Introduction      Rockefeller Center      Cultural Leaders      Technology

Diego Rivera's success was predicated on his ability to convince wealthy patrons of the value of his work. In Mexico, he was the only member of los tres grandes to regularly secure commissions from the government. Many communists viewed his relationship with wealthy patrons as contradictory to the public image that he created for himself, and considered him a traitor to the Party. In reality, Rivera's relationship with his patrons was complicated by their interpretation of his work and their motives for hiring him.

For a period of time in the late twenties and early thirties, Rivera was a trophy desired by the right to prove their status as cultural leaders. This status had major implications for business opportunities in Mexico, could provide the leverage needed to stabilize the growing threat of worker mobilization, and had the potential to affect the way that the patron, or his business, was viewed by the public. For example, consider the following poem by E.B. White, published in the May 1993 New Yorker, after the uproar caused by Rivera's mural at Rockefeller Center:

I Paint What I See

"'What do you paint, when you paint on a wall?'
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.
'Do you paint just anything there at all?
'Will there be any doves, or a tree in fall?
'Or a hunting scene, like an English hall?'

'I paint what I see,' said Rivera.

'What are the colors you use when you paint?'
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.
'Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?
'If you do, is it terribly red, or faint?
'Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?'

'I paint what I paint,' said Rivera.

'Whose is that head that I see on the wall?'
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.
'Is it anyone's head whom we know, at all?
'A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?
'Is it Franklin D.? Is it Mordaunt Hall?
Or is it the head of a Russian?

'I paint what I think,' said Rivera.

'I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,
'I paint what i think,' said Rivera,
'And the thing that is dearest in life to me
'In a bourgeois hall is Integrity;
'However . . .
'I'll take out a couple of people drinkin'
'And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln;
'I could even give you McCormick's reaper
'And still not make my art much cheaper.
'But the head of Lenin has got to stay
'Or my friends will give the bird today,
'The bird, the bird, forever.'

'It's not good taste in a man like me,'
Said John D.'s grandson Neslon,
'To question an artist's integrity
'Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
'But I know what I like to a large degree,
'Though art I hate to hamper;
'For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
'You painted a radical. I say shucks,
'I never could rent the offices-----
'The capitalistic offices.
'For this, as you know, is a public hall
'And people want doves, or a tree in hall
'And though your art I dislike to hamper,
'I owe a little to God and Gramper,
'And after all,
'It's my wall . . .'

'We'll see if it is,' said Rivera.

Rivera's future in the U.S. was significantly impacted by the public's disapproval of the overtly political (and communist) nature of his Rockefeller Center mural. He lost his commission to create a mural for the World Fair and did not receive many more major commissions in the United States. Despite their agreement that Rivera's mural was inappropriate for the Rockefeller building, most of the public was also outraged by the destruction of Rivera's art. This incident galvanized the left against the Rockefellers. Hundreds of people gathered to protest Rockefeller's actions. In his own defense, Rivera wrote:


As part of this effort to become cultural leaders, Rockefeller funded Colonial Williamsburg and Ford created the Museum of the Machine. When Rockefeller went to meet with Mexican President Cardenas about oil, he introduced himself as the President of MOMA and focused on his intentions to organize "Twenty Centuries of American Art", an exhibit on Mexican art. Because of the Depression, businessmen worked to create "a new, publicity-conscious image for business, applied science, and research… Its appeal to Depression America was obvious: technology and the machine were not the problem, but the salvation." (Wilson)


Rivera's admiration for technology was perhaps the most appealing aspect of his personality for the right. Since he was such a famous liberal, his support for science and technology had the potential to reach a broader audience, while also proving that intellectuals outside of the business world saw potential in "progress". In Rivera's representations of America, the machines took on a life and history of their own and that history was in fact, America's history. This unique perspective strengthened the right's argument that America's folkloric roots and its technological future were not incompatible but one and the same.