Tuesday, September 08, 2009

An Open Letter to Glenn Beck

After seeing Jeffry Cudlin's reaction to Glenn Beck's commentary on how Rockefeller was a Communist Fascist, I thought I'd shoot a response to Glenn Beck. (My only wish is that I double checked the spelling of Siqueiros before sending.


Mr. Beck,

I found your commentary on the art of Rockefeller Plaza to be of interest, for multiple reasons. I wanted to respond to some of your comments.

First, kudos for noticing the stylistic similarities between the art of the US, USSR, and Italy during the 1930s. I think even a casual observer of art history could draw the stylistic parallels you drew (if paying attention) and pause for a moment to scratch his head and ponder why. And, your observations are something I might address in a class I teach on Visual Literacy. For instance, "how does the logo for Shell Motor Oil represent the sale of oil?" A wise student might respond, "because shells represent fossils, and oil is made from fossil fuel." The natural conclusion, then, is that the Shell Motor Oil company chose the logo and identity of a shell to represent their product. It is logical. Just like your argument that Rockefeller was a closeted Communist/Socialist/Fascist based on the art on Rockefeller Plaza. Here is the problem with my student's conclusion: Shell Motor Oil didn't start out selling motor oil products; the company started out selling sea shells. The problem with your visual argument is that it ignores art history just as much as a college student ignores art history when signing up for an elective.

There were two major styles in the 1930s: Art Deco and something called Social Realism. Art Deco embraced the speed of the present (aeronautics, the car) and the streamlined promise of the future. Social Realism, poorly worded as it is, is basically realism with contemporary themes of agriculture and industry. Sometimes, the streamlined look of Art Deco would find its way into Social Realism. The reason why Social Realism gained in popularity has more to do with a response to abstraction in the forms of Cubism and Expressionism, both of which were viewed as "not art" from such politically polar opposites as Adolph Hitler and Teddy Roosevelt. Both men could not comprehend the work of Duchamp, Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Kandinsky, or Moholy-Nagy being classified as "art."

The new politics of Europe in the 1920s and 30s (Communism in the USSR, National Socialism in Germany, and Fascism in Italy) embraced the style of Social Realism in an effort to identify with a populous that they thought was being ignored by the previous ruling parties. While all of those political philosophies were at odds with each other, they did have at least one common ground that was, for lack of a better phraseology, elevating "the common man." (The roots of Democracy also spring from this soil. As tyrannical dictators formed and managed the politics of parts of Europe, we could extend the soil analogy further - weeds also grow in fertile ground.) The art form of Social Realism was used as propaganda. For the aforementioned states in Europe, the propaganda partly illustrates the benefits of the benevolent government. The propaganda of the European states also championed some ridiculous notion of "the ideal man," which lead to jingoism, and eventual xenophobia resulting in death camps and executions.

The U.S. had something similar to Social Realism: Regionalism, as painted by John Stuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood. There were also muralist painters in Mexico that were influencing the art of the U.S. with artists like Diego Rivera, David Siquieros. Regionalism also championed themes of agriculture and manufacturing. But, the reason was, in theory, to empower those hurt most by the burden of the Great Depression. Regionalism was also used as propaganda for the WPA. What better way to illustrate the strength of a government program than to commission artists to paint families benefiting from the food grown on lands now irrigated by a newly constructed dam?

By the 1950s, with The Cold War, nearly all citizens of the U.S. regarded Communism as an evil.
As the U.S. was fighting World War II, nearly all citizens in the U.S. regarded Fascism as an evil.
But, in 1933, when much of this art was commissioned, the U.S. opinions of either of these political philosophies was, at best, mixed, and for some cautiously optimistic.

It would seem irrational that Rockefeller, who benefitted from Capitalism, and is arguably the wealthiest man ever to live in the United States, would toss away his fortunes under Communist rule. He hired Rivera not because of his politics, but because his mother thought he was a great painter. Art history thinks much the same of Rivera (though not with as much favor as it does with those masters of The Renaissance). As for the other art commissioned for the building, it was executed under the dominating style of the time, Art Deco and Social Realism. Had Rockefeller gone with a more avant garde style, like Expressionism, people would have received it with much lass favor because of its non-objective nature. Had Rockefeller chosen Cubism, well, as the joke goes, everyone knows a person does not have three eyes.

Tyrants often choose symbols to represent their messages. These symbols can easily be seen with dread by those who do not share the ideals of the tyrants - that is the oppressive control of the tyrant over his subjects, masked under any political ideology. The tyrants of Communism chose the hammer and the sickle, pretending to champion manufacturing and agriculture (while exploiting all of their citizens). There were many in 1933 who were unaware of the tyranny under Soviet Communism. So, there is probably some anachronism in your assertion that Rockefeller is a Communist based on the images of hammers and sickles on 30 Rock. What is more plausible is that, he was obliged to put art there under whatever percent for art regulation was in place at the time. Since this coincided with the WPA, a program that supported artists amongst other public initiatives, artistic allegories to work that stimulated the economy or got people out of bread lines and into the markets were preferred.

There certainly is anachronism based on your assertion that the donation of Swords into Ploughshares (which is from The Bible in the books of Isaiah and Micah) proves Rockefeller is a Communist, especially since the donation was in 1959 -- 22 years after John D. Rockefeller II's death. But, since the quote is in The Old Testament, (Tanakh) does that mean that all Jews are Communists? (I know this was a popular belief by some in the Right Wing back in the 1950s.) Does it mean that all Christians are Communists, because they also read the Bible, which contains the Old Testament? No. Such assertions would be as anachronistic and false as suggesting that some Neolithic people are Nazis, simply because they used the swastika as a religious symbol 7000 years before Hitler appropriated it.

John James Anderson

1 comment:

johnjamesanderson said...

Interestingly, I had to do a spam check after sending the letter. The word I had to type... tyrant. (sigh)