Are we allowed, in 2015, to like Thomas Hart Benton? And if so, are we allowed to admit in public that we like him?
Such are the questions that tax the conscience of the bien-pensant critic who stands before Benton’s sequence of 10 murals, America Today, which has just found a new and permanent home at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More than 80 years after its completion, and more than 30 years after it began a nomadic existence, this acquisition is one of the most noteworthy additions ever made to the museum’s extensive collection of 20th-century American art.
America Today was painted between 1930 and 1931 for the boardroom of the New School for Social Research, located on West 12th Street in Manhattan. There it remained until 1982, when the New School, having decided that the mural was too costly to maintain, sold it to Equitable Life (now AXA Equitable). For 30 years, it hung in the lobby of Equitable’s corporate headquarters on Seventh Avenue. When the company reconceived its lobby in 2012, it donated the work in its entirety to the Met.
Thus, although the work was on public view for much of the last three decades, something about its entering the collection of the Met suggests that, finally, Benton has been accepted, with full rights and honors, into the canon of American art.
A leader of the so-called regionalist school, Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) was born and died in Missouri. Accordingly, he was admired—or reviled, depending on one’s point of view—as both a voice of the nativist heartland and a staunch critic of mainstream modernism. But the truth, as always, was a little more complicated. After attending the Art Institute of Chicago, he spent several years in Paris, studying Cézanne and the Old Masters in the Louvre. However, from 1913 until 1935, he lived in the belly of the beast, New York City, where he was a well-regarded teacher at the Art Students League. During this time, he won considerable acclaim through his painting, and, in 1934, his self-portrait even graced the cover of Time.
One year later, Benton left all of that behind and returned home to Kansas City, where he had received a commission to paint a mural for the Missouri state capitol at Jefferson City. He also began to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute. For the next 40 years he lived (and eventually died) in that city, and, as he grew older, he became ever more bitter toward the East Coast art establishment.
The reasons for the acrimony between Benton and the modernists were numerous. His paintings remained resolutely representational at a time when most ambitious art was becoming abstract. He also said some ill-considered things about abstract expressionism that caused the guardians of advanced taste to launch an energetic counterattack against him. It did not help that Benton’s art was so easy to understand and admire: From the Eastern seaboard to the hamlets of the heartland, even the most untutored viewer could immediately identify Benton’s grain silos and riverboats and take pleasure in the mastery, the drama, the chromatic dazzle with which this artist filled a wall. It was that legibility and charm, that rejection of any and all rites of initiation, that struck modernists as a provocation, as an attack from the heartland on the advanced taste of the coast.
Today, of course, the modernist era is long past, as are most of the critics for whom Benton was once anathema. And so, finally, it is possible to view Benton’s America Today with fresh and disinterested eyes. And when we do, we are apt to see that, indeed, Benton did not paint very well—at least not in the sense of being able to draw energetic life from the medium of paint, from the pure pigment itself. His tone and handling tend to feel flat and tired. To put this matter in perspective, when Norman Rockwell, also the object of a recent revival of interest, set his mind to it, he could generate far more interesting paint textures than Benton ever did.
But if criticism must duly note such weaknesses, it must also appreciate that Benton’s strengths always lay elsewhere, and that he attained what he was after with considerable success. He was no more interested in the materiality of paint than were the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who were in some sense his closest colleagues. When art of this sort succeeds, its power derives less from the skillful handling of the brush than from the artist’s imaginative faculty and compositional power.