Freedom from Want

As you know, my argument is that we’re in another economic depression now, and my day in New York made the comparisons to the 1930s striking.

Thomas Hart Benton Instruments of Power America Today mural series 1930-1

Thomas Hart Benton
Instruments of Power
America Today mural series

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America Today

I started at the Met, where I finally got to see America Today, the murals by Thomas Hart Benton that have been re-homed from the New School.  Over the years there, students had rammed chairs into the murals, and they were otherwise degrading.  Now revitalized in glorious color, made richer through the darkened exhibition space, the murals tell the story of America in a moment–1930-1, when the Great Depression was just sucking away the country’s vitality.


Reginald Marsh The Bowery 1930

Reginald Marsh
The Bowery
1930 an artist also known for pulsating energy


Benton celebrates though.  America’s pulse, its chaos and determination, its strengths and its smarts.

Certainly compared with Reginald Marsh’s nearby The Bowery from the same year, 1930, the murals are propagandistically optimistic.  The glory of work, the ingenuity of technology, the voice of entertainment, all punctuated with clarifying red.

Benton loved red.




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America Today

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America Today








  Look at that red and those gestures!

Pieter Coecke van Aelst
Conversion of St. Paul
Look at that red and those gestures!


While the curators draw connection to Baroque painting as an influence on Benton’s energetic compositions, I was also taken by the drama of the Renaissance tapestries, a newly opened, scintillating exhibition at the Met.  Surely Benton was influenced by the Renaissance body and borrowed from religious ecstasy for his modern passions.





Jackson Pollack Pasiphae 1943

Jackson Pollack


Detail America Today

Detail America Today


And where would Jackson Pollack be if he hadn’t been under the influence of his teacher’s, Benton’s, quivering, pulsating storytelling?  And Benton was completely modern, as you can see here.

But the art historian digresses.


Back on point, we, too, today crave celebrity entertainment and the refuge of technological wizardry to forget our troubles with work and the sour economy. We like to think of America’s strength, even as evidence shows the contrary.

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From the Met, I walked over to the newly-open-for-tours Roosevelt House.  After Sara Roosevelt’s death, in 1942, Hunter College bought the house and has been using it for classrooms.  Just about the only thing left from the quiet wealth of the Roosevelts is the staircase bannister.  I ran my hand up the rail where Eleanor may have, too. I haven’t washed my hand since!

I joined a tour/lecture, led by a history doctoral student.  As he told us about FDR’s and Eleanor’s accomplishments, I was most taken by the Four Freedoms speech, so relevant today.  Only the names have changed.  Have we progressed at all?

I was interested in the speech’s afterlife.  Norman Rockwell had a hard time getting support to make his monumental paintings of the same name.  Finally, the Saturday Evening  Post printed the series, which became phenomenally popular, driven by a Bentonesque vision of America.  Then the war bonds office came up with a program.  For an $18.75 war bond purchase, you would receive a set of the four posters.  And the rest is history.

Or is it?  How much do we tolerate freedom of religion post 9/11?  In light of a string of natural disasters and Ebola, how free from fear are we?  In an era of political correctness, changing mores, and lax gun laws, are we really free to speak our minds?

Grand CAnd freedom from want?  That issue was actually secondary in “Grand Concourse,” now at Playwrights.  Yes, it takes place in the Bronx today in a soup kitchen.  Yes, one of the four characters is a homeless man who teeters on the ability to get and hold a job and function well,  but I think playwright  Heidi Schrek uses her setting as a metaphor, a rumination on the nature of giving and how generosity of spirit can get twisted.  People younger than I am, though, may see the play through different eyes.  Check it out, and see what you think.

Regardless, may you be free from want this harvest season, on all levels of body and being.

2 thoughts on “Freedom from Want

  1. As usual you covered a lot of mileage in this latest pilgrimage to NYC, Rena. You took very illustrative photos of Benton’s exhibition. I particularly liked the abstract composition of the close up you posted. Perhaps the color and close up of the show was too much for me the day I saw it? It was crowded and the large murals seemed to hit one right in the face. You managed to present a more unbiased opinion. I had liked his work “more” before I saw these murals.

    • I remember you said it was disjointed for you. Crowds can really change how we see any work. I got there at a good time and had the room to myself for a bit. it is an overwhelming work, but I think that’s part of the effect Benson wanted–he wanted to capture the energy, chaos, and confusion of modern life.

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