Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 July 2009
This article is about who or what art is for and what, if anything, art J. can do. It begins with the assumption that art can indeed function beyond itself and the specifically aesthetic premises that conditioned its production and that it is acceptable for the audience to consider such broader, cultural functions for it. In particular this article examines Thomas Hart Benton's The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley with an eye toward the ways in which uninitiated viewers might respond to that painting and how it can be read as responding to certain cultural conditions in which contemporary viewers would have found themselves. By offering viewers several levels on which to respond, as well as by responding itself to viewers' lives, the painting provides one example of Benton's desire, not to undermine high art in this country – as is often implied by accusations that his art is little more than kitsch – but rather to build the sophistication of the viewing public.
1. See Lawless, Ray M., “Thomas Hart Benton's Jealous Lover and Its Musical Background,” Register of Museum Art (University of Kansas) 2, no. 6 (1961): 38.Google Scholar
2. Friedman, Alfred B., ed., The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World (New York: Viking Press, 1956), p. 203Google Scholar. Henry M. Belden of the State Historical Society of Missouri found the ballad in seventeen states, including West Virginia, Missouri, Texas, and Newfoundland; see Ballads and Songs, The University of Missouri Studies, vol. 15, no. 1 (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1940), pp. 324–25.Google Scholar
3. Version G in Ozark Folksongs, vol. 2 of 4 vols. collected and edited by Randolph, Vance (Columbia: State Historical Society of Missouri, 1948), pp. 49–50Google Scholar.
4. Peyton Boswell describes the painting in one sentence: “The Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley… depicts a Missouri hillbilly who has just stabbed his sweetheart” (Modern American Painting [New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940], p. 95Google Scholar). Note the omission of the words The Ballad from the title. Lawless examines several versions of the ballad and the painting's correspondences to them; his only mention of the musicians comes in a discussion of the models who posed for them.
5. Although Benton describes a real Ozark fiddler as the model for this figure (Lawless, , “Thomas Hart Benton's,” p. 37Google Scholar), the old man here bears more than a small resemblance to the Benton self-portrait used on the cover of the fourth, posthumous edition of his autobiography An Artist in America (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983)Google Scholar. Subsequent references to this autobiography are indicated by AAm and page numbers in parentheses.
6. The two men at the lower edge actually take somewhat less space on the canvas, but if we extrapolated bodies for them below their waists, we would envision figures considerably larger than that of the woman. She appears, in fact, to be further into the painting's background than any other human figure, and this in part accounts for her smaller share of the canvas. But even taking perspectival effects into account, she seems smaller than any other figure.
7. Grant Wood approximated a nude model in a similar fashion in order to meet the strict Cedar Rapids standards of propriety: “If Grant hadn't gone to the trouble to get a flesh-colored bathing suit, closely woven, we'd have been in the soup tonight…. Someone phoned the cops that there were nude girls up here in this art place. I think they were disappointed … to find it wasn't quite true. But from a distance, well, they serve the purpose” (Brown, Hazel, Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, Artists of an Era [Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1972], pp. 46–47Google Scholar). Unlike Wood, Benton did in fact paint some widely publicized nudes. But where his other nude women appear merely vulnerable, the woman in The Jealous Lover has already become a victim. Real nudity in this case, besides failing to jibe with the setting and the song's narrative, would have been far more shocking, perhaps too shocking, in conjunction with the violence done to her. From a distance, though, the pink dress “serves the purpose.”
8. “It is a vain delusion that rape is the expression of uncontrollable desire or some kind of compulsive response to overwhelming attraction. Any girl who has been bashed and raped can tell how ludicrous it is when she pleads for a reason and her assailant replies ‘Because I love you’ or ‘Because you're so beautiful’ or some such rubbish. The act is one of murderous aggression, spawned in selfloathing and enacted upon the hated other. Men do not themselves know the depth of their hatred” (Greer, Germaine, The Female Eunuch [New York: Bantam Books, 1971], p. 265Google Scholar). The facial expression of the jealous lover suggests the very self-loathing Greer describes.
9. The convention of using fog for dream sequences developed most fully in films after 1934, in musicals such as Singin' in the Rain (1952)Google Scholar, and in thrillers such as Spellbound (1946)Google Scholar. But the association of fog with the mysteries of the unconscious goes at least as far back as Shakespeare. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air,” chant the witches in The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act I, Scene 1, 11. 11–12 (The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], p. 1312Google Scholar). Benjamin West follows this convention in materializing his Witch of Endor in the midst of a dense pillar of fog (Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1777).Google Scholar
10. Because these areas have little recognizable content, they encourage the viewer to move beyond mere recognition to perception, to seeing in a new way:
Recognition is perception arrested before it has a chance to develop freely. In recognition there is a beginning of an act of perception. But this beginning is not allowed to serve the development of a full perception of the thing recognized. It is arrested at the point where it will serve some other purpose, as we recognize a man on the street in order to greet or to avoid him, not so as to see him for the sake of seeing what is there.
In recognition we fall back, as upon a stereotype, upon some previously formed scheme. Some detail or arrangement of details serves as cue for bare identification…. Sometimes in contact with a human being we are struck with traits, perhaps of only physical characteristics, of which we were not previously aware. We realize that we never knew the person before; we had not seen him in any pregnant sense. We now begin to study and to “take in.” (Dewey, John, Art as Experience [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1934], p. 9Google Scholar; Dewey's emphasis. Subsequent references are indicated by AE and page numbers in parentheses.)
11. Benton began developing his use of tempera – which would result in his using egg tempera for his murals in the 1930s – while painting sets at film studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1913 for films directed by Rex Ingram. See Benton, Thomas Hart, An American in Art: A Professional and Technical Autobiography (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1969), p. 34Google Scholar (subsequent references are indicated by AmA and page numbers); and AAm, pp. 37–38. He was, then, familiar with visual aspects of dramatic sets.
12. Indeed, Ozark superstitions make more than a purely visual association of this sort: “Many hill women, too, are firmly convinced that a man's virility is indicated by the length of his nose, and a girl who ‘keeps company’ with a very long-nosed man is subjected to the good-natured raillery of her friends.” See Randolph, Vance, The Ozarks: An American Survival of a Primitive Society (New York: Vanguard Press, 1931), p. 91Google Scholar. Subsequent references are indicated by O and page numbers in parentheses.
13. Benton used “a genuine Ozark fiddler” as a model for the old man, and the background for the murder scene came from a sketch made in western Virginia. Noted in a letter by Benton, quoted by Lawless, , “Thomas Hart Benton's,” p. 37.Google Scholar
14. Benton, , “America's Yesterday,” Travel 63, no. 3 (07 1934): 7, 8Google Scholar. Subsequent references are indicated by AY and page numbers in parentheses.
15. Benton saw the Ozarks in just such transitional terms: “[New ways, beliefs and habits] are in the process of being adjusted to the old patterns of behavior and the observing and attentive person can find here the most unexpected attitudes and opinions and contrasts of belief and action that are almost unbelievable. Gross superstitions regarding everything from the immanent presence of Deity to the effect of the moon on the corn crop, side by side in one mind with the strictly practical and materialistic attitudes of those who handle machines…. I knew a man, living not far from one of the larger towns in this region, who when he filled the gas tank of his car made a short prayer and called on God to insure the potency of the fluid” (AY, pp. 8–9).Google Scholar
16. Otto Ernest Rayburn describes a “beautiful shade of brown” obtained by laying yarn in a kettle between layers of walnut leaves or hulls and soaking it with water. See Ozark Country (American Folkways Series), ed. Caldwell, Erskine (New York: Duell, Sloane and Pearce, 1941), p. 87Google Scholar. For more discussion of Ozark textile technologies, see Randolph, Vance, Ozark Mountain Folks (New York: Vanguard Press, 1932), chs. entitled “Hill-billy Homespun” (esp. pp. 107–08 ff.) and “Local Color” (esp. pp. 115–17 ff.). Subsequent references to Ozark Mountain Folks are indicated by OMF and page numbers in parentheses. See also O ch. entitled “The Hill-billy at Home” (esp. pp. 35–38).Google Scholar
17. Ironically, the very act of trying to “save” the old songs, on the part both of collectors and of Benton himself, could feed into this same process of standardization. Indeed, though Lawless reports very few versions of the song with the words “lone green valley,” Alan Lomax includes the song in his 1960 collection, The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1960)Google Scholar, under the title “The Lone Green Valley” (p. 93). One wonders if perhaps Benton's painting did not influence Lomax in his decision to represent the song's many versions with a version presumably very similar to the song Benton had in mind, thereby further standardizing it.
