Pearls from artists* # 421September 23, 2020
*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
The economic meltdown that followed the crash of the U.S. stock market in 1929 shattered the country’s faith in itself. With one third of the country unemployed and droughts devastating the Midwest, many Americans doubted their ability to endure and triumph. More than ever, as the American novelist John Dos Passos asserted, the country needed to know “what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.” Guided by the Mexican muralists, whose art they had ample opportunities to study in reproduction and exhibition, American artists responded by seeking elements from the country’s past, which they mythologized into epics of strength and endurance in an effort to help the nation revitalize itself.
Thomas Hart Benton led the charge. Long a vociferous critic of European abstraction as elitist and out of touch with ordinary people, Benton hailed the Mexican muralists for the resolute public engagement of their art and for portraying the pageant of Mexican national life, exhorting his fellow American artists to follow their example in forging a similar public art for the U.S., even as he firmly rejected the communist ideology that often inflected the Mexican artists’ work. African American artists were likewise inspired by the Mexican muralists’ celebration of the people’s fight for emancipation. In creating redemptive narratives of social justice and liberation, artists such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence transformed that struggle for freedom and equality into a new collective identity, one that foregrounded the contribution of African Americans to national life.
Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell
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