There is no sin in art except to be boring. But didacticism is a big enough indulgence to count as a sin, or threaten to. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood at the Peabody Essex Museum calls upon us to ask how much didacticism renders art intolerable, just as too much salt renders water undrinkable.
First, a warning. Benton’s art looks very much of its time, especially this selection of work that relates to cinema. It connects to the methods and themes of American illustration in a way that was lost in the ascendancy of postwar abstraction, and was never entirely regained except in the form of ironic quotation.
Don’t let that fool you. Much of the contemporary art presented to us as worthy of the museum is didactic, and thus Benton is a more direct ancestor to it than his star pupil, Jackson Pollock. The work of Kara Walker, to which the resemblance to Benton’s is incidental but nevertheless evident, does not leave the audience much room to come to its own conclusions about racism. (Racism is a bad thing, in case you were undecided.) Neither do some of her viewers. When visitors to A Subtlety, Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx installation in Brooklyn last year, comported themselves with insufficient gravity, one self-appointed enforcer yelled a tirade at them. “I feared the mostly white visitors would not see me or the violent history the art reflected,” as he explained. Another suggested that “deep reverence may not be white people’s spiritual gift.” (Maybe we could learn some from this guy.)
Similar moral outrage and simplistic racial animus drive Benton’s Invasion (1942), in which Hirohito’s ape-mouthed soldiers are attacking an American family on their homestead. A boy lies in his blood as they force his mother’s legs apart and bayonet his grandfather right in the mouth. (Japanese military aggression in World War II was a bad thing, in case you were undecided.) The image is unalloyed jingoism but, as the critic Robert Hughes noted, there are really two PCs, political correctness and patriotic correctness.
Invasion was part of Benton’s “Year of Peril” series, an unabashedly propagandistic mural cycle intended to rouse American desire to fight the Axis. As he explained in a film clip displayed in the exhibition, his travels around the country as a lecturer brought him into contact with a citizenry he thought too complacent about the evil threatening them at Pearl Harbor and perhaps still further inland. His pride of country is unimpeachable, but as art this series is ridiculous. In Again, a trio of brutes, flanked by flags bearing the swastika, the rising sun, and (one presumes) the bundle of reeds, together drive a lance into the side of a recrucified Jesus. A Luftwaffe fighter shoots rounds into the wound from the black sky above for good measure. Benton’s colors are tacky and his rendering makes both figures and landscape look like they’re made out of rubber. “Year of Peril” goes to show that patriotic correctness is as toxic to art as political correctness. Ultimately they are two sides of one dyspeptic coin.
To its credit, though, the series proves that Benton was absorbing the lessons of movie-making if not always putting the learning to good use. Benton had a theatrical temperament that drew him to emulate the gesticulating compositions of Michelangelo. In the ’20s he found work as a scenic painter in the burgeoning film mecca of Fort Lee, New Jersey, of all places. The combination of Renaissance and modern drama informed the look of his series depicting the early settlement of America. Most of these finally ended up at the Nelson-Atkins and are on loan from there, with a few lending gaps filled in with reproductions on canvas. The whole of it is a striking masterwork of Art Deco painting, pushed over the top at the PEM by a crowded installation, outsize labels with Deco typefaces, and walls painted the color of tomato soup. Despite what you’d think from his portrayal of the Imperial Japanese Army, Benton recognized that much ill was done to the Native Americans. Lost Hunting Ground (1927-28) shows a pigtailed Indian, his back bent in resignation, looking on as whites raise a cabin and till a field in the distance.
Benton had a plenitude of only one talent, the ability to model geometric form. His color was charmingly moody at best. His paint application was mostly unnoticeable and the exceptions tend to count against him. But his sense of chiaroscuro and volume were so strong that the other shortcomings don’t matter much. The rich monochromes of early film landed on his imagination in a particularly resonant way, and his visual predilections explain why.
Exhibitions of his work at the Metropolitan Museum in the early ’30s won him renown, and in ’37 LIFE magazine sent him on an assignment to portray the movie industry in Hollywood. 400 pencil drawings led to 40 wash drawings and culminated in Hollywood, seven feet wide and crammed full of studio vignettes. Benton’s depiction, including what the catalog describes as a “caustic essay” by the artist, prompted LIFE to scratch the piece. His lack of reverence for the moguls if not the underlings is reflected in a note about the painting to his editor. “I wanted to give the idea that the machinery of the industry, cameras, carpenters, big generators, high voltage wires etc. is directed mainly at what young ladies have under their clothes.”
Indeed, the center of this ambitious arrangement in two-point perspective is a redhead in a pink brassiere that clings to her like a scent and provides as much opacity. A suited leading man kneels before her as lighting and camera crews look on. Over on the left another scene is being filmed. A man in a top hat, as he dips his dance partner, is for some reason about to be tomahawked in the back by an actor in a feather headdress. On the right an audio man and an electrician ply their trades. In the near background, actresses primp in the mirror. One of them is reading a newspaper with her feet up. In the far background still another movie is in the works, an epic with a city aflame in the distance.
This is also a didactic work insofar as Benton is giving us a judgmental overview of Hollywood. But it’s not all judgment, and thus not all didacticism, and the art as art doesn’t get chased off. If the action in front of the camera is farcical, the action behind it is not. Benton studies the generators and lights and audio gear with affection. The men running them are engaged in dignified work. This new and possibly disreputable medium nevertheless merits a visual treatment set up with the mathematical care that Piero brought to his religious works, he seems to tell us.
This exhibition contains much more that merits contemplation. Benton’s treatment of the black man would be an essay unto itself. (In short it was problematic but positive in the main, suggesting that some of Benton’s prejudices were complicated.) Technically the paintings revive a method of egg tempera and oil that would have been familiar to Raphael. The catalog authors betray a discomfort with Benton’s politics in ways that are telling at times. There is, in summary, much to chew on here, suggesting that the PEM, by mounting the first serious Benton exhibition in over 25 years, has fulfilled an overdue need.