18. “Most of the generation that came of age during the 1920's in urban areas practically discarded some crucial aspects of the old ideal. Home and children remained the goal, but meanwhile the vast majority apparently enjoyed many of what had been the pleasurable prerogatives of men: Drinking, smoking, and a degree of sexual experimentation seem to have become the rule…. Offices and speakeasies filled with women in short skirts did not bode well for the future of female purity, that cherished Victorian ideal, nor did the behavior of characters in the most popular movies of the decades – for example, the sex kittens portrayed by Clara Bow and the sophisticated lovers played by Gloria Swanson” (Stanley Coben's discussion of “the undermining of Victorian culture” in “The First Years of Modern America, 1918–1933,” in The Unfinished Century: America Since 1900, ed. Leuchtenberg, William E. [Boston: Little, Brown, 1973], p. 295)Google Scholar. As Coben indicates, these changes in modern morality were most noticeable in urban areas, but those in small towns and rural areas, including the rural champions in the fight against urban decadence, the Ku Klux Klan, took note of the threat to the old ideas represented by moral liberalization and embodied in the Flapper: “Ku Klux Klan journals repeatedly assaulted the decade's movies as a part of a Jewish plot to undermine traditional values” (p. 296).
20. During the 1930s Benton had several “run-ins” with leftist artists and intellectuals, including a rather confrontational Benton interview in Art Front (vol. 1, no. 4, 1935)Google Scholar and an essay by Benton showing how American pragmatism “is hostile to the Marxist philosophy” (“Confessions of an American I: Why I Don't Like Marxism,” Common Sense 6, no. 7 : 7–9Google Scholar; parts II and III were published in numbers 8 and 9 of the same volume). In the 1920s, however, he was associated with the People's Art Guild, a “socialist oriented” group in New York interested in reinstituting the social function of art. Though still at that time painting in an abstract style, Benton “wanted a more purposeful place for art in society” and so became involved. The influence of the Guild's founder, Dr. John Weischel, led Benton to his first reading of socialist and communist literature (AmA, pp. 35–36, 41–42Google Scholar). So, in spite of his opposition to communist remedies, he acknowledged that “there is too much in the Marxist diagnosis of the ills of capitalism which is true of our American society to allow of its utter repudiation” (“Confessions of an American II: Marx and the Jeffersonian Ideal,” Common Sense [08 1937]: 12).Google Scholar
21. Corn, Wanda, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. xii.Google Scholar
22. Sam Hunter remarks on “a violent rejection of European modernism (even though an artist like Benton was directly indebted to Paris painting and had been a member of the American vanguard at the time of the Forum Exhibition).” See American Art of the 20th Century, with sections on architecture by John Jacobus (New York: Harry Abrams, 1973), p. 179.Google Scholar
23. In fact, Benton attributes his commission for the New School Murals – very contemporary in subject and criticized as “modernist effrontery” (AAm, p. 248Google Scholar) – in part to the attention received by “some of his history” when he hung it at the Architectural League in New York (AAm, p. 247).Google Scholar
25. Victor Koshkin-Youritzin explores “the important and almost entirely overlooked question of to what extent violence – including sexual violence – constitutes, in overt or covert form, a key strain throughout much of Benton's oeuvre,” in “Thomas Hart Benton: ‘Bathers’ Rediscovered,” Arts Magazine (05 1980): 98–102Google Scholar. Noting the common motif in Benton's art of one figure towering above another, especially in violent works such as Jealous Lover and Retribution (American Historical Epic [1919–1924]Google Scholar), Koshkin-Youritzin points to submerged sexual violence even in apparently benign subjects, such as The Music Lesson (1943)Google Scholar: “Does not, in this painting, a pronounced sense of psychological and specifically sexual tension suddenly arise once we notice that the main visual link between the older man and young girl exists precisely along the line of his guitar as it points with unmistakable suggestiveness directly to her groin? Spread-legged and alluringly exposed, this innocent-faced child quite disturbingly ‘reappears’ – with an identically colored dress now pulled completely over a fully revealed crotch – in the ‘aftermath’ form of a pathetic little doll, which, with arms and legs helplessly flailing lies abandoned in the left corner of the floor.” The visual similarities between the fiddler as artist figure in The Jealous Lover and the murdered girl, however, suggests that this violent strain was not only covert but also deeply ambivalent.
