Conservatives whaled me for “degrading” America, purists for representing things, and the radicals were mad because I didn’t put in Nikolai Lenin as an American prophet.
Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, 1983
If it’s not art, it’s at least history.
Thomas Hart Benton, New York Times, 1968
But it is art. Incontestably and splendidly so. With the politics and dogmatic arguments of American modernism behind us, Benton’s first mural commission can be seen for the glory that it is. His ten-panel cross-section of American life, America Today—donated to the Metropolitan Museum and on display until next April—is an epic kaleidoscope that embodies the intimacy between visual art and United States social history in the first third of the twentieth century. Here is the restless pulse of the Jazz Age, painted just before an intoxicated nation sobered in realization of the full effects of the 1929 stock market crash. This is the mural series credited with prompting the federal mural project of the WPA in the 1930s. And it put Benton on the cover of Time, 1934.
A bastion of progressive adult education, the New School for Social Research commissioned the mural series for its board room in 1930. José Clemente Orozco had just received a commission to paint murals for the school’s public dining room and student lounge. Uninterested in the pure fresco Orozco practiced, Benton was eager to experiment with mural techniques on large panels to be installed upon completion. So eager was he that he took no fee for the commission, asking only to be compensated for materials. (“I’ll paint you a picture in tempera if you finance the eggs.”) He was ambitious for stature; America Today achieved it.
It seemed an inspired paring, Benton and Orozco. Both artists were committed to grand themes imbued with social significance. Both counted themselves on the left. Both were the nation’s most prominent spokesmen for mural painting as the premier medium for public architecture. Their work was complementary in intention and technique. Yet Orozco’s New School murals have not aged well while Benton’s retain their persuasive power.
The Mexican painter’s sententious fresco cycle lingers as a visual correlative to the rhetoric of social revolution promoted in the 1920s by editorials in New Masses. Popular in their time, today his murals carry the weight of a blunt instrument. I cannot look at his fervid assertions of the brotherhood of man without thinking of heavy machinery and the Red Army. The sensibility inherent in them hints—despite self-conscious commiseration, devoid of warmth, with the wretched of the earth—at the inhumanity at the heart of the millenarian ideology that inflected Orozco’s art.
By contrast, Benton’s dynamic Instruments of Power, the central panel of America Today, is animated by the ebullience of a decade that witnessed the flight of Charles Lindbergh and the passenger-carrying Graf Zeppelin. Benton understood the motive sources of industrial power—water, steam, electricity, the internal combustion engine—to be, also, the prime movers of an industrial democracy. The Machine Age had no lovelier apotheosis than this.
While not a member of the Communist party, Benton was a Marxist himself in the early Twenties. His disenchantment with orthodox Marxism came later, as it did to his friends Max Eastman and Sidney Hook. Still, he remained a populist, his cultural leftism refined by a pragmatism that led him to tell the socially-conscious Survey in 1930:
I realized that the supposed and much-harped-upon standardization of America was a neat descriptive formula which bore only a surface relation to fact. My experience had brought out infinite varieties of ways of living and doing which the formula did not fit.
The hero of America Today is the working man: the farmer, steel worker, construction worker, coal miner. But Benton’s enthusiasm for technology and American vitality was not naive. Coal, below, is an exquisitely rendered depiction of a bleak, back-breaking industry. The panel, aflame with social protest, is the single work that comes close to unrelieved pessimism. The stooped miners, the slag heaps, the shanties on a hill—all in service to a giant electrical plant belching smoke. The artist’s personal ambivalence toward a troubled industry in the Twenties is conveyed through formal means that maintain their aesthetic appeal even while withholding assent from their subject. It is a commanding performance that has few equals in modern painting.
Benton’s preparatory drawings for the murals are exhibited in a room adjoining the reconstructed board room setting. These are a feast in themselves. He had a firm hand, drawing with force and expressive intensity. Master of the classical essential—line—he brought to it a bold confidence that endowed with life every form he modeled, from machine parts to the human figure. His drawings obey William Morris Hunt’s dictum: “Draw firm! And be jolly!” Spend time with them. They tell us why Ingres referred to drawing as “the probity of art.”