During the Fourth of July I try to recount some of the things that I love about this country. One of the things that I love about this country is the American art scene in the 1920s through the early 1940s.
This is my favorite time period for American art: the experimentation of abstract artists like Stuart Davis and John Marin, the social justice poetry of Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg and Carlos Bulosan; the music of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland; the Hollywood of the silent film comedians, the screwball comedies and the populist films of Frank Capra; the social justice art of Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence and Thomas Hart Benton: the comic strips of George Herriman, Milton Caniff, Harold Gray, and Cliff Sterrett.
As the country transitioned from the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression of the 1930s, American artists began asking what American values were important in an age of economic insecurity, a growing threat of authoritarianism in Germany and Italy and Japan, and demagogues like Father Coughlin and Huey Long. These artists explored American folk tales and legends to forge an American artwork for the people in the same way that Mexican artists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and Alfred Siqueiros were exploring Mexican folk tales and folk art to create a Mexican art for Mexican people.
One of my favorite artists of the time is Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was a great muralist who painted office workers, farmers, sharecroppers, construction workers, jazz and bluegrass musicians, boxers and common Americans. Benton was a Midwestern progressive: in the 1920s Benton was a Marxist until he grew disillusioned with its inflexible dogmatism; in the 1930s he was a New Deal liberal Democrat. Benton’s art was attacked by both leftists and conservatives because Benton’s historical murals tried to show both the best of America and America’s dark side, depicting abolitionists and the Ku Klux Klan, colonists and the exploitation of Native Americans, white and black construction crews working together to build a skyscraper and coal miners suffering black lung disease as they work the mines. Benton juxtaposed the marvels of the latest technology with exploited workers going on strike.