An Artist In America
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
Y ou don’t seem to have ever gone out of your way to avoid controversy, any more than y our famous great-uncle did. Is this a Benton family trait?
Well, that will be your comparison. I’m not imitating him or trying to. I’m going to tell you about this, though. Let’s get it clean. I’m not just looking to assert myself in my art. I’m not hunting my own soul. I was really trying to present America, and I thought I had a fairly objective view of it. Of course, as you pointed out, there was romance in it, but it was not the kind of romance that was always acceptable everywhere.
What was your next mural project after the Whitney?
I contracted to paint the Indiana state mural for the exposition in Chicago in June, 1933.
Was that the mural that caused such a storm because you included the Ku Klux Klan in it?
Yeah. Now there was a case. … You asked me earlier whether being named Thomas Hart Benton had affected my career. … My name was a great assistance in the case of the Indiana mural. Indiana was the first very large commission I got. And my entrée into the political area, which was necessary to confirm the contract, was definitely made possible by my name, because the Democratic politicos who controlled the state regarded me as a brother and not just a damned New York artist. And the same was true a few years later in Missouri, where I was able to override any controversies, control my contract, subject matter, and everything else, very largely because of my name.
Let’s talk about the Missouri State House mural, which you finished in 1936. How would you rate it among all your murals?
If I have any right to make judgments, I would say that the Missouri mural was my best work. I was thoroughly matured. I had had the Indiana experience, and I knew what to do. Plus, I knew what kind of contract to demand.
What kind of contract was that?
It was put through the Missouri legislature by Senator Edward Barbour, a friend of my brother’s, and mine, too. Barbour managed somehow, I don’t know how, to get the bill through, authorizing the mural and sixteen thousand dollars to pay for it, without entangling me in any way with the then dominant [Thomas] Pendergast machine. But there was a clause in it that I must work under state art supervision. Well, I had watched all the problems that the politicians had caused in the art projects of the WPA, and so I telegraphed from New York and told them that I wouldn’t sign the contract unless they removed that clause. That was demanding a good deal, but they did it. And the only reason they did it was because all those goddamned state politicians had a great admiration for my father, and respected the Benton family name.
How do you feel about the criticism over your depiction of Boss Pendergast and the saga of Frankie and Johnny in the Missouri mural?
I believe that the myths of a country picture it almost, well, practically better than its damned politics. As far as Pendergast was concerned, I told him that this was to be a mural of contemporary Missouri, and what the hell, it can’t be complete without you, and he agreed that that was true. So he posed for me in his Kansas City office. He wanted to be in it or he wouldn’t have posed. There wasn’t any trouble about it at all.
The trouble came afterward?
Later on, after Pendergast got to the penitentiary, some wag went up and painted his prison number on his back in the mural, and somebody told Harry Truman that I had done that. And that caused considerable coldness between Truman and me for years, until he actually got to know me and realized that I wouldn’t have done such a thing. I remember when I first met him in the White House, he said to me then, “Are you still making those controversial pictures?” And I think I replied, “I would if I could get some more of them to do. ”
What did you mean afterward when you said you were astounded by the “conventional nature” of the criticism that was levelled at the Missouri mural?
I did? I don’t remember saying that. You see, all the time I was painting, I left that room wide open, and all the people of the state who had business in Jefferson City could come in and watch. About the only adverse comments I heard the whole time would be an occasional complaint from some farmer about some detail, and sometimes they were right, and I would change it. Now the general public in Missouri liked that mural and still do. It was only a small cultivated public in St. Louis and Kansas City that raised that fracas. Supposedly cultivated. Stupid as hell. And certain politicians, like Matt Murray, the state engineer, who said publicly, “I wouldn’t hang a Benton on my s——house wall.” So it wasn’t the public that protested. It was a just a bunch of machine politicians and the polite element of society, mostly Republicans.