Take Five: Art historian traces image and reality of Thomas Hart Benton
For all the perceived facility and quaintness of his artwork, Thomas Hart Benton was a polemical man. He believed firmly that authentic, anti-intellectual experience was to be conveyed in traditional, non-pretentious art and anything else — namely abstract modernism — was showy intellectual foolery.
Show-me realistic art might as well have been Benton's motto, true to his Missouri roots. He saw the European avant-garde work presented in 1913 at the famed Armory show in New York as so wrong that Benton devoted his life to its opposition. He painted farms and rivers and hard-working men in the fields and in taverns — all he felt was uncorrupted and made this country great.
It's no surprise then that Benton's art remains popular here; Missourians love a local son made good. What’s more, we see ourselves as the artist's subject, the great, patriotic Missouri. We get caught up in the honest, Jeffersonian state stretched out on canvas, happy to believe we are just as real and uncorrupted as the artist says we are. Not uncorrupted in a literal sense — debauchery is vital to this picture — but uncorrupted in our Americanism, that which really matters. We think we are what Benton thought we were and thought he was, and so we visit his murals and study his paintings.
But no one is who they say they are. The story of Tom Benton and Missouri is one of oversimplification and maybe a little Bentonian myth. Missouri sought industry, and Benton tried his hand at abstraction. As told by Justin Wolff in his new biography, "Thomas Hart Benton: A Life," the story is one of complicated distortion, even. Wolff's work is to clarify that distortion.
Benton was a realist painter in an age of abstraction, an agrarian quasi-Marxist in an age of industrialism, and a supposed anti-intellectual at work in a culture of intellect. He was a man out of his proper time and place, always in-between styles and opinions, defiantly isolated at his own pole.
Benton was never simply an artist. He was never "simply" anything, Wolff makes clear. Relying on existing critical and historical scholarship (much drawn from Benton's prolific writing), Wolff expertly navigates the contradictions and false-starts that were Benton's life. What results is an exercise in realism worthy even of Benton's loftiest ambitions for the genre.
Wolff, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Maine, lends context to criticism and a critical eye to history. H3 is able to make Benton the artist and his work become something fresh, something more than the murals and paintings we've seen before: "A Social History of the State of Missouri," "People of Chilma" and "Boomtown" among others. He breathes new life into the controversy and, importantly, lays the groundwork for understanding it. In his later years, Benton was fond of saying that he was a painter of history. To see the history of that history — Missouri wrapped up in much of it — unfold here makes the work all the more interesting.
Wolff talked with the Beacon about his book, Benton, and his own struggle with the artist's complexity. The interview with Wolff has been edited for length and clarity.
The renaissance of modernism and abstract art in this country — not to mention pop or post-modernism art — long ago tipped the tide of history against Benton and his regionalist agenda. Why did you decide to write a book about Thomas Hart Benton in 2012?
Wolff: It was an enormous undertaking as you mention because of the vehemence with which people argue their positions on Benton. I mean, he's a love him or hate him personality and artist. And sometimes that's what attracted me to him. The controversy itself I thought would make for a good story. Any book needs to have a story and there's plenty of story with Benton.
First and foremost what attracted me to him is that my main interest as an art historian is that moment when fine art — traditionally conceived art in museums, if you will — comes into contact with ordinary average folk. So I am attracted as a scholar to populist art. My instinct is to be interested in art when it comes into contact with ordinary people, not art that is cloistered and hidden, that is in any way elitist, but really art that speaks to and about people at large.
I'm also interested in art and the intersection with politics. I've written about it in the past and so I was thinking if this is my primary interest in American art, then I'm going to have to wrestle with Benton, because more than anybody really of his generation he was a political creature. He was not just a populist artist who took on politics, he was an artist who was interested in politics.
Benton spent much of his teens and 20s messing around in various avant garde styles, in essence struggling between realism and abstraction in modernism. Is that experimentation and indecision typical of artists like Benton?
Wolff: Many young artists of that generation were maturing at a moment of incredible innovation in terms of European art let's say. When Benton was painting in the teens and the 20s in Europe, art was defined by its experimental nature. Cubism, Dadaism, surrealism, the sorting of forms into cubist fracture, using the imagination and the dream world, a well-spring for creative content. So, I think on the one hand it is typical of that generation to experiment.