26. Riggs, Lynn, Green Grow the Lilacs, A PlayGoogle Scholar, first performed by the Guild Theatre in New York City, January 26, 1931. Quotations taken from the script published by Samuel French (New York, 1931); references are indicated by GL and page numbers in parentheses. Readers may be more familiar with the 1943 Broadway musical based on Riggs's play, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!
27. On one of Benton's trips through the hills observing customs, including the Holiness followers, one of the painter's traveling companions was a foreign journalist “in search of Tobacco Road color” (AAm, p. 102Google Scholar). We might posit a complex of not necessarily conscious associations in the artist's mind relating his lovers to Tobacco Road to Riggs's play.
28. Interestingly, Rodgers and Hammerstein pick up on this issue of what modernity offers and emphasize it in an added character, the cowboy Will. In the musical, he sings “Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City,” describing the modern conveniences of radiators, indoor privies, skyscrapers, and “bur-le-ques” (burlesque houses). Their vision of modern life is even simpler than Riggs's, however, for they seem to associate Jud's/Jeeter's dark sexuality with the now-vanishing frontier, setting Laurey's nightmare scene with him in an Old-West saloon.
29. Warren Susman discusses this middle-class concern with culture – called “the American Way of Life” – in Culture and Commitment, 1929–1945; The American Culture (series), ed. Harris, Neil (New York: George Braziller, 1973)Google Scholar. See especially the introduction to his excellent anthology of contemporary sources.
30. “The theorists foretell an era of machine-made ugliness, while I look to low-cost mass production to make beauty more general and then put more of it within the reaches of the masses” (Filene, Edward A., “Mass Production Makes a Better World,” Atlantic Monthly 143 [05 1929]: 625–31; here p. 625).Google Scholar
31. Brooks, Van Wyck, The Wine of the Puritans (New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1908), pp. 13–14.Google Scholar
32. Brooks, Van Wyck, “Our Poets,” America's Coming of Age (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1958), p. 28Google Scholar. Subsequent references are indicated by ACA and page numbers in parentheses.
33. Davidson, Donald, “A Mirror for Artists,” in I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition by Southerners, Twelve (1930; rept. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), pp. 30–31Google Scholar. Subsequent references are indicated by AMFA and page numbers in parentheses.
34. Mencken, H. L., “The Sahara of the Bozart,” in Prejudices: Second Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), pp. 136–54Google Scholar; here, p. 138. Subsequent references are indicated by SB and page numbers in parentheses.
