Regionalist radio: Thomas Hart Benton on Art for Your Sake.

Author:Mazow, Leo G.
Position:Cover story
 
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A remarkably high percentage of work by the American artist Thomas Hart Benton depicts musical performance, instruments, singing, and clapping. An even larger group takes as its subject the production of sound in nonmusical contexts, by way of meteorological phenomena, sound-receiving and -transmitting technology, discharging guns, neighing wild horses and other animal cries, boisterously revivalist religious services, feats of manual and mechanized labor, chugging trains and steamboats, objects falling and bodies bumping, filibustering politicians, and miscellaneous historical incidents (Figs. 1, 8, 9). This sonic litany suggests that the artist considered sound itself meaningful and, one might say, meaning forming. In Benton's pictorial universe, it is through sound that stories are told, opinions are voiced, experiences are preserved, and history is recorded. All that is consequential, or so the artist would have us believe, has both voiced and heard components.

If modernism, broadly conceived, can be defined as a quest to understand, via paint, prose, and other media, one's experiences in an ever-modernizing world, then Benton's sonic sensibilities help to locate his work within an American modernist canon. (1) More than simply depicting radios, phonographs, and other imagery, he consistently used formal tropes--overlapping passages, randomly cropped forms, fast-paced action, continuity amid fragmentation--that also characterize mass media and, in particular, the experience of listening to radio. In his 1930s murals, Benton further evoked the sonic dimensions of radio and phonographs by way of ray lines, exaggerated perspective, and echoing forms. He was hardly alone in bracketing narratives with the imagery and effects of mass media; several modernist authors developed a similar "radio style." In the opening pages of The 42nd Parallel, the first book in his trilogy U.S.A. (1930-39), John Dos Passos asserts that the "U.S.A. is ... a radio network." (2) In the pages that follow, as in a serial radio broadcast, sketches and novellas produce recurring characters whose actions are both connected and interrupted by the disjointed headlines of "newsreels," which in turn are punctuated by choruses from songs heard on the radio. The panels of Benton's 1930s murals, as well as the several vignettes encapsulated within them, unfold in comparable stop-and-start fashion, cropping and abutting dramatic incidents with climactic moments from other stories.

Richard Wright's early novel Lawd Today (1937) gives an idea of how this "radio style" could at once disrupt and unify plot. (3) Documenting the trials and travails of a typical gloomy day in the life of an African American postal worker, Wright introduces each chapter with the disembodied sounds of a continuously playing radio program tracing the life of Abraham Lincoln and the Union victory in the Civil War. Insofar as the radio jolts Wright's antihero Jake out of a halcyon sleep and presents an ironic contrast to his caged life, the broad-cast splinters a plot that is already at once painfully drawn out and restlessly rapid. Yet the same program also fuses the day's events, providing regularity by reminding the reader, at the beginning of each section, of the inescapable awfulness of Jake's life. Sounding from shopwindows as Jake and his friends traverse the city, the Lincoln-Civil War broadcast is a metaphor of the way the narrative remains connected in spite of the many points and pauses that threaten to obliterate any such integration of parts. (4)

Benton understood sound in general and radio in particular as effecting a similar interconnectedness. Where Wright foregrounded dissimilar parts of a single day, Benton aimed for a sense of national amalgamation. The radio style was particularly well suited to Benton's Regionalist aesthetic, with its adjacent vignettes, often depicting radically divergent imagery, connecting through the very partitions that also separate them. This style also matches aspects of his Regionalist agenda, which endeavored to reconcile the peoples and technologies of outlying regions with a cultural mainstream, all the while keeping intact the sacrosanct folkways of the region. For all that, Benton's radio style is probably best exemplified not in any one painting or mural but rather in a highly scripted radio program dramatizing his life and discussing his work. (5) Beginning in the mid-1930s, Benton, in fact, was heard on several radio programs. The script from his appearance on the NBC program Art for Your Sake in early 1940, however, underscores with uncommon clarity the ideological foundations of the modernist radio style as he understood it in paint: national interconnectedness, easy movement from zone to zone, and an ever-expanding litany of subjects and addressees. The story of Benton on the radio is thus worth recounting at some length because, as in the work of Dos Passos and Wright, it allies the artist's modernism with the effects of contemporary mass media.