But with Benton, of course, there is an individual story to that. Nothing is typical when you look at it at the individual level. For Benton, I think his experimentation didn't come necessarily from a kind of voracious curiosity. He was certainly open to the work, but I think really his experimentation derived from the fact that he didn't know what to do. He simply didn't know. I suppose he felt obligated to experiment with what was all around him, but it was never really his true calling to be a sort of experimental genre-bending avant garde artist.
In the '20s then, he began to not just read Marx, but many other scholars such as Hippolyte Taine, who was a French critic who was really one of the first who tried to theorize that art always comes form an emotional milieu. In other words, that art is not free from the world in which the live. What this gave to Benton was a philosophy that art is shaped by the social experience of the artist. For Benton this felt like a really novel idea and what he realized was well look, what do I know, what is my social milieu? For him, it was politics, American traditions of the Midwest, and his own real interests in the social customs of American folk. In that way he very quickly came to reject experimentation and turn toward realism.
Benton worked hard to cull an image of himself as a simple, hard-working, anti-intellectual Missourian who painted pictures of what he saw — people like him in places like the one he grew up. Your book shows that much of this image is untrue. What was Benton's draw to Missouri more than just the place where he grew up?
Wolff: This is the complicated part of the story. One of the things I really had to navigate was the sense that I was accusing Benton of failing; that he would appear to say something and do another. He would say that he was a plain-spoken country bumpkin form the Midwest, but in fact, his theories of art were not shaped by experiences of Midwestern folk. His experiences of art were shaped by these dense theoretical and philosophical texts and also by the philosophy of John Dewey. In other words, as he was presenting himself as a sort of plain speaking simple person, he really was a refined elitist intellectual. Well-educated, hanging out by the artistic circles of Paris and New York and he had very refined philosophies of art.
I think Benton himself wa s surprised by the success of this realist train. Benton said look, I can succeed. There's a taste for this, there's a critical apparatus that is interested in supporting this kind of art. And the more that he could play up his supposed simplicity the more successful he would be. So it became a guise.
You say that ultimatley Benton cannot be pinned down or completely understood. What do you take from a life that was so paradoxical and inconsistent? What was Benton's great contribution to American culture?
Wolff: One of the reasons I think the book is timely (is that) Benton lived through and we are living through an extremely partisan time. This is lamented in every editorial you read. It reduces our political ideologies to these very false dichotomies. We're either liberal or we're conservative. We're either a Democrat or a Republican, and our political system system demands we align ourselves with one of these ideologies or another. But most of us know that our own politics are much more contradictory that the system allows. I guess one of the things I wanted the book to show is that Benton becomes an exemplar of how messy politically ideologies are. They aren't neat, tidy dichotomies. Benton as a case study shows tha that's true.
The other lesson I think we can draw from it is about biography. I learned how to write as a graduate student where you develop a thesis and then you prove it. I think there is a tendency on the part of many readers and the part of many biographers to try to develop a thesis about the person they're writing about. What I learned is that no, when you are writing someone's life you have to resist the urge to develop a thesis because no one's life unfolds as neatly as a thesis.
I had to learn to be comfortable the fact that there is no thesis to Benton's life. His life is a series of experiences and a series of utterances, and many of them contradict each other, and at the end of the day, we have to say that's okay. It's messy. We can't summarize Benton.
One of the things you are called upon to do frequently in the book is describe Benton's artwork, in some cases quite vividly and at length. What are your personal opinions of his work?
Wolff: As a writer, Benton's artwork is endlessly fascinating because of course the paintings themselves are narratives and they’re character-driven. What that allows one to do is develop his or her own way of narrating the paintings in language.
On the other hand, when it comes to just pure aesthetics, Benton is not my favorite painter. He's very heavy-handed. He's not particularly refined or delicate in terms of his brushwork. As someone who writes about painting, there are certain painters who I appreciate simply for the simple way they apply paint to a surface. And I tend to favor painters like Cezanne or John Singer Sargent who have a real delicate, facile touch. Benton doesn't have that. He is blunt and direct, and sometimes garish and very kitschy.
That's something that I had to reckon with and it was a real challenge that I face. There are paintings of his that I didn't like and there are also aspects of his personality I didn't like. To spend eight years in the company of somebody who occasionally rubs you the wrong way is a challenge.