Primitive Geniuses: Infantilization Discourses in Transnational Art Exchanges between Mexico and the US, 1930s–50s

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:50 PM
Room 203 (Colorado Convention Center)
Elena Albarrán, Miami University
In 1932, American artist Elsa Rogo embarked on an adventure in Taxco, Guerrero teaching painting techniques to the children of the then-sleepy, pastoral Mexican village.  She spent the next decade promoting the work of her pupils in the US, explaining their raw talent as a product of the “plastic inheritance of the Mexican child,” derived from a timeless Aztec natural aesthetic.  In particular, she gained traction among her peers in the intellectual art circuit when she juxtaposed art from her students both from Mexico and Vermont, through a series of exhibitions that allowed the viewer to draw sweeping conclusions about the Mexican psyche and creative aptitude from a very narrow sample.  Rogo’s travel, her educational activities, her intellectual networks, and her demonstrated engagement with the theories of art and art education of her day, make her story the ideal starting point for a broader exploration of the relationship between infantilizing rhetoric, and its practical application in the assessment of children’s cultural production as metaphors for respective national characters.  This paper is a case study in a larger study that triangulates infantilization rhetoric, developmentalist discourses, and actual Indian children.  I argue that the transnational flow of art between the U.S. and Mexico (and permeating the social circles of the global art elite as well) consolidated the preconception of Mexico (and by extension, all of Latin America) as an infantilized region in the collective imaginary.  On the other hand, the practice of aesthetic production served as a form of identity performance for the young artists, whose art gained recognition and praise from adult artists, experts, intellectuals, and politicians as never before.  For the first time, due to prevailing ideologies that privileged “the primitive” in the arts, children’s cultural production was deemed worthy of consideration on par with that of its adult counterparts.