Siqueiros and "Integración Plástica"
David Alfaro Siqueiros' The People to the University, the University to the People is a dynamic, hybrid artwork that lies somewhere between a two-dimensional mural and a three-dimensional sculpture. It animates one of the walls at the base of the Provost's tower, the most prominent structure at the campus of UNAM, Mexico's largest public university, inaugurated in Mexico City in 1954. Because it is in conversation with architecture, sculpture and painting, the work is an example of what some mid-twentieth-century critics, practitioners, and historians of art in Mexico, including Siqueiros, describe as "Integración Plástica," which can be loosely (and of course, inaccurately) translated as "artistic integration." Sculpted in relief to almost explode out of its containing wall (an effect Siqueiros explored in many of his late works), it displays Mexican students armed with the tools of knowledge: a compass, pencils and books, who seem to hover over a mass of people mobilizing in political protest. With an educator leading the way, students and people visibly move in the same direction, albeit at different spatial planes. The message here is that education made accessible to the masses in Mexico should set in motion a process of collective political emancipation that cuts across class boundaries. Although the avant-gardist thrust behind much of early mural painting in Mexico came from the desire to create a public type of art in locations of high urban visibility for the education (and indeed indoctrination) of the masses in the years immediately following the Mexican revolution (c. 1910-1920), the political gesture behind the UNAM project was perhaps even more powerful. Formerly located in the historic downtown core of Mexico City in a series of dispersed neoclassical buildings, at the new campus, built in the most innovative modernist style of the day, Mexico's most influential university was provided with a centralized location that accommodated a wide range of disciplinary fields in what was then the southern periphery of the expanding metropolis. The size and location of the campus, designed to resonate with modernist as well as pre-Columbian architectural sites from Mexico, served the purpose of enhancing public access to knowledge, and an ambitious program of murals spread throughout the campus reinforced the university's public mission and its place in the panorama of national Mexican culture. In the middle of the last century, university campuses emerged as significant locations for artistic production. Especially during the early decades of the last century, mural painting was also conceived as a politically-engaged means of public education in many places, not least in the United States, where Mexico's mural painters -Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco- were very active and influential. Siqueiros' experimentation with architecture, painting and sculpture thus situate this work at UNAM in conversation with a number of other artistic trends of the last century. Yet few works continue to resonate so strongly today, as the degree of public access to both art and education continue to be matters of heated debate.