Category Archives: Art

America Today

thomas-hart-benton-city-activities-with-dancehall-from-america-today

Yesterday found me, where I so often am, in the Petrie Sculpture Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on some poetry.  Draft done, I wandered a bit and, serendipitously for Columbus Day weekend, walked right into the Met’s wonderful new exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s 1930 murals for The New School, America Today.  What a treat.

I’ve always liked Benton, despite his bad rap as being out-of-touch (proclaimed loudly by his student — and model for some figures in the murals — Jackson Pollock).  Regionalism has long appealed to me.  (My college-era copy of Appalachian Spring — which I played on the first day of each fall semester — features a cover by Grant Wood, living in the Berkshires gave me an appreciation for rural American beauty, etc., etc.)  I appreciate the regionalists’ efforts to ground their rapidly changing society in core American values.  And, as a Civil War buff, Benton’s provenance always appealed to me — his great-uncle, Thomas Hart Benton, was one of the first two senators from Missouri, a big booster of westward expansion, and the father-in-law of decent Civil War general but first-rate explorer, John Fremont (whom Lincoln relieved of command for insubordination when Fremont prematurely emancipated the slaves in the west).

I also have a soft spot for The New School, for the board room of which the murals were painted.  As a somewhat intellectually precocious child growing up in the metropolitan area, I was fascinated by The New School’s bold progressivism (Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Horace Kallen were among its founders)  and its history as a refuge for Jewish and other European scholars escaping tyranny.  (The University in Exile was created in 1933.) So I guess what I’m saying is that I was predisposed to like the exhibition.

The Met does a lot of really smart things (like building a replica of a medieval monastery in Fort Tryon Park to house much of the medieval religious collection, recreating an entire Zen garden, housing an entire Egyptian temple, etc., etc.).  So, no surprise here, the murals are displayed in a room that is the scale of the original room in which they were painted, complete with false, backlit windows to create the aura of sunlight.  Before arriving, though, you pass through several well-curated rooms providing the context for America Today – Berenice Abbott photos, work by John Steuart Curry and Jackson Pollock, and lots of Benton’s sketches from his travels around the country prior to The New School commission.

There is no subtlety to the mural’s messages, but then again, there was no real subtlety to the often outspoken Benton.  It is America at a crossroads, vibrant and powerful following The Great War and the Roaring Twenties, but at the cusp of the Depression, having just suffered the 1929 Crash (a future Benton hints at with a transom panel over the entry door depicting raised hands, money, and bread).  Rural life is changing, although clearly less-so in Benton’s panel on the South. Money becomes dominant, traditions break apart.  Farm machinery begins to dominate the Midwest.  Coal’s dominion spreads from mountain to city, broken workers bent with picks held low.  Muscular steel mills manned by muscular men (with the Pollock-modelled figure).  Ominous clouds of black smoke rising above Texas oil wells.  And several tawdry gardens of urban delights, from flappers to strippers to preachers to Salvation Army soldiers to musicians and bar tenders and, in a corner toasting the completion of the murals, Benton himself, with New School President, Alvin Johnson.

It really is Benton at his best.  The motion and rhythms of the murals are entrancing, even overwhelming.  The relatively small scale of the room intensifies the mural’s power.  I had to go around several times, and take a break before returning.  The human figures are touchingly  expressive, from the chain-ganged African Americans, to the aforementioned miners, to the absolutely laugh-out-loud hilariously wonderful figure of the burlesque dancer.  The power, the despair, the dignity, and the riotous rebellion against traditional strictures, are clear, powerful, and undeniable.  The colors are vibrant.   Even the dull silver framing (which very cleverly helps to separate scenes and direct one’s viewing) has a subtle motion as well as an Art-Deco elegance.

