October 3, 2012

Mini-review: "Thomas Hart Benton: A Life," by Justin Wolff

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life, by Justin Wolff

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life
by Justin Wolff
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

As I was reminded of by a few Indiana readers after reviewing Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons earlier this year, the American Midwest is littered with crumbling tributes (forgotten statues, aging schools) to artists from those areas who flashed up suddenly during the Early Modernist era of the 1910s, '20s and '30s, back when socially aware, politically active (and mostly radically liberal) blue-collar artists from small Midwestern cities were all the rage, who then mostly all fell back into obscurity because of their work having no real staying power; and so it was back in Missouri where I grew up when it came to painter Thomas Hart Benton, part of a movement called Regionalism which emphasized representational folk art celebrating the lumpen-proletariat (and that went hand-in-hand with the Social Realist writers of the time like John Steinbeck and Nelson Algren -- think of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" as the most famous examples), but that eventually lost the war for the public's hearts and minds to the experimental, shiny Modernism of Hemingway, Picasso and Art Deco, little still remembered about him even by my own childhood other than that he did a famous mural in the Missouri state capitol that nearly all schoolchildren are eventually forced to see on one field trip or another, plus the infamous fact that he was the first mentor of eventual Abstract Expressionist superstar Jackson Pollock, until Pollock perpetrated a complete ideological rebellion against him after World War Two and essentially kick-started the Mid-Century Modernist era.

And so it was especially fascinating for me to read Justin Wolff's excellent and well-researched new biography of Benton, because in many ways it plays as an intriguing alt-history of the entire 20th century that's now been almost completely forgotten -- an alternative future where neither fascism or Stalinism ever happened, where a happy and abundant socialist-influenced America bases its entire popular culture not on the snarky conceptual mind games that really did eventually define the last half of the 20th century, but rather a deep veneration for craftmanship, authenticity, small-town tradition and the inherent nobility of the working man -- and much of what makes this book delightful is not necessarily reading about Benton himself but rather picturing what kind of world we would live in right now if these Regionalists and Social Realists really had become the dominant cultural force of the 20th-century American arts. (As the saying goes, history is written by the winners, and Wolff does a great job here of showing why this is precisely the reason that so few people anymore have even heard of Benton, and why most of the great Regionalist leftist public murals were literally destroyed in the conservative 1950s, right after the war.) But at the same time, Wolff also unblinkingly looks at why Benton as an individual certainly didn't do himself any favors when it came to his own eventual obsolescence; prickly and self-righteous even in the best of times, he had a bad habit when threatened of biting the hands that fed him, viciously turning on the very museum curators, college boards and magazine editors who write the history books in the first place, not helped at all by an ugly homophobic streak that eventually turned into an out-and-out conspiracy theory against anyone who ever did him wrong. Once the most famous working artist in America, Wolff's engaging biography shows very systematically what exactly happened to turn him into the nearly forgotten historical footnote he's now become, and I have to admit that the gripping saga is one of the best nonfiction reads I've experienced this year.

Out of 10: 9.4

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:12 AM, October 3, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |