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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

June 7, 2011: Public Art

In 1933, as the construction of Rockefeller Center neared its completion, Nelson Rockefeller—or perhaps more exactly his wife Abby, who was Rivera’s patron at the time—commissioned the Mexican painter Diego Rivera to create a mural for the Center’s largest lobby wall. The Rockefellers were aiming big, literally (the resulting mural was over 60 feet in length) and figuratively (they asked Picasso and Matisse before landing their third choice in Rivera), and Rivera delivered: his mural, entitled “Man at the Crossroads,” was (as the image at the first link illustrates) one of the most sweeping ever painted, featuring a cast of hundreds, multiple historical periods and cultures, the full spectrum of man’s  and the world’s possibilities from the most brutal (World War I soldiers in gas masks) to the most hopeful (medical and scientific advances, great art, newly planted trees), and at the center an ambiguous and powerful image (one that could represent the wings of angels or fighter planes, among other possibilities) for an audience to make of what they will.
It was an amazing work, more than worthy of the prominent American and international space that the Rockefellers intended their new building to become. But there was one small problem: one of the historical figures, leading a group of protesting workers, was Russian leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin had been dead for nearly a decade by this time, but the revolution and new government and nation that he represented remained very much alive in, and (due in part to Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin) increasingly seen as an enemy of, America’s narratives and conversations. The Rockefellers had by this time already moved very fully into the realms of political and cultural life within which they would occupy such a significant role for the rest of the 20th century, and Nelson decided he couldn’t risk associating his family and his building with Lenin and the Soviet Union. He asked Rivera to replace Lenin with an anonymous worker; Rivera refused, offering instead to paint an image of Lincoln to counter-balance Lenin (an offer that makes clear the complex national identities and narratives with which this debate became intertwined); and after an extended battle Rivera was fired from the job and the mural was destroyed (although not before an assistant took a photograph of it, making it possible for images of the painting like the one at the first link to survive and amplify our sense of it and the controversy). Rivera called the destruction an act of cultural vandalism, and the phrase is striking but complex—after all, the wall and building (as well as the money that would pay for the mural) were Rockefeller’s, and it’s difficult to say what it would mean for someone vandalize a part of his own building.
 That’s part of what makes both the idea and the practice of public art so complicated, of course. To whom does it belong? Who gets to have a say in what it includes and doesn’t include? And what happens to it when these questions become controversies? I was reminded of Rivera and “Man” because of a recent story involving Wisconsin’s already controversial and divisive Governor Scott Walker; as the story at the second link below details, Wisconsin’s governor’s mansion included a painting by artist David Lenz, a realistic depiction of three disadvantaged local kids that was commissioned by the mansion’s foundation as part of an effort to include images of the people represented by Wisconsin’s leaders. It’s unclear what is meant to happen to the painting, which has not been destroyed, and similarly we can only speculate as to why Walker had it removed (he says it was simply part of a redecoration effort); that is to say, the situation is not perfectly analogous to Rivera’s in any sense. Yet on the other hand, this removal seems more troubling to me, both because the painting’s location is a truly public site, one over which no individual should have absolute say, and because the painting’s subjects are not controversial foreign leaders, just American children. This painting, then, is public art in the most genuine and powerful senses, of and for the state’s and nation’s communities in a way that exists—or at least should—outside of any particular leader or era.
As I wrote in the Palin-Revere post, and as is in many ways a defining belief of and purpose for this blog, there are few debates more significant than those over our national narratives and images, the stories (in every medium) of who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to be. As Rivera’s mural exemplifies, those stories certainly connect to all of humanity; but as Lenz’s painting reminds us, they’re also grounded in every individual American life and story. The more public art can remind us of both such connections, the stronger our community will be. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      An image of Rivera’s mural, which was photographed by his assistant before its destruction:
2)      A story on Walker’s change, including an image of the painting:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Re-posting a really interesting email response from my Dad, Steve Railton:

    "Speaking of that Rockefeller mural --did you ever hear Glen Beck speaking of that mural? It's a great example of loco-history in action. I had my "Making Meaning" class look at it, as an example of how meaning can be made. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it--it's at
    Makes me want to take a history class at Glen Beck U!"