KCAC Forum Magazine June/July 1989
THE LOST LEADER: BENTON AS CRITICAL TOUCHSTONE
by Hilton Kramer
Often the status enjoyed by certain artists of the past, especially the recent past, is peculiarly dependent upon the changes that occur in the way the art is judged. Specifically, it is dependent on the relative roles played by cultural criteria, on the one hand, an aesthetic criteria, on the other, in determining an artist’s stature. Thomas Hard Benton is clearly – in my view, anyway – a case in point, for he has lately been the beneficiary, an especially notable beneficiary, of a momentous shift that has taken place in recent years, a shift from the aesthetic judgement of art to the cultural judgement of art.
It was no accident, as they say, that Benton’s reputation went into a severe eclipse during the heyday of the New York School. The aesthetic character of abstraction, among the many other things it can be said to do, compels us to come to terms with what is intrinsic and irreducible in art – its aesthetic substance. Because abstraction refuses to ally itself with an immediately discernible subject matter, it compels us to give our total attention and our total response to the purely aesthetic element in art – to that which makes art what it is, art, and not something else. In a climate that favored this aesthetic concentration on art. Benton could not survive as a figure of large accomplishment. For in Benton’s art, much (if not quite everything) is devoted to this “something else,” which I shall describe here as the cultural component in art.
As many observers have noted, in recent years there has been a distinct turn in critical opinion away from the aesthetic view of art. In the ascendancy for some time now has been what I call the cultural view of art – which is to say, the tendency to judge art primarily by non-aesthetic or extra-aesthetic or even anti-aesthetic standards. Sometimes this tendency goes by the name of “postmodernism” – on the assumption, I suppose, that the aesthetic view of art is identical with the modernist outlook. (This does not wholly account for the nature of modernism, but that is a subject for a different symposium – not one likely to elicit the support of the Missouri cultural establishment.) The characteristics of this cultural view of art are easily discerned, for they are all focused on “issues” and “ideas” – which is to say, on various kinds of social, sexual, political, psychological or other subject matter, or on notions (again, social sexual, political or psychological notions) having to do with the proper functions of art.
It required such a shift from an aesthetic to a cultural view of art – the shift, if you will from a modernist to the post modernist view of art – before a revival of Thomas Hart Benton’s reputation could occur. For, the kind of interest we take in Benton is almost wholly a non-aesthetic interest. it may even be – it seems to be for most people – an anti-aesthetic interest. In Benton’s own lifetime, and now again in the 1980’s – in what I sometimes think of as the second coming of Thomas hart Benton – he is admired not so much for what he created in his art as for the way he offered his admirers an exit from the problems of art, that he was, and is again, so much admired and even loved. In the cultural history of Missouri, of course, Benton is a special kind of folk hero, and has probably never ceased to be that kind of hero. But in the world beyond Missouri, he has lately regained a new status and celebrity. We are, therefore, promoted to ask the question: What does this revival of Benton’s art mean? For it is not only the revival of an artist’s reputation but a revival of the myths upon which the reputation rests.
For an answer to this question, I think we need to turn to the materials – the cultural and critical materials – that played so great a role in establishing the Benton myth in the first place: the myth of Thomas hart Benton as not only a great American artist but as the painter who gave American life its quintessential expression in pictorial art. What is being claimed for Benton and his art in the second coming bears, after all, a distinct resemblance to the claims that were made on his behalf at the time of his first coming.
The classic text in the first effort to confer the honors of a kind of sainthood on Benton is to be found in Thomas Craven’s book Modern Art: The Men, The Movements, The Meaning, published by Simon and Schuster in 1934, and something of a bestseller in its day. The book itself an extremely interesting document in American cultural history – an attempt to serve the rising public interest in modern art (it was published just five years after the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in New York) while at the some time aiming to immaculate the public against the virus of modernism. In Craven’s account, modern art, is seen as a dire threat to the moral and political health of the nation – a threat, perhaps, to the very foundations of civilization itself. what makes all this a matter of interest to us is that Thomas Hart Benton is the book’s American hero.
Something of the tone and moral atmosphere of the book can be gleaned from the first paragraph of its introduction:
During the last generation [bear in mind that Craven is writing in the early 1930s], the world has been profoundly disturbed by the precipitate course of art. We have seen violence and rebellion, extraordinary personalities, appalling self-sacrifices for invisible ideals, brilliancy of all denominations. We have seen a new art spread like a contagion, infecting young men and women everywhere with wild ambitions and the spirit of discovery. Cults founded upon subtle technicalities have come and gone in swift succession. These cults had their origins in France: they were Bohemian in conception and international in membership.,.. They were transported to America where, by artificial propagation, they flowered prematurely and passed away. Today, the various sects and composing what is known as Modernism [Craven, be it noted, both capitalizes and italicizes the hated word] are officially entombed in the School of Paris, with Picasso as sexton. In that school, one finds the shrouds of the ancient past, the splintered bones of Cubism, salesmanship and the tragedy of the devalued dollar. The new movement is now a subject for the historian.
Thomas Hart Benton, “Cave Spring”
Clearly, Thomas Craven felt he had every reason to believe in 1934 he was seeing the end of modernist movement; and Thomas Hart Benton was one of the reasons why he believe that modernism had run its course. Craven spoke of the modernist “cults,” as he called them, as being “Bohemian in conception” and international in membership,” and in his view anything associated with Bohemianism and internationalism was obviously the world of the devil. Craven was a gifted writer, albeit in a somewhat melodramatic mode. In writing his study of modern art, he adopted a dramaturgical outlook, casting Benton int he role of the sinner redeemed (a stock character, after all, in the old melodramas). Or better still, if I may shift the metaphor, he casts Benton in the role (so familiar to the audiences of the old Western movies) of the US Cavalry that turns up on the nick of time to save the good, honest-to-God American folks from being scalped by the Indians – the Indians, in this case, being the Bohemians and internationalists dispatched from Paris to “infect” young American men and women with “wild ambitions,” which is to say, the ambition to create something that could take its place among the masterworks of the modernist movement in art.