NBC, the NAS, and Art for Your Sake

The American cultures of network radio and artistic Regionalism blossomed concurrently in the second quarter of the twentieth century. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) emerged as the leader of the former, with Benton the key protagonist of the latter. The art movement and the radio network had similar goals of reaching as many people as possible in an attempt to create and market a culture of consensus and stability in the Depression years leading to World War II. Through the efforts of a third party, the National Art Society (NAS), the artist and the broadcaster would be momentarily and uniquely allied in a crusade to impose a fixed American identity on a large radio public. With airtime provided gratis by NBC, the NAS presented in 1939 and 1940 the program Art for Your Sake, a series of dramatizations of the lives of famous artists. Although the show's organizers claimed to broadcast an international cast of artists through the ages, Art for Your Sake focused on contemporary, Renaissance, and Baroque art, with an emphasis on American Scene painting.

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At 7:30 p.m. on January 6, 1940, Art for Your Sake aired an elaborate dramatization of Benton's art and life over stations on the NBC network. The broadcast consisted of twenty minutes of theatrical narration and dialogue regarding Benton's biography, stylistic evolution, and subject matter, followed by seven minutes of discussion by Bernard Myers, professor of art history at New York University. Quoting several passages verbatim from Benton's 1937 autobiography, An Artist in America, the program stressed the importance of making art meaningful and accessible to audiences far removed from the refinements and dilettantism of Paris and New York. The script of the Benton program is one of the relatively few surviving primary documents from the many art-on-the-radio programs broadcast during the Depression and World War II. (6)

Art historians have charted Benton's cultivation of an ever-expansive audience through his paintings, prints, publications, and various corporate appropriations, but the use of broadcast technology in this endeavor has escaped scholarly discussion. Throughout his life, the artist appeared on numerous radio and television broadcasts and in a handful of documentaries. With Benton often trashing European modernism, praising the United States, and espousing supposedly rural values, these broadcasts turned into opportunities to provide a running text--albeit a greatly simplified and often misleading one--to his art. Evidently Benton was a particularly popular radio subject from 1938 to 1940. In March 1938, fellow Regionalists John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood joined Benton in a radio program, broadcast from the library in Benton's Kansas City, Missouri, home, "in which the artists discussed one another and their works." In April 1939, Benton was a guest on the WJZ program If I Had the Chance, and in September 1940, he joined actresses Helen Morgan and Anna May Wong on WABC's Fun in Print: Literary Quiz. (7) Sound and script records of broadcasting's early years are spotty at best; it is little wonder that radio and television have not been enlisted by art and cultural historians as primary sources in the study of Benton's art. (8)

Benton's full participation in several now-famous art-appreciation programs broadcast on radio in the 1930s and 1940s is yet to be determined. (9) It is known, though, that he enlisted radio to expand the audience for his art and, by intention or default, to articulate his distance from other styles and ideologies. Benton stated his grandiose claims for art and his larger-than-life persona in his autobiography, as well as in many essays, reviews, and interviews. A medium largely driven by "personalities," radio presented Benton and his promoters with an ideal aural instrument with which to fashion and diffuse their own particular brands of artistic Regionalism and national identity. Radio was still relatively young when Benton appeared on Art for Your Sake--KDKA in Pittsburgh, the first fully licensed commercial radio station, began broadcasting in October 1920--and the artist could scarcely have chosen a medium better suited to his ongoing quest for publicity. Progressive historians Charles and Mary Beard reported that by August 1937, radios could be found in 26 million American homes, with an additional 5 million sets in automobiles. (10) Benton's presence on this mass medium--and, later, on television--certainly enabled him to advance ideas about and effectively create a mass public, just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlisted radio, in these same years, to unite vast audiences by means of his so-called fireside chats. (11) The artist's radio programs join a lengthy list of book forewords, published interviews, editorials, book reviews, and feature articles in the 1930s and 1940s through which Benton...

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