor for cultural miscegenation that remains "the most powerful and widespread conceptual device with which Latin America has interpreted itself." Vasconcelos left reflections on race and aesthetics scattered across a wide array of speeches, stories, articles, government bulletins, and so on, yet the obligatory point of reference in any discussion of his creed is a text that has long since shed its identity as a preface without acquiring a well-defined form of its own. La raza cósmica is strident and programmatic, yet it seems too longwinded and expository to qualify as a manifesto; its allegorical bent and idealist tone make it vaguely akin to a utopia, but the narrative lacks the utopia's fictional frame. If only by default, then, it tends to get lumped in with the genre of the essay, or ensayo — a respectable, un-avant-garde denomination that links it to a long line of intellectual reflections on Mexican identity.
In certain respects, this is strange company for it to keep. Written in the months after its author resigned his powerful post in opposition to the incoming president, La raza cósmica rejects nationalism in favor of an Ibero-American alliance against Anglo imperialism and prophesies a future in which the Brazilian Amazon serves as the site of Universópolis, a technological wonderland where all of the world's races converge at the dawn of a new "aesthetic era." In Mexico, however, such prosaic details did little to prevent the cosmic race from being repurposed as the protagonist of a powerful narrative of national identity. Whether in schoolbooks or academic treatises, it came to be depicted as an a priori idea, the master plan behind Vasconcelos's foundational acts; often it was (and still is) projected onto the entire postrevolutionary period, serving as a stabilizing figure that lent coherence to the contradictions and contingencies of culture during those messy, uncertain years. Over the past several decades, as the government has abandoned the ideology of revolutionary nationalism and lost even the appearance of legitimacy, critics have called attention to the less savory aspects of Vasconcelos's career — including a flirtation with fascism in the early 1940s — and his futurist fantasy now stands accused of underwriting the developmentalist designs of the single-party state. It has become obligatory to note that although the essay attacks social evolutionism and the segregationist policies of Jim Crow, its call for racial mixture is driven by a desire for racial whitening; its ostensible "universality" erases rather than embraces difference. Yet despite (or because of?) its periodic dissection, La raza cósmica is still lodged in the cultural canon, and its Idea remains.
But what happens when ideas take the form of figures, bodies, and actions on a virtual or physical stage? In what follows I uncouple the cosmic race from its textual twin and reexamine it in the light of Vasconcelos's little-known experiments with theater. If the essay has become a comfortable lens through which to view the cosmic race — a kind of second skin — this chapter defamiliarizes its physiognomy by tracing the genesis of this foundational idea and bringing it into play with an alternative meaning of the ensayo as a rehearsal or unfinished work. To begin, I show how the essay genre is often imagined as quintessentially modern in its refusal to obey distinctions among disciplines or rigid definitions of form, a quality that in Mexico (as elsewhere in Spanish America) tends to be associated with the celebration of mestizaje, or racial mixture. In the following section, I rewind the clock in order to trace a set of recurring concerns across a set of disparate texts that Vasconcelos wrote during the armed conflict in Mexico, including his treatise on the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, his legal defense of the revolutionary Convention of Aguascalientes, and his scathing remarks on — of all things — the essay genre. For Vasconcelos, forging a common ideology, creating a new artistic genre (or form), and birthing a new race were (almost) all one and the same. What linked them was rhythm — a phenomenon at once corporeal and abstract that suggests a certain connection between the cosmic race and recent attempts to rethink the concept of ideology in relation to affect and embodiment. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Prometeo vencedor (1920), a "modern tragedy" conceived (according to its author) as an essay but born into the world of print as an unperformable play. Rather than attempting to salvage this deeply strange and rarely read text from the heap of history's mistakes, I show how its apparent failures allow readers to see what would later be called the cosmic race not as an expression of identity, but as a self-reflexive (and even ironic) allegory enacted on a speculative stage. By contrast, the construction of Vasconcelos's "Theater-Stadium" and the rehearsals leading up to its debut (which bring the chapter to a close) illustrate the contradictions and constraints he and other intellectuals faced in their attempts to create a material stage on which their projections for the future could enfold.
