FUNCTIONALITY IS THE REAL pROGRESS:

Seeing Thomas Hart Benton’s Panorama of American Life from Another Angle: The series of murals collectively known as “America Today” depict vignettes of a growing, changing nation in vibrant color. (J. McMahon • 01/15/24, NY Observer)


I asked my old friend and teacher from the Art Students League, Costa Vavagiakis, master of painting technique himself, to comment on Breton, whom he greatly admires. “Thomas Hart Benton was an intensely erudite progressive who saw the beauty in the need and function of all things… He comes from the lineage of Michelangelo, Cambiaso, Tintoretto and El Greco.”

Each of Breton’s ten panels has a theme. In City Activities With Subway, burlesque dancers on stage balance boxers in the ring along the top while strap hangers commute in anonymity, ignoring one another, while across the canvas lovers make out on a park bench. Down the center, the mass of humanity works and prays and trogs through life, all depicted in the same muscular, flowing style.

Across the room, the Deep South panel shows a world a thousand miles away from big city life. where black men fill bags with cotton and transport the white fluff to a waiting river boat with horse and carriage while white men use machines to do the same job on the opposing side. From both sides the cotton is loaded onto an old paddle steamer boat of the kind that was already part of the past when Benton painted the panel, having witnessed and sketched just such a scene on the Missouri River when he was traveling. Capturing in one panel past, present and future.

Throughout the work, which celebrates the dynamism of the Jazz Age, there are reminiscences of times past, and also of hard times to come. We see biplanes in the sky and giant steam shovels gouging out mountains but we also see ranch hands corralling stock and dead tired laborers bent over pickaxes. Money flows freely as couples dance in elegant nightclubs and sit in cinemas, but the spewing ticker tape machine boxes the looming economic crisis to come.

In a piece about “America Today” for Smithsonian magazine, Paul Theroux wrote: “None of it was fanciful or exaggerated; it is a true portrait of the Jazz Age, which was also the era of intense industrialization in the United States when cotton was king and oil was beginning to gush; of clearing land for the planting of wheat and cotton, the making of steel and mining of coal, when New York skyscrapers were rising and the city was bursting with life.”

EVERY MAN DIES ALONE:

Why Caspar David Friedrich’s Painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) a Romantic Masterpiece, Evoking the Power of the Sublime (Open Culture, January 8th, 2024)

When Caspar David Friedrich completed Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, or Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, in 1818, it “was not well received.” So says gallerist-Youtuber James Payne in his new Great Art Explained video above, which focuses on Friedrich’s most famous painting. In the artist’s lifetime, the Wanderer in fact “marked the gradual decline of Friedrich’s fortunes.” He withdrew from society, and in 1835, “he suffered a stroke that left the left side of his body effectively paralyzed, effectively ending his career.” How, over the centuries since, did this once-ill-fated painting become so iconic that many of us now see it referenced every few weeks?

Friedrich had known popular and critical scorn before. His first major commission, painted in 1808, was “an altarpiece which shows a cross in profile at the top of a mountain, alone and surrounded by pine trees. Hard for us to understand now, but it caused a huge scandal.” This owed in part to the lack of traditional perspective in its composition, which presaged the feeling of boundlessness — overlaid with “rolling mists and fogs” — that would characterize his later work. But more to the point, “landscape had never been considered a suitable genre for overtly religious themes. And of course, normally the crucifixion is shown as a human narrative populated by human figures, not Christ dying alone.”

BECAUSE IT IS OBJECTIVE:

The decline of beauty: Why has the concept been rejected by the art world? (Pierre d’Alancaisez, 12/18/23, The Critic)

Ask the contestants of Family Fortunes about the purpose of art, and the concept of beauty is sure to top the list. A kindergartner, likewise, would display an instinctive understanding of the word. In exhibition writing and art criticism today, however, it is as though beauty never existed. Tate wouldn’t dare describe a painting as beautiful, and any artist trying to market their work in such terms would be cast out as an amateur. To speak about beauty today is to be reactionary, without the redemption once offered by thinkers like Roger Scruton. In contemporary art discourse, the concept of beauty is essentialist and deterministic and thus of no use.

In our time of general abolition, there may be convincing arguments for the museum’s war on old ideas. But, as the critic Dave Hickey noted already in the 1990s, beauty has been out of favour in the art school for so long that hardly anyone remembers why. Yet, even now, the assault on the beautiful continues. In The Cult of Beauty at London’s Wellcome Collection, beauty has a problem: we have been “obsessed” with it for over three centuries. From Nefertiti to TikTok, the exhibition questions “the influence of morality, status, health, age, race, and gender” on the notion of beauty before dismantling it to make way for a “more inclusive” version.

It is the morality they rebel against.