The exhibition concludes (just outside the visual respite of the Frank Lloyd Wright Little House living room which, trust me, you’re going to need to walk in to), with a brief film on the history of the murals and the Met’s acquisition of them.  I, for one, am quite grateful to AXA Equitable for keeping them together after The New School sold them, and for the Met’s acquisition.  It would have been a tragic loss for them to have been separated.  As it turns out, the Met does justice to Benton’s work.  I encourage you to go see it.

Lawrence Mitchell

Selected Poems 1998-2014

Life of its Own

Life gives ground quite hard.
Tiny moth, torn up
wings just half a bow,
unseen, unseeing,
with flutter force it
fights its fate so clear,
but will not gentle go.

The fuse force drives through
hard pack snow ’til ice
prevents its flower,
yet waits behind the
death cold veil in vain
for warmth that too late
comes to free its power.

A headless bird, an
open frog display
in their great death dance,
grotesque perhaps, the
lovely lasting life
that does not give ’til
no will can leave a chance.

Birth is where we start,
death the apogee.
And I watch you friend,
as life in death holds
fast without relief,
will not give you up
until it’s forced to end.

Power far beyond
any choice we have,
drawing out the day
’til failing flesh no
more can hold its spark
and must allow that
shard to find its way.

Lawrence Mitchell

Selected Poems 1998-2014

A Different Sort of Love Song

Don’t write for me
of cobalt nights
and blood-red moons,
of autumn air
that chills us close for warmth.

Nor tell me of the crystal spring,
of green so soothing soft
against a robin sky
when feather breezes
silken through my hair and
early warmth gleams brilliant
in my eyes.

Forget about the salty summer dusk
when sun shot arrows
splay across the ripples on the bay
as we hold each other deep within
the spruce green cave and watch
the blue go violet with the sea.

No, sing to me instead of winter storms,
of dark gray skies that claim the light,
of needling hail and pounding snow
that wind whips sidelong
in our faces
’til it piles dead upon the ground,
of branches ‘tombed in gleaming ice
drooping over banks of snow
made fitlhy by home-drawn cars,
of ripping cold, and crackling gloom
that shatters through the quiet day.

Versify me just these things,
the shadows not the light,
the fight and not respite,
the end and not the life.

If you can sing the wonder of these things,
then you can endure my love.

 

The First Day

On the first day of my death
I guess I’ll sleep late.
But how will I know when late is?
Perhaps some subterranean timekeeper
chimes the bell on the hour
just to help you keep your bearings.
But maybe you’re on your own.
That would be kind of lonely, so
maybe on that first day I’ll just wake up
and meet some people.
I should know a lot of them.
Old friends, who knows? And family too.
They must have made up some games by now
to pass the time.
But I’m kind of shy, so
on that first day
I guess I’ll sleep late.

Lawrence Mitchell

Selected Poems 1998-2014

Those of you who visit this space know that, when I write, I write from the heart, whether the subject is the stock market, music, art, or the bus.  I’ve decided to vary my posts a bit for a while, from prose to poetry.

Over the next few days, I will be posting a number of poems that I have written over the past decade and a half.  Lots of people write poetry, and they write for many reasons.  But the poetry I have written, I have written for me.  I hope that it is more than simply unburdening my soul, a function to which poetry may be uniquely suited.  While it certainly is that, I have tried to do my best to do so artistically.  For the poem is a medium which, at its best, can reach the highest art.

All of the poems I shall post have been carefully crafted, to what end you will judge.  While I accept at some level Alan Ginsburg’s dictate, “first thought, best thought,” and thus none of these would have been written had something not come out directly, still the craft of writing requires some – craft.  (Howl could have used some editing.  Leaves of Grass, by contrast, clearly was edited.)  I don’t have Ginsburg’s talent – hence more work needed to be done.  As for Whitman’s – enough said.

If I have written for me, why do I post these poems?  Good question.  I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that writing solely for one’s self is a bit autoerotic.  And I have been grateful to my readers over the years — from my scholarship to these blog posts — for showing some appreciation for what I have to say.

So it is.  I hope you enjoy them, or at least find something of worth in these efforts.

Lawrence Mitchell