Saturday, December 12, 2009

Glenn Beck on Art

Fox News host Glenn Beck played art critic back in September, calling out some old architectural reliefs across Sixth Avenue from News Corp HQ at rival NBC's Rockefeller Center as either fascist or communist. It looks more like an attack on NBC (and his arch enemy, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, not to mention Rachel Maddow) than an honest look at public art and its meanings then and now.

Beck's meaning is clear: Rockefeller was both a communist sympathizer and fascist (jn this case Mussolini) sympathizer. And that NBC and "progressives" in general continue this legacy.

Beck's hysteria about a pair of reliefs showing one man holding a hammer and another holding a sheaf of wheat and a sickle is a bit like the nonsense about "Nazi" swastikas appearing on Indian-made handbags for the Spanish chain Zara (no, the Indian factory wasn't being anti-Semetic; they don't see swastikas the same way, and Zara didn't catch it until the bags made it to shops). In both cases, we have old symbols that gained very specific meanings for European dictatorships, tainting them for the West for generations.

The reliefs were carved in 1937 by Carl Paul Jennewein, an American born in Germany. Tyler Green of the blog Modern Art Notes explains:
The sickle and the hammer have been used separately to signify agrarian interests and workmen or craftsmen in art respectively since at least the Byzantine period. In the 19th and 20th centuries the hammer and sickle were often fused in a range of European symbology, in both provincial heraldry and in state insignia. It wasn't until 1922 that the Red Army adopted them as a state symbol. (It became the Soviet state symbol in 1923.)
Green can't find any evidence that another Rockefeller Center sculpture, one that Beck connects to Mussolini, has any such connection. That sculpture, "Youth Leading Industry," pictured above, was created out of glass blocks by Attilio Piccirilli in 1936. Piccirilli, a friend of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, contributed sculptural works to monuments all over the country, including the state capital buildings of Wisconsin and Virginia. Sounds like material for a follow up segment on Beck's show. The imagery in Piccirilli's Rockefeller Center piece is pretty benign. Ironically, notes Green, Piccirilli was picked as an artist because he was an American. There was a public outcry after a previous decision by Rockefeller to use European artists like Picasso and Matisse on such projects. Why would Rockefeller have chosen an American artist, one close to Mayor LaGuardia (who served 1934-1945), only to let him depict Mussolini? It doesn't make sense.

Beck's final target is Diego Rivera, who was commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1934 to create a mural for a Rockefeller Center lobby. The mural was called "Man at the Crossroads" (see detail above). Beck's failure to grasp historical fact becomes painfully clear here: he accuses Rockefeller of literally commissioning a piece of commie art, and yet the mural was famously destroyed the year it was made after it embarrassed the family and the building's management. It was recreated by Rivera the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City later.

But Beck won't let history get in the way of his message.

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