AMERICA TODAY…Mural by Thomas Hart Benton
As I often entered the Equitable Building on Seventh Avenue in New York to meet with my client Ernst and Young, I would revel at the building’s long mural by Thomas Benton, celebrating the various enterprises that in the thirties, comprised this great United States as he saw them. The mural, America Today, completed in 1931, was first commissioned for the The New School of Social Research’s cafeteria deep in the Village.
Painted in tempera, Hart Benton agreed to the commission if the School ‘financed the eggs.’ Purporting the same politics as the School, Progressive Realism was a socially committed artist, championing his native tradition, celebrating the technological advances of the period. He was quoted, “I don’t know if it’s art or not and don’t care, what I wanted to show is the energy, rush, and confusion of American Life.”
A peculiar choice since it followed the onset of the Great Depression by a matter of months. The mural was instrumental in establishing the most successful public art program in this county, the Works Progress Administration or the WPA, which is exemplified to this day throughout the United States.
Born in the heartland of America, Missouri, Hart Benton was a Populist at heart, and like his political family, harbored distrust for the Northeastern Capitalists. Hart Benton wanted to be an artist. Still in his teens, he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He moved to Paris, then onto New York. His father, who considered art an unmanly trade, was furious; the two were never close again. His first work focused on history, but after moving to New York, he soon became drawn to ‘contemporary’ subjects, including his attraction for construction (skyscrapers) and machinery — the emblem of the Modern Age. It was this cross fertilization that set him apart from the other great muralists of the time, Rivera and Orozco, both of whom were Mexican.
Diego Rivera was an artistic bedfellow to Benton, but expressed his politics aggressively through his murals. So much so that his largest commission for Rockefeller Center, now ’30 Rock, was up for less than twenty-four hours before David Rockefeller sadly ordered it to be painted over because of its political content. It was Hart Benton’s pugnacious self-doubt that sabotaged his career.
Hart Benton’s work was more celebratory in nature. A dedicated Realist, his style fell out of favor dramatically with the advent of America’s first original art movement, Abstract Expressionism, championed by its headmaster, Jackson Pollack, who had once been Hart Benton’s student at the Art Students League. The two men bonded in a complicated, mentoring friendship, no doubt cemented by a mutual investment in alcohol, and a pumped-up machismo built on various personal insecurities. This did not dissuade Hart Benton, he stuck to his Realism guns. It put him on the cover of Time.
In the next fifteen years, the world changed, moving out of the Great Depression, through World War II, and into a bomb sheltered-haunted cold war. America changed from a mighty fortress to an outreaching global imperium.
Most importantly the art shifted from provincial to conceptual depictions. Hart Benton, however, did not change.
This is the story, or part of it, as told in “Thomas Hart Benton: A Life,” by the American art historian Justin Wolff, who teaches at the University of Maine. Benton, who lived from 1889 to 1975, is not a significant presence now. “The particular audience he painted for is long gone; the one that has replaced it knows nothing about him. Generally speaking, the elite art establishment of museums and scholars that he reviled has pegged him as at best a period artifact and at worst, as, in Pollock’s Oedipal words, ‘something against which to react very strongly.’ ” (From: The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, by Holland Cotter, June 29, 2012.)
Hart Benton’s America Today is akin to American Jazz. It’s visual syncopated split paneled scenes, it graphically reveals the urban experience, it depicts modern American life with its restless, forward leaning energy, on the brink of explosion.
In Paris, Hart Benton played the roustabout bohemian to the hilt, wearing artsy clothes, acquiring a mistress, reading Ruskin, drinking all night, getting into fights. But his painting was shaky, as he tried out a range of styles — Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Abstraction, one after the other, often in combination — with dispiriting results. Whenever he felt he was on to something, he slapped himself down, in a self-destructive pattern that would take other forms later on. His work always revealed an insecurity. Upon return to the U.S., Hart Benton became clear of one thing…he despised Modern Art! By the early 1920’s, he had worked out a distinctive brand of stylized Realism inspired in part by the twisty figures of Mannerism and Expressionism.
In the early 1930’s, when the country hit bottom, Hart Benton’s profile was high, and many young painters sought him out as the artist to depict a hopeful ‘new America.’ Critics pointed to racial and ethnic stereotypes in a mural he did for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Conservatives objected to his inclusion of Ku Klux Klan figures in another mural, this one on the history of Indiana done for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. He could not keep his mouth shut and was his own worst enemy, costing him commissions and teaching positions, driven by insecurity.
Hart Benton’s later years were no more comforting.
He fell from public favor again and wrestled until the end with self-doubt. In retrospect this mural seemed naive, even to Hart Benton. The full brunt of criticism was not leveled against him until the Whitney murals were unveiled. He retreated into his Regionalist reputation to obfuscate his radical political nature illustrated in the mural. The failings of the Machine Age had become apparent.
The mural still stands on its own merits as a work of art.