The path to post office art

THE National Endowment for the Humanities has appropriated $40,000 for the restoration of Thomas Hart Benton's mural ``The Arts and Life in America.'' Its four surviving panels are owned by our local New Britain Museum of American Art, whose directors will now have to come up with the additional $60,000 necessary to do the job. They can count on me for a modest contribution. Last year they provided our class in ``Western Culture'' with a private and instructive showing of their collection. Three professors and 20 students wandered chronologically from room to room listening to a colleague tell us about early portraits, Hudson River landscapes, and views of the ``Far West.'' We even followed him as he turned the corner into modernism. While the youngsters oohed a little at the Impressionists and laughed uneasily at the Moderns, it occurred to me that our experience - including just these reactions - was probably commonplace in museums across the nation.

But then we walked into the cul-de-sac containing the Benton murals, and everything changed. The students began asking questions, criticizing, gesticulating. And we teachers had to explain that the paintings were about the 1930s, and then what the '30s were. Suddenly we were all having an aesthetic experience - never mind whether good or bad.

Benton's four panels are titled ``Arts of the South,'' ``Arts of the City,'' ``Arts of the West,'' and ``Indian Arts.'' His notions of arts are: crap shooting, folk dancing, pottery, fiddling, a beauty contest, jazz, horseshoe pitching. Of course, the groups of figures performing these arts are highly romanticized. In fact, the panel on the West looks remarkably like the opening act of ``Oklahoma!'' But in the corner of one panel there appears - for the first time, perhaps - a picture of American roadside trash: old tires, opened and rusting tin cans, an empty bottle.

Finished three years before the WPA began to sponsor mural art, these pictures, together with those of Rivera and Orozco, became models for every post office and high school wall in the land. But the works that followed were not very successful; they never rivaled the great Mexicans. At their best, American murals were honest attempts at something our subsequent painting has yet to achieve: a public art.

Like medieval stained glass, these WPA walls declared a common creed: national pride during a bad time. And just as an identifiable style informs 13th-century cathedral windows, so there is a single style in the walls of the '30s. In large part it is Benton's style: monumental men and women, nearly indistinguishable from land and sky, wearing a crude, generalized drapery rather than clothes. The muscles of the men bulge in false, theatrical light as they love and labor and sing in colors that seem mixed with flour-and-water paste. Hitler and Prosperity and Sophistication made all this obsolete.

As Benton said, ``World War II knocked the foundations right out from under us.'' By 1943 when the WPA and American mural art were both dead, the government had paid for 2,566 of these things. Each one posed a problem: Was it beautiful or only instructive?

Most of the painters themselves had little sympathy for painterly excellence. ``The first task of a mural is ideological,'' one of them wrote in ``Art for The Millions'' - a book put together by the WPA but published only in 1975 as a historical curiosity. To read this old collection of essays is to come face to face with America's failed middle ages. The painter Karl Knaths is anxious to complete his ``pedagogic mural'' on nutrition for the Falmouth High School Cafeteria. Walter Quirt has just finished a series of ``functional'' walls for Bellevue. Stuart Davis and others are doing pieces for the 20 new and hopeful buildings of the Williamsburg Housing Project.

Where have all their paintings gone?

As you leaf through prints of these paintings, time and again you come upon the notation: ``lost'' or ``destroyed'' or ``whereabouts unknown.'' This destruction is particularly unfortunate in the case of Benton. His cloth-capped hoodlum who is sticking up a blind pig and is in turn being held up by a politician in a derby, himself under the revolver of a capitalist in a high top hat (``Arts of the City''), still says exactly what Benton wanted it to say. His ``Negroes'' with rhythm, his cowboys, his backwoods preacher and '20s flapper - all stereo-typical venom gone - are straightfor-ward interpretations of the American past. Benton once said, ``Even people who disagree with my images can understand them.''

We and our students laughed a little at them as we walked about the room, but we stopped laughing when we noticed a real woman of 1932 looking out at us from the wall. She was a little heavier than the young women of today - a little wiser perhaps, a little ... what word do I want? ... better ... more significant? I cannot judge.

I do not argue that we should go back to Eakins and draw a line up through Bellows and Hopper and Benton to the Wyeths, setting aside most of the modernist work. I don't know enough for that, nor am I so sure of my own tastes. I only celebrate this Benton restoration and the past to which it testifies. It will be good to see these pictures again in all their finery.

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