35. Thorstein Veblen writes at length about conspicuous consumption and leisure; here he explains in part the use of conspicuous concern with appearances as a proclamation of economic station and lifestyle: “Not that the results of [the wife's] attention to household matters, of a decorative and mundificatory character, are not pleasing to the sense of men trained in middle-class proprieties; but the taste to which these effects of household adornment and tidiness appeal is a taste which has been formed under the selective guidance of a canon of propriety that demands just the evidences of wasted effort. The effects are pleasing to us chiefly because we have been taught to find them pleasing. There goes into these domestic duties much solicitude for a proper combination of form and color, and for other ends that are to be classed as aesthetic in the proper sense of the term” (The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions [New York: American Library, Mentor Edition, 1953], p. 69).Google Scholar
36. Dewey, , Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916; rept. New York: Macmillan, 1966), p. 86Google Scholar. Subsequent references are indicated by DE and page numbers in parentheses. Dewey's use of the phrase “social control” might be seen as carrying some ominous overtones, and, indeed, Dewey's educational methods have been used to enhance assimilation of marginal groups in a way that seems somewhat destructive of diversity. But Dewey's writings make clear that this social control is at the service and in the interest of a democratic whole — all of the people. While we might still raise the specter of tyranny of the majority, at least Dewey is not recommending a social control in the interest of a power group or elite.
37. Benton, for example, emphasizes the democratic impulses behind his art: “Our Americanist realism was ‘democratic’ rather than ‘socialist’ in the Russian Communist sense, but it aimed to set up a people's art or, more specifically, one which reflected the reality of the American people's life and history in a way which the people could comprehend.” See “American Regionalism: A Personal History of the Movement,” in An American in Art, p. 189Google Scholar. Benton conceived of socialism, in part, in terms of “Bossism” and “dictatorship of the proletariat.” He did not trust such models of ruling: “If the people, I asked, delegated their mass power with absolute completeness to a small, convinced minority who, as Lenin posited, knew ‘What was ‘good for the people,’ how could we be sure that that was going to result in anything different from all the well-known tyrannies of past history run by other minorities who also knew what was ‘good for people’?” (AmA, p. 169Google Scholar). Benton had too large an ego to discount completely his own role as expert, but it was his democratic concern with his viewers that energized his choice of regional subject matter.
38. Cockroft, Eva, “Abstract Expressionism: Weapon of the Cold War,” Artforum 12 (06 1974): 39.Google Scholar
39. “The question of European influences upon American culture has smoldered sullenly for a good many years, occasionally flaring up into acrimonious debate. Is American culture only an extension of European culture or has it developed a character of its own?” (Rourke, Constance, “American Painting as American,” The Nation 150 [03 9, 1940]: 342Google Scholar). Subsequent references are indicated by Am Paint and page numbers in parentheses.
40. Rourke, Constance, American Humor: A Study in the National Character (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1931), p. 159Google Scholar. Subsequent references are indicated by AH and page numbers in parentheses.
41. “There is no denying that for half a century the American writer as a type has gone down to defeat.… Now why is this so? Why does the American writer, relatively speaking, have less resistance than the European writer? Plainly, as I have just said, because he has been insufficiently equipped, stimulated, nourished by the society into which he has been born” (ACA, p. 168).Google Scholar
44. “If one were asked what it is that keeps the life of art and letters going in the world, one would be obliged to say perhaps that it is not so much the men of genius as the rank and file of workers in the field of art and letters.… It is these men who fertilize the creative life.” Rourke included this quotation from Brooks (from an unspecified column in the pages of the Freeman) in Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938), p. 51Google Scholar. Subsequent references to Charles Sheeler are indicated by CS and page numbers in parentheses.
45. Rourke, Constance, “American Art: A Possible Future,” Magazine of Art 28 (07 1935): 390–405, here, p. 392Google Scholar. The opening of the quotation refers to the “rediscovery” in the 1920s of American folk art.
46. Rourke's organic metaphor for society, in which artists and writers grow out of the rich soil of folk life, often gives way to a Utopian vision of a fully integrated circle. Use of folk and popular materials and interest in audience response in regional painting and literature hardly constitute such a perfect world. But Rourke's aspiration (for art) to such an ideal underscores the importance of public meanings to the progressive project of tying art to experience and suggests one theoretical paradigm for the imaginatively complete, regional worlds created in the works of Benton.