If rehearsals imply an understanding of art as part of a process of production in which error is integral, I recast the cosmic race in such a light in order to unsettle its retrospective reification. This move also aims to put pressure on Vasconcelos's curiously ex-centric relationship to the avant-garde. Although he never claimed allegiance to the avant-garde, this is not an automatic disqualifier: the word vanguardia was used in an inconsistent fashion during the 1920s, and critics today routinely deny this classification to artists who collaborated with figures comfortably ensconced in the vanguard canon while bestowing it on others who rejected it at the time. A fuzzy category in any context (not unlike the essay genre?), the avant-garde is especially difficult to define in a place such as Mexico. Who or what counts as la vanguardia in a country where the revolution has already taken place, a country where a "revolutionary" government fosters the formation of a new class of intellectuals and artists with ties to the international "avant-garde" and conscripts them to help build the infrastructure of the state? This chapter follows a circuitous (and somewhat essayistic) course, skirting the edges of the avant-garde and dwelling on its pre- and posthistories in order to pinpoint what is at stake in excluding a figure such as Vasconcelos — to explain why he is denied the designation of "artist," and why he fails to fit into a category he did so much to create.
When Is an Essay Not an Essay?
Reflections on the essay genre almost invariably invoke Michel de Montaigne's original use of the term essai: a text conceived not as a finished object, but as an exploratory trial or attempt. Long derided as incomplete, improvisatory, and even degenerate, the essay has been celebrated in more recent times as an exemplary vehicle of thought, a heterodox genre that enjoys relative freedom from disciplinary injunctions and the strictures of predetermined form. In "The Essay as Form" (1959), Theodor Adorno describes it as a "hybrid" mode of writing (ein Mischprodukt) that registers the historical separation of science and art even as it mediates this opposition through its dogged negation of method. Tied to the transitory and ephemeral, the essay "thinks in fragments," coordinating constellations of elements rather than subordinating them to discursive logic or finite totalities. "It does not insist on something beyond mediation — and those are the historical mediations in which the whole society is sedimented — but seeks the truth content in its objects." Rather than striving to transcend language, the essay engages in a mobile praxis of self-reflection on the very act of signification, which is also to say that it is more than just an apposite medium for expressing a critique of ideology: it is also a textual performance in the sense that its fluid, unfinished architecture enacts a critique of ideological form.
More than a decade before Adorno penned these reflections, the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes situated the essay genre in relation to the changes wrought by new technologies of communication. "Las nuevas artes" (The New Arts, 1944) begins with the premise that six medios, or media, are responsible for transmitting culture in contemporary society: schools, the press, theater, museums, radio, and film. Reyes notes that the appearance of radio and film have aroused opposition from traditionalists anxious to defend the integrity of the older arts, and his objective is to counter such hostility while forestalling any threat the expansion of the "public" might pose by assimilating these mass media into the orderly realm of "art." Theater, he argues, is wrong to view film as a rival, because the cinema merely brings the true nature of its performative cousin into clearer relief, introducing a distinction between two different "artistic orders" that were once regrettably "confused"; nor should print culture fear radio, because books respond to different needs than broadcasting, which extends the benefits of learned culture to more people even as it revitalizes the lost art of oratory. Reyes even acknowledges that these new arts have provoked a series of "generic transformations" that have revolutionized the "classic contours" of literary functions outlined by Lessing in his Laocoön. Today, the literary field is divided into the lyric ("the purest poetry"), scientific literature, and the essay. Only in the final sentence, as a self-reflexive flourish, does he define the essay as the "centaur of genres," a site where all of these cultural forms commingle, "where there is a bit of everything and where everything fits ... capricious child of a culture that no longer responds to the circular, closed orb of the ancients but to the open arc, the process in motion, the 'Etcetera'" (403). Once again, the essay appears as an unfettered space of intellectual freedom; and yet here it is clear that this freedom is not an effect of its exclusion from established institutions of knowledge but a corollary of its authority to regulate their proper function. Neither high nor low, the essay is a nongenre or transmedium that holds the taxonomic order in place while eluding its strictures, the necessary exception to the rule that Derrida dubbed the Law of Genre: "Genres are not to be mixed."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Unfinished Art of Theater"
Copyright © 2018 Northwestern University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroduction: The Uneven Stage of the Avant-Gardes 3–37 Mexico Ch. 1: Rehearsals of the Tragi-Cosmic Race 38–96 Ch. 2: Primitivist Accumulation and Teatro sintético 97–142 Ch. 3: Radio/Puppets, or the Institutionalization of a (Media) Revolution 143–196 Brazil Ch. 4: Parsifal on the Periphery of Capitalism 197–254 Ch. 5: Phonography, Operatic Ethnography, and Other Bad Arts 255–308 Ch. 6: Total Theater and Missing Pieces 309–364 Postscript: Loose Ends 365 Acknowledgments 366–370 Notes 376–449