Forging a New World Nationalism: Ancient Mexico in United States Art and Visual Culture, 1933-1945
Promey, Sally M
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Between 1933 and 1945, Americans redefined their cultural identity within a hemispheric context and turned toward Mexican antiquity to invent a non-European national mythos. This reconfiguration of ancient Mexican history and culture coincided with changes in U.S. foreign policy regarding Latin American nations. In his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt launched the Good Neighbor Policy, hoping to build an international alliance with Latin American countries that would safeguard the Western hemisphere from the political and economic crises in Europe. As part of these efforts, the government celebrated Mesoamerican civilization as evidence of a great hemispheric heritage belonging also to United States citizens. These historical circumstances altered earlier American views of ancient Mexico as simultaneously a preindustrial paradise of noble savages and an uncivilized site of idolatry, revolution, and human sacrifice. My dissertation examines this official reinterpretation of American past and present reality under the Good Neighbor Policy. Specifically, I consider the portrayal of ancient Mexico in United States art as a symbol of pan-American identity in order to map the ideological contours of U.S. diplomacy and race relations. The chapters of the dissertation present a series of case studies, each devoted to a different facet of the international discourse of U.S.-led pan-Americanism as it was internally conceived and domestically disseminated. Specifically, I examine the works of four American artists: Lowell Houser, Donal Hord, Charles White, and Jean Charlot. This ethnically and regionally diverse group of artists, whose art production ranged from sculpture to mural art to children's book illustrations, reveals the broad scope of the discursive apparatus restructuring North American perceptions of Latin America during this period. My analysis investigates the pictorial strategies of hemispheric identity formation; the domestic limitations of the Good Neighbor Policy as demonstrated in the clash of local and global politics; the agitation for equal recognition and full rights of citizenship among minority groups in the United States; and, finally, the international limitations of U.S.-led pan-Americanism as evidenced by persistent racism and U.S. cultural hegemony in hemispheric affairs.