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From theory to practice

The history of Mário de Andrade's Culture Department

REPRODUctions from the book "A IMAGEM DE MÁRIO"Xangô (African Brazilian deity) figuresREPRODUctions from the book "A IMAGEM DE MÁRIO"

The popular saying runs that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. Behind the evident simplification of the dictum lies one of the great dilemmas of the intellectuals of the 20th century: it is possible to put theoretical utopias into effect, to make practical and popular achievements out of them, joining forces with politics, without dirtying ones hands or subjecting oneself to concessions. The pioneering example of this almost Hamletian dilemma occurred between 1935 and 1938, during Mário de Andrade’s term of office at the head of São Paulo’s Cultural Department, up until today a paradigm of what making culture is.

“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, with the experience of the Culture Department, Brazil is beginning to have a notion of what a cultural policy is, properly speaking”, explains Roberto Barbato, the author of Missionários de uma utopia nacional [Missionaries of a national utopia], a doctoral thesis which enjoyed the support of FAPESP and has just been launched as a book by Annablume. “Mário and his group abdicated their personal works for a cultural project for society. The State features in this process as an instrument necessary for attaining the ends collimated by the Department”, the researcher reckons.

After all, only the State had sufficient money to make possible the great modernist ambition of “going to the people and showing Brazilians what Brazil was”. But there were many quibbles: Mário and his group (which included Sergio Milliet and Paulo Duarte, amongst others) had an aversion to politics and believed that only culture could modify man and make him better. Hence the rather Mephistophelian pact. “The intellectuals ended up negotiating the prospect of accomplishing a personal work in exchange for the collaboration that they offer for the work of a ‘national constitution’, falling silent as far as the price of this work that the State is indirectly subsidizing”, Sergio Miceli observes.

“In the quality of prey of the State, they solved this dilemma by yielding to the spell of idealist justifications.” As the central personage of Klaus Mann’s book Mephisto says, when confronted with the evil with which he collaborates: “I am just an actor”. “There seems to be a certain naïveté of the group from the Culture Department in relation to politics. The illusion that it was possible to dispense with politics to undertake his work cost Mário de Andrade dear, showing, furthermore, that culture was insufficient as an alibi for his position and even as an instrument of social transformation”, Barbato observes. Not without reason, the modernist himself called his term of office “my tomb”, at the same time that, to increase the ambiguity of his situation, he would exclaim in a speech, made after the failure of the Department, that “taking refuge in books of fiction and eternal values like love, friendship, God, nature, is a dishonest and dishonorable abstentionism like any other. A cowardice like any other. Besides, the political form of society is an eternal value as well”.

The pact started with a conversation between Paulo Duarte and the mayor, Fábio Prado, about the creation of an organism that would start in São Paulo to, afterwards, expand to Brazil. The “big name” that came to their mind for running the venture was Mário de Andrade. “You are going to do away with my peace and quiet, my brother”, was the reaction of the modernist, who thought again, when he reflected that, perhaps “the old aspirations of the modernists who wanted to see in practice a vehicle of culture would be abandoned as a simple fantasy”, Barbato notes. Those who can, do. After all, Mário would say, “it has still not been perceived in our land that culture is just as necessary as bread, and that is our most painful cultural immorality”.

As the researcher observes, the Department, at bottom, was a continuation of the modernist’s personal position, and what had happened was a personification of his national reality project. There was, though, an undesirable link between this project and another, conservative and parochial, put into effect by the citizens of São Paulo of the Revolution of 32, who wanted, also by means of culture, to recover São Paulo’s hegemony in Brazil. “In a certain way, the adventure of the São Paulo intellectuals can be seen as an outcome of this objective, at least on the cultural plane.” The price was going up.

Even so, utopia seem to be worth it, and very much so: the Culture Department intended “to repulse the ornamental nature of Brazilian culture and a ‘going to the people’ which expresses itself in the ideal of democratizing access to culture”, Barbato explains. Mário and his friends wanted to “lift up” the people to the bourgeois culture and not to destroy it, bringing about the access to concerts, exhibitions and to books in mobile libraries. At the same time, they wanted to seek the deep Brazil and to bring it to the awareness of the urban societies that, generally speaking and by the will of the elites, did not even know of its existence.

“In this context, they are utopian, in the sense of a state of spirit incongruent with the social reality. Utopia only comes into effect to the extent that there is a subversion of the established social order. In their case, the role of democratizing culture in the city of São Paulo becomes clear”, the researcher reckons. There is, though, subtlety in the dilemma: how to subvert the social order while being an integral part of the State that is there to maintain this bourgeois order in force? “I have always considered the greatest problem of Brazilian intellectual the search for an instrument of work that would draw them closer to the people”, wrote Mário. “We may then understand them as popularizers and administrators in the role of a civilizing mission, the heart of which could not be located outside the cultural sphere”, the author analyzes. Hence their nature, according Barbato, of missionaries of the national-popular. 

“The public that goes to the Municipal Theater absolutely does not represent the people of the city, who elected the masters of the City Hall, for the latter, at exorbitant prices, to satisfy a fashion of the elite. The people has been abolished from the city’s official melodramatic manifestation”, the modernist would complain. Accordingly, free tickets for all, and educational programs that even went so far as to teach when to applaud during a concert. The same occurred with the mobile libraries, which were to democratize the access to reading, called “a boy’s madness” by Prestes Maia, for whom the venture “would offer police novels for the idlers in República square”. The mayor who was to replace Fábio Prado was not interested in culture, but rather in urbanism. Instead of books and music, Maia wanted to spend his money on avenues and bridges.

But in the meantime, hurriedly, before his fall, Mário dispatched to the Northeast his Folkloric Research Mission, to try to bring back the Brazil that was still untouched by industrialization. A good part of the result of this effort to “show Brazil to the Brazilians” can be seen until January 25 at USP’s Brazilian Studies Institute, at the Mário de Andrade Collection exhibition, with the curatorship of Marta Rossetti Batista, bringing together works of sacred, traditional and popular art, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian art, gathered by the poet in the course of his life and, in particular, by the Mission.  At the same time, Edusp has just published the catalog of this display.

In 1938, Mário was dismissed and set off for exile in Rio de Janeiro. For his friend Paulo Duarte, it was the beginning of his death. Be that as it may, the experience was a paradigm used by Getúlio during the New State, when the ambiguity of the relationship between artists, intellectuals who wanted to build an awareness of nationality and the power of the State was to become consolidated. “The question of culture comes to be seen in terms of political organization, that is, the State creates its own cultural apparatuses, intended to disseminate its vision of the world to society as a whole”, Barbato says. The Mephistophelian dilemma vanishes. “The New State, like the crowning of the ‘passive revolution’, corresponded to a demand of the State also expressed as a demand for cultural unification, epitomized in a sui generis project: at one and the same time, modernizing and restoring the pillars of nationality. All in the name of the common good and of the building of the nation. This way, it was well accepted by sectors of intellectuality”, the researcher observes. The serpent’s egg had been opened up for good. National and popular won new meanings.