Do I exaggerate the melodramatic element in Craven’s account? Hardly. This is the opening paragraph of Craven’s chapter on Benton:
Some twenty years ago… I came to New York from the Southwest, ready to fight and die for the arts. In the Arcade at Lincoln Square, that nest of youthful genius and dying failure, I rain across Thomas H. Benton, fresh from Paris. He was a sight, with his tight French clothes, his flat French hat, and his Balzac stick – the antithesis of everything American. He talked of abstract beauty and the subtleties of Gallic philosophy; of Platonic visions of art, and French poetry, an interest which in the light of my own aspirations, was most impressive. The nostalgia of Verlaine, the perverse sadness of Baudelaire, the attenuated dreams of the Symbolists – those neurasthenic imaginings of the French genius of the period which today no one would associate with Benton’s life and Thought, seemed to compose the fabric of his being. he was only twenty-three, but he looked old and sad: his face was deeply lined and drawn, and i cannot remember that he ever laughed. he was, I felt, the victim of some strange irregularity of development.
In his account of the life and work of Thomas Hart Benton, Craven offers us a morality tale of an American innocent, who in abandoning what he called “the environment of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer” for the attractions of modernism and the Latin Quarter, all but compromised his talent and lost his soul. yet from the dreaded fall to French aesthetics, the sinner was saved, after all. he escaped the temptations of the modernist devil and was triumphantly restored to his native roots – the source of all health and virtue. Craven gives this whole scenario the quality of a Hollywood epic.
Having readjusted himself to the native background, and recovered his youthful ability to participate psychologically in the life of America with its emotional ties, prejudices and sentiments, he began, step by step and scene by scene, to build an art of and for the American people. Year after year, he has traversed the country, a knapsack of drawing materials on his back. On food and on horseback, by motor, train and river boat, he has explored the United States from the great industrial centers to the furthermost corners of the backwoods. People of all kinds pose for him, put him up for the night, share drinks, stories, and gossip with him. his pictures have grown out of a rich experience – they represent not hearsay, but life. His expeditions are not those of a traveler or sightseer, the social reformer or the statistician; they are int he nature of the return of the native to the country of his youth. He understand the rank and file, and more than any artist I know of, has the ability to fit automatically into the various patterns of American life.
There is a lot more of this kind of thing in Craven’s chapter on Benton, for Benton is cast as the savior of American art, and thus a genuine hero of American life.
Discerning foreign visitors [Craven writes] are startled by the power of his native style – for Benton is American. He has the rawhide individualism, the cynical laugh, the rough humor, the talent for buffoonery, and something of the typical Westerner’s sentimental slant on life. And he has, to the full, the American’s distrust of ideas divorced from facts, a healthy realism which, whether our social soothsayers like it or not, may carry us safely into a better society.
For Craven, there can be no doubt about where the power of Benton’s art lies: “it is through content, through the materials represented, that art performs its initial function of social communication,” he writes. Which is, of course, to divert the discussion away from an aesthetic consideration of the work in order to praise for what I have called cultural content. Only once, and then very briefly, does Craven address himself to the aesthetic issue. This occurs when he speaks of the “three-dimensional” character of Benton’s murals. He quotes Benton himself as declaring that “the fetish of purity must inevitably fall when life enters” – meaning that in painting, a convincing illusionism was what was needed. And Craven himself reminds his readers that “in the robust art of the Renaissance, from Masaccio to Rubens, the trend of painting was toward a more convincing relief, toward an all-inclusive representation of the conditions of reality.” In other words, the only legitimate pictorial tradition for a 20th-century American art is the tradition of Renaissance illusionism. Little would Thomas Craven – or Thomas Hart Benton, for that matter – have ever dream that the day would come when a leading exponent of abstract painting, namely Frank Stella, would lay claim to his same tradition of Renaissance (or, in Stella’s case) Mannerist illusionism as a legitimate basis for a new abstraction. Yet this is what Stella has lately done in the volume of lectures he has called Working Space. Alas, there was so much about the aesthetics of painting that Craven – and writers like him – never dreamed of!
What makes Craven’s account of Thomas Hart Benton so interesting today, more than 50 years after he wrote it, is that it is so similar to the claims that are once again being advanced on the artist’s behalf. And what makes Craven’s account so poignant in the face of the current revival of Benton’s art is that the figure he is writing about is, in actuality,, one of the lost leaders of the American modernism that Craven so much despised. anyone who has seen and understood what Benton was attempting to achieve in the modernist art – and indeed, the abstract art – he produced in his early, avant-garde period will have ample reason to lament the failure of nerve that overtook him at a crucial moment in his development. Benton was by no means alone in suffering that failure of nerve in the aftermath of his return from Paris. There were many such causalities in the first generation of American modernists. Still, Benton did suffer that failure; and is, in truth, a failed artist who is once again being celebrated in the current revival of his art. Nothing that Craven wrote in the 1930s could change that, and none of his claims – which are so very much the same claims – now being advanced can change it, either. Thomas Craven failed -as Thomas Hart Benton failed – to repeal the history of the modern age. The second coming of Benton’s reputation is likewise doomed, but it will probably be a while before the artist’s admirers get the word.