Revolutionary Art

"I paint what I see," said Rivera

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Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of the great Mexican muralist and revolutionary socialist, Diego Rivera.

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In 1933, Diego Rivera painted the mural shown above, Man at the Crossroads, in Rockefeller Center in New York City. Multimillionaire Nelson Rockefeller demanded that it be changed to remove the portraits of Lenin, Trotsky, Marx and Engels. Rivera refused, and Rockefeller had the mural destroyed.

Rivera announced that he would use the money he had been paid to support painting the same mural again and again, wherever he was asked.

This poem by E.B. White, later known as the author of the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, appeared in New Yorker magazine in May 1933.

A Ballad of Artistic Integrity

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

“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 heart 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 in my wall?
Said John D’s grandson Nelson.
Is it anyone’s head whom we know, at all?
If you do, is it terribly red or faint?
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;
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, Nelson.
To question an artist’s integrity
Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
But I know what I like to a large degree,
Tho art I hate to hamper.
For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
You painted a radical. I say, shucks,
I could never rent the offices-
The capitalistic offices.
For this, as you know, is a public hall.
And people want doves, or a tree in fall,
And tho 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.



  • I think it accords quite well with ecosocialism. It boldly asserts the idea that man can control the world he lives in as opposed to the idea that market forces, which are essentially a force of nature in the eyes of capitalist economists, must necessarily dominate us. Isn’t that really the point that socialists bring into the environmental debate?

  • It’s a great mural, as are so many of Rivera’s. There is much to ponder in it, but it always seems to me to be a paean to technology, with man at the centre. When he reproduced this one at the Bellas Artes in Mexico City, Rivera named it Man, Controller of the Universe. Not quite ecosocialism…