During the twentieth century, Mexico and the other nations of Central America experience difficult transitions to political independence. Eschewing their status as colonies of European countries, most Central American nations struggle to define themselves politically. Despite the vast natural resources the region possesses—the very things that make it attractive to Europeans and the United States—many of the countries remain impoverished throughout the twentieth century, often as a result of oppressive political regimes that bring about the concentration of wealth in the hands of tiny elites. Throughout the century, the United States is deeply involved economically and politically in the region.
Works of the visual and other arts are produced throughout Central America in the twentieth century, oftentimes despite conditions that are not conducive to cultural production. In many cases, the works embody trenchant critiques of current social, political, and economic conditions. Books, films, and paintings help to bring international awareness of the deplorable conditions under which many Central Americans live. Perhaps the best-known socially engaged art the region produces in the twentieth century is that of the Mexican muralists beginning in the 1920s. Through their travel, artmaking, and teaching in the United States, the Mexican muralists exert an important influence on younger painters in the U.S.
In many instances, the visual arts respond to both indigenous traditions and Western European movements. In the early part of the century, Cubism and Surrealism exert an impact on artists in Mexico and elsewhere. Corresponding assertions of the importance of local traditions and themes follow, for instance in the Indigenismo movement of the 1920s and ’30s and the Neomexicana movement of the 1980s.