47. “But in these songs lie our most widely spread musical traditions. It may even be argued that here the stream of native poetry runs deepest” (Rourke, Constance, “The Noble Sport of Ballad Hunting,” The Nation 139 [08 15, 1934]: 192–93Google Scholar). See also Rourke, , “The National Folk Festival,” The New Republic 79 (05 30, 1934): 72–73Google Scholar, as well as her reviews of several folk-song collections.
48. Benton, reprinted as “Art and Nationalism,” The Modern Monthly 8 (1934): 232–36Google Scholar; here, p. 233; Benton's emphasis.
50. Gordon, Robert Winslow, “The Folk Songs of America,”Google Scholar fifteen-part series, The New York Times Magazine, January 2, 9, 16, February 20, April 24, May 8, June 5, 19, August 28, October 9, November 27, 1927; January 1, 8,15, 22, 1928. This quotation is from part 1, p. 23. Other references are indicated by date and page number in parentheses.
51. Rourke, , “The Noble Sport,” p. 192Google Scholar. Subsequent references are indicated by NB and page numbers in parentheses.
52. American Ballads and Folk Songs, collected and compiled, with introduction by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax (New York: Macmillan, 1934), p. xxviii. John Lomax, who was honorary Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, often suggested that cowboy and Negro songs were his favorite types. Subsequent references are indicated by AB and page numbers in parentheses.
53. Bluestein, Gene, in The Voice of the Folk: Folklore and American Literary Theory (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972)Google Scholar, discusses at length the influence of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), German philosopher, historian, and folklorist, on the ideals of Constance Rourke, John Lomax, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman: “What binds these figures together is the belief that the highest cultural values can be derived from what cultivated classes often describe condescendingly as the vulgar, lowest levels of society” (unpaged section).
56. “The artist dates [his final separation from the School of Paris] to the time he served at the Norfolk Naval Base in 1918.… While in the Navy, he had read J. A. Spencer's three-volume history of the United States, whose mid-nineteenthcentury illustrations suggested possibilities for giving art a greater social relevance and providing it with a content that Benton considered worth communicating and comprehensible to people outside the artistic elite” (Baigell, Matthew, Thomas Hart Benton [New York: Harry Abrams, 1973], pp. 53, 55Google Scholar). His historical epic murals were the most direct outgrowth of Spencer's inspiration. According to Baigell, careful studies for ten panels of the originally planned sixty were completed. Four more panels on the history of New York City were painted for the New York Public Library in 1925 but never installed (pp. 55, 58).
57. An example of this came when Benton was painting the Missouri State Capitol murals in 1936: he did have an assistant help him “square up” the sketches for the murals, but he painted them alone and even posted a letter to spectators discouraging them from talking to him as he worked, either for questions or suggestions. See Edelman, Nancy, The Thomas Hart Benton Murals in the Missouri State Capitol (Jefferson City: Missouri State Council on the Arts, 1975)Google Scholar. Benton's conflicting messages about his position with respect to his audience and other artists may, in part, reflect the conflicting influences of progressivism with its dual focus of democracy and expert direction, if not control, of society.
58. Benton, , “Art and Nationalism,” p. 235Google Scholar; Benton's emphasis. He wrote this essay, in part, to justify his choice of “American” over “universal” subject matter. Beyond their emphasis on localism, these comments make clear Benton's commitment to “environmentalism,” to the notion that the best art came not from private souls but from the culture, through an artist or artists conditioned by that culture.
59. See Lubin, David M.'s Act of Portrayal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), ch. 2.Google Scholar
60. Hunter, in American Art of the 20th Century, for example, denounces the “blind political optimism” (p. 179) of Benton, Curry, and Wood.
61. Jackson Pollock, eminent abstract expressionist and former pupil of Benton's, noted the aesthetic connection between the two movements when he acknowledged learning his sense of color and line, visual rhythm, from Benton. Perhaps Benton's paintings offered viewers some very specific preparation for appreciating the works of his student.