Last week I enjoyed a visit with my son to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. I arrived early, so while I awaited his arrival, I sat in the shade and watched the melting-pot of people in New York. They each and all enjoyed the fountain in front of the museum: children couldn’t resist running their hands along the overflow edge; adults exaggerated the cooling effect of the waters as they put their palms down in it; dozens of families and couples snapped their pictures or asked the assistance of a stranger to take their picture with the fountain as a backdrop. When my son arrived, we continued to watch for a few minutes…I wanted him to enjoy what I’d gotten to see.
Inside the museum, I led him quickly to the room decorated with Thomas Hart Benton’s mural, America Today. Again, I wanted him to enjoy something I’d gotten to see…I had visited the mural months before by myself. In particular, I sought his 24-year-old opinion of Benton’s vision of America in the 1930s.
The room is dark to highlight the paintings, although I’m not sure that they need any highlighting: the ten panels of murals are bright and active and powerful. No subtlety of image, no subtlety of color, no subtlety of editorial. Benton presents a mythic vision of America—populated by heroic figures, expanding by force-of-will and force-of-brawn, moved by idealized machines, eking into the future of technology. His is a vision of a glorious “today” building the glories of tomorrow. Separate panels feature the mythic people and effort in the wheat fields of the Midwest; the cotton fields of the South; production of lumber, oil, steel. Benton’s mythology is not blind to the challenges: two panels feature both the erection of new cities and the entrapment of people already in modern cities. There is even a fringe of protest…images of breadline hands clamoring for a handout share a panel with images of top-hatted money-men whose hands are clamoring for cash…ironically all hands are in an exchange, one side of charity and one side of greed. But Benton’s overall editorial is a statement of force of will, strength of character, and clarity of purpose. Benton painted his vision during the days of the Great Depression, but his editorial offers no view of government, no view of racism, no view of defeat or victimization. His statement is clear: the people of America are building their future.
I asked my son for his impressions, knowing full well and fearing his knowledge of today’s America, today’s politics, today’s confusion of visions. “I love it,” he said. “We have to know and accept and acknowledge our history,” he said. “We have to know what America is…” I realized that he saw well beyond and understood well beyond the image of America being presented today…that his is the America we had watched at the fountain.