University of Illinois at Chicago
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A Realist Indigenism: The Embattled Political Aesthetics of José Carlos Mariátegui and Amauta

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posted on 2019-08-01, 00:00 authored by Erin Maria Madarieta
This thesis focuses on José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), a Peruvian critic and Marxist political activist who founded the Peruvian Socialist Party. Mariátegui also edited the journal Amauta, which featured literature, visual art, and theoretical and political texts from 1926 to 1930. This project aims to contribute an original understanding of the thought and editorial practice of this historically significant figure by recuperating his endorsement of realist aesthetics, considering this in relation to theories of realism by Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, and using realism as a lens to comprehend Mariátegui’s pro-Indian stance, or indigenism. Mariátegui’s keen interest in the status and role of indigenous people in Peruvian society generated suspicions of classless and romantic populism among some commentators on the left. However, Mariátegui’s aesthetic writings explicitly condemn populism in favor of a realism that would empower people to make change in dialectical relation with concrete historical and material conditions. This thesis recognizes the broad currents of indigenism as the site of a border between populism and realism. But, it advocates for interpreting Mariátegui’s particular brand of indigenism as predominantly realist, due to his understanding of the oppression of Peru’s indigenous population as an economic issue based on neo-feudal land ownership practices. The first section of the thesis considers the resonances and distinctions between Mariátegui’s thought on realism and that of Lukács, using Mariátegui’s essay, “Cement and Proletarian Realism,” as a case study. The second section reinforces Mariátegui’s realism by analyzing non-aesthetic writings such as his book, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, as well as his aesthetic essay, “Literary Populism and Capitalist Stabilization.” This section also considers concepts of populism and indigenism broadly, their historical appearances in Peru, and the complexities entailed by their intersections and their relationships with Marxism and realism. The third section situates Mariátegui’s realist indigenism within a broader world-historical context, focusing on his relations with the Third International by way of its South American (and, later, Latin American) Bureau. It also discusses the Khrushchev-era reevaluation of Mariátegui’s thought and legacy by two Soviet historians, who declared his indigenism consistent with Marxism, rather than populism. Finally, the fourth section of the thesis questions how Amauta sought to address the key issues of what Mariátegui called “Peruvian reality” in its publication of visual material. It considers portrait paintings of rural indigenous subjects by José Sabogal, the international scope of Amauta’s art features, and the respective treatments of photography by Amauta and a coeval indigenist journal, La Sierra. Overall, this thesis shows that Mariátegui was criticized by contemporaries both for being too Europeanist and for being too indigenist, as well as for being too Marxist and for being too populist. In reality, he sought to use modern Marxist thought of European origin to set in motion a communist revolution in Peru which would liberate all of the working class, including (largely white and mestizo) urban industrial workers and the masses of rural indigenous peasants. Toward this end, his political and aesthetic writings and his selection of visual material for Amauta relied, to varying degrees, on realism. The benefit of Mariátegui’s realist indigenism is that it acknowledges the need to address racial oppression in the Peruvian context, but provides an analysis of such oppression that reveals actionable paths of solidarity that cross racial lines to foster a shared classless society. This study suggests that Mariátegui’s political aesthetics therefore have something valuable to teach us today, even outside of Latin America, as many scholars, artists, and political thinkers struggle to imagine ways of tackling economic inequality and taking racial oppression seriously while avoiding the demobilizing and fracturing side effects of identity politics.



Stimson, Blake


Stimson, Blake


Art History

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Masters

Degree name

MA, Master of Arts

Committee Member

Finegold, Andrew Brown, Nicholas Saona, Margarita

Submitted date

August 2019

Thesis type



  • en

Issue date