Thomas Hart Benton

The poisoned art of Donald Trump

The 45th president ascends in part by being a master storyteller. Can artists, and citizens, reclaim the right to the truth of their own stories?

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late October, in that odd period of presumed normalcy before the national elections when it was broadly believed that plurality would win the day, I wandered among the centuries and eventually landed in the pair of rooms that contain America Today, the glorious set of murals that Thomas Hart Benton created in 1930 and ’31, during the depths of the Great Depression, for the New School for Social Research.

Looking back on that visit from the brink of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, it seems a premonition, or at least a fascinating chapter, in a tangled tale that weaves through hope and cynicism and disease and demagoguery and the politics of outrage and the demonization of the outsider and the role of art in culture and the tottering of the great American experiment, and if that seems like an unlikely jumble of loose ends, let me try to tie them together for you.


“Coal,” Thomas Hart Benton. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

BENTON WAS PROBABLY THE MOST PROMINENT of the American Regionalists who flourished from the 1920s through the ’40s until Abstract Expressionism largely swept them off the contemporary map. With his brawny approachability and celebration of everyday life and work, he seemed an ideal candidate for making America great again, in an unspun sense: a vigorous hero of the people (even if his family background was American patrician), a chronicler of the virtues of the good anonymous men and women who used to make the nation work.

For decades Benton, despite his years in Paris and long tenure in New York, was largely dismissed as an agrarian, an anti-modernist, and a nostalgist, out of step with the push and power of the contemporary world. He was alternately praised as an upholder of traditional values and panned as a sentimentalist and a reactionary: very bad readings, as it turns out, from both the right and left, each of which misunderstood him in its own way.

On that October day at the Met, the America Today galleries were crowded practically cheek-to-cheek, and they were crowded with what struck me as a magnificent sampling of the hopeful nation Benton’s murals chronicle: young, old, middle-aged, black, brown, white, native speakers and immigrants and visitors from other countries, all gathered to marvel at a vision of a country of opportunity. It was an expansive vision, and one of its time: locomotives steaming, propeller planes whirring, blimps flying, steelworkers sweating, loggers sawing, construction workers building, bootleggers selling, dancers dancing, jazz bands playing, boxers slugging, secretaries holding onto subway straps, mothers and children playing, women sitting at a soda fountain, a bowler-hatted gent reading his newspaper, acrobats soaring, lovers kissing, farmers checking their cornstalks. Benton’s depiction of the nation was celebratory but far from naïve. He saw the flip sides. He painted black lives and white lives, but rarely together: It was a segregated and unequal nation. Outreaching Hands, a startling strip running more than eight feet wide across a doorway and just about a foot and a half high, is Depression realism approaching cynicism: a woman’s hands raising a coffee percolator on high and pouring into a cup; desperate workers’ hands grasping toward it, a businessman’s hands offering a buck or two; a top-hatted plutocrat holding out a fat wad of bills; and guess who’s going to get served first (and possibly only)?

“Outreaching Hands,” Thomas Hart Benton. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Benton’s America was not a perfect America, but it was an America to build on: a bustling, forward-moving America, built on diversity and difference into a collaborative vision of what a dynamic and progressive culture could be. In Benton’s America – which seems so painfully elusive now, slipping like that cup of coffee from so many people’s grasp – there is room for all sorts. In his America everybody has a story, and everybody’s story is worth telling.

And that, in late October of 2016, was the America I thought would prevail in this most tendentious and dangerous of elections in my lifetime. Like so many others, I was wrong. Lulled by all the stories, I missed the Story.


I AM A CHRONICLER OF OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES, not a teller of my own, and I do not like the idea of telling the particular story this is leading toward, because it is private. But the invasion of the private, and the unleashing of resentments and fears that has ridden shotgun with it, has been one of the major stories of the election campaign and its aftermath that we have just endured, and haunts the future we face. We will invade your body. We will invade your movements. We will invade your private information, and use it against you, and pass it to whomever we please. We will incite violence against our opponents, as with Trump’s notorious campaign suggestion of a renegade solution by firearm to keep Hillary Clinton in her place: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.” We will keep lists. We will take names.


Strange Fruit: Arvie Smith’s seductive provocations at PAM

The Portland artist's bold paintings about race in the museum's APEX series rub together attraction and repulsion as they play with stereotypes

When Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s mercilessly beautiful song about a lynching, at Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1939 and into the ’40s, it became something of a benediction: she would close her show with it, the waiters would stop serving, the room would darken, no encore followed. It was if the audience had entered a place at once blasphemous and holy, a hollow where time stopped in the presence of the unutterable, and the thing itself was dirty but the memorization of it, the acknowledgement of its awful reality, was somehow purifying: we have seen evil, and felt its power, and by facing it we have somehow made it lesser and ourselves more.

Arvie Smith, "Strange Fruit," 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith, “Strange Fruit,” 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith’s 1992 painting of the same title and theme performs some of the same functions in his current APEX Northwest artists series show at the Portland Art Museum, and it also acts as an oversize calling card for the other nine paintings in the exhibition. Grandly scaled at 92 x 70 inches, it overwhelms viewers with the hyperreality of an American scene: the lynching of a nearly naked black man by a gang of white men whose muscles ripple beneath the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Like an American Jesus on a Southern cross, the black man lets his head slump sideward in defeat; the rope slung over the tree limb and tied around his neck seems almost as thick as his arm. The two men stringing him up seem almost to strut with pride. Near the bottom right corner, at the level where a dog might look out, two malevolent red-rimmed eyes stare from slits in a Klan hood. Beneath the robe of one of the Klansmen, a pair of very contemporary, everyday casual athletic shoes sticks out, catapulting the time frame on beyond Michael Jordan. 


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