Thomas Hart Benton and the Contradictions of Populism

By Joseph CampanaAugust 19, 2012

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life by Justin Wolff

WHAT RELATIONSHIP TO the impossibly capacious idea of America could any one artist, or any one locale, have? Part, miniature, fragment, fractal?

Walt Whitman audaciously asserted that "the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," and his poetry swings between macrocosmic nation and microscopic enumeration of particularities: people, bodies, places, and regions. And so some artists appear to walk the tightrope called America with ease. Whitman was certain he could "contain multitudes."

Not so for the father of American Regionalist art. Justin Wolff’s insightful Thomas Hart Benton: A Life paints a portrait of Benton as a man riven by the contradictions that made regionalism rise and fall, as a rage for the purported authenticities of place was quickened, sated, and then surfeited in the middle decades of twentieth century America.

Early on Wolff describes Benton's contradictory drives:

Over the years [Benton] opposed abstract art, curators, homosexuals, intellectuals, Harvard, New York City, Kansas City, women, and old friends like Stieglitz and Mumford, to name a few. An atavistic drive compelled him to measure each person he met, each painting or idea he made or encountered, against a dogged ethos distilled from egomania, pragmatism, and populism. Despite his modest midwestern fashion — his denim, gingham, and flannel — and his 'realism,' Benton was not simple.

Nor were his canvases and murals as simple as they might seem, and their combative contradictions no doubt help explain why Benton had such a knack for getting under the skin of viewers of nearly every type and persuasion. Tellingly, Benton's artistic crucible was as much Manhattan and Martha's Vineyard as it was his birthplace, Neosho, Missouri. Wolff structures his narrative of Benton's life as before, during, and after the New York years.


Artists can escape neither where they are nor where they’re from, and in Benton's case this includes a predictably rivalrous relationship with his father, M.E. Benton, known as "the Colonel," who carried on the Benton family's political legacy. Benton and the Colonel disagreed violently about art, but both attempted to perfect a brand of populism and agrarian idealism: the son in art, the father in politics.

Both encountered the significant contradictions of populism. "Regardless of what he said," Wolff points out, “the Colonel was no farmer, and neither was his son. […] Populist dogmas have always been hard to perfect, especially for those who deem themselves better than the average man." How true this was, also, for Benton's mother Lizzie, whose social aspirations triggered conflict again and again, especially during the family's Washington, D.C. period, when Benton's father represented Missouri in Congress.

The rural Midwest may have lent Benton subject matter, but in DC Benton must have seen in high relief the contradictions of populism. It was also where he began to acquire the elements of a style. "One can infer from Benton's [early] drawings," Wolff argues, "two types of training — the lessons in geometry at the Corcoran and the idealized sketches of popular subjects — and find in them the foundations of his artistic principles." These principles included "a technique whereby exaggerated convexities and concavities were pulsing dynamically" and "his encounter with the tremendous paintings decorating the walls of the Thomas Jefferson Building…Tom was astonished by the building's architectural details — its lunettes, mosaics, marble, and, of course, murals."

Wolff's biography moves deftly from Benton's family history, to Benton’s own description of his aesthetic principles, to deft readings of Benton’s signature works. The chapter treating Benton's time as a journeyman artist in rough and seedy Joplin, Missouri as a newspaper caricaturist sets the stage for Benton's return in 1972 to paint a mural commemorating the town's founding a century earlier. A faded, tarnished Benton mustered his powers with the ambivalent result being Joplin at the Turn of the Century:

Typical of Benton's figures, the men are full-bodied, and even their clothes — rippling and bulging — are rendered as flesh, yet they hardly seem subjugated to laws of gravity; rather, they appear to float, light-footed, just above the ground on which they toil. Benton had a habit, for which he was criticized, of paying more attention to design[…]than to hard reality. This is why his scenes often look more mythological, or sentimental, than authentic.

Benton journeyed across America (and beyond) in search of a style, from Neosho to DC to Joplin to Chicago to Paris to Kansas City. But all roads seem to lead to New York for artists, and Benton was no different. His time there, like the phenomenon of American Regionalism itself, constitutes an intense chapter squeezed between the contentious heralding of Modernism at the infamous International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Armory in 1913 and the birth of abstract expressionism in the mid-century. Benton and his wife Rita literally nourished the latter in their intense and affectionate, if often-discomfiting relationship with Jackson Pollock, who would later famously repudiate Benton.

Benton, himself, famously denounced many people and places. His invitation to join the Kansas City Art Institute allowed “a triumphant return to his native Missouri” which would “demonstrate his conviction that the nation’s cultural vitality was centered on its middle states and that New York had become unhinged.” Later, he would be disowned by the Kansas City Art Institute after some pugnacious, impolitic, and offensive comments on the way American art was being ruined by “the third sex and the museums.”

In spite of the fatal contradictions embedded in regionalism, the waning of the movement after the deaths of Benton’s peers Grant Wood (1942) and John Steuart Curry (1946). Benton outlived them all and even his student and friend Jackson Pollock (1956), whose work heralded the rise of all Benton resisted.

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life joins R. Tripp Evans’s Grant Wood: A Life (2010) as thoughtful forays of a critical moment in American well worth reconsidering, especially at this particular moment in American history when one wonders if America really, in Whitman's parlance, ever was capable of containing its multitudes.

Debates about regionalism always have been concerned with if, and if so how, the particularities that make up America make sense with respect to some idealized totality. But where is regional particularity now? Arizona and Michigan constitute intense political flashpoints — is this the new form regionalism takes? Benton's Missouri and Wood's Iowa no longer seem to have the same call, their particularities shown in highest relief at moments when calculable divisions on electoral maps are foremost on our minds. The Ohio of James Wright and Sherwood Anderson is now the test market of America, making what was the middle of America little more than median America. John Steuart Curry's Kansas has become Thomas Frank's Kansas.

What is the role of regionalism and of local color when being American as apple pie means having a nearly-identical Walmart in every town? What differences can survive the self-replicating memes that create the same virtual America everywhere? To raise such complaints about American homogenization, of course, is also to risk an abyss of nostalgia, to rely on a notion of region or the local that is little more than a fiction and too often a vicious fantasy.

Wolff's life of Benton offers no radical departure from previous accounts and yet proves no less instructive:

In this case, what biography gives us is less a “new” Benton than “a man in full” — one who lived in his moment rather than one who merely observed it. The political portrait is a portrait of one’s exterior; the political portrait, because it ignores human inconsistency, is usually a caricature. Biography works against caricature; it’s a search for interiority, or what Leon Edel terms “habