Thomas Hart Benton’s masterwork finds a home at the MetFeb 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 21 • By JAMES GARDNER
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.
Hosted by Michael Graham.3:35 PM, Dec 2, 2014 • By TWS PODCAST
THE WEEKLY STANDARD podcast with editor William Kristol on the response to the Grand Jury's decision regarding now-former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and the death of Michael Brown.
Dec 8, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 13 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
"The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who in August shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, would have generated widespread anger and disappointment in any case. But the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who is widely viewed in the minority community as being in the pockets of the police, made matters infinitely worse . . . ” (“The Meaning of the Ferguson Riots,” New York Times, Nov. 25).
10:57 PM, Nov 24, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
Attorney General Eric Holder released this statement after news came down that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri:
10:25 PM, Nov 24, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
President Obama, speaking live to the nation after the decision in Ferguson not to indict a police office for the killing of Michael Brown, said that "America isn't everything that it could be."
10:10 PM, Nov 24, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
The prosecutor that announced Darren Wilson will not face charges for the murder of Michael Brown is a Democrat. From the 8th paragraph of a CBS report from the summer:
'Demonstrations like these have the potential to spark a sustained and positive national dialogue'12:04 PM, Nov 21, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
Ahead of the grand jury in Ferguson announcing whether it will indict a police officer for killing a man in Ferguson, Missouri, Attorney General Eric Holder has released a video announcement telling law enforcement to behave.
"The Justice Department encourages law enforcement officials, in every jurisdiction, to work with the communities they serve to minimize needless confrontation," Holder says.
'Extremely Tense'10:53 PM, Nov 20, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
Sean Hannity reported tonight that Ferguson, Missouri is "already in an uproar":
4:22 PM, Oct 13, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
Professor Cornel West was "taken into custody" in Ferguson, Missouri earlier today, according to the New York Times:
Protesters, including religious leaders, were arrested on Monday as they stepped forward into a line of officers in riot gear outside this city’s police department, a day when organizers here have promised numerous organized demonstrations of civil disobedience around the St. Louis region over questions about police conduct.
Feckless men, reckless women, flawed castingOct 20, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 06 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In the universe according to Gone Girl, men are no great shakes: They’re inconstant and weak and foolish. But women . . . ah, women. They’re smart, resourceful, infinitely clever—and profoundly dangerous.
But Washington’s a different story.Oct 6, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 04 • By BLAKE HURST
What’s the matter with Kansas? It’s a decade since Thomas Frank launched a thousand headlines with his book of that title, itself a reference to a famous 1896 essay by Kansas journalist William Allen White. Frank’s thesis was simple: Kansans, and by extension the rest of the red states, vote against their economic interests. Or as he puts it in the first page of his book: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about.”
10:32 AM, Sep 24, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
In his United Nations speech, President Obama will bring up the summer shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
"I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true," Obama will say, according to prepared text of his address.
11:43 AM, Sep 11, 2014 • By DANIEL HALPER
Just before 3 a.m., a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the office of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. The office targeted was in his home district in Missouri, and not his Washington, D.C. office.
Body cameras seem great, but why no debate?4:45 PM, Sep 3, 2014 • By JIM SWIFT
“There is little debate that all patrol officers should be issued BWCs,” wrote attorney Eugene Ramirez in a white paper his law firm issued on so-called bod
A tale (or tail) of lost freedom.Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By ANDREW B. WILSON
On a beautiful day in late October, Gus and I were enjoying a rare moment when our only companions in the large and hilly park in front of St. Louis’s Concordia Seminary were nut-gathering squirrels and the birds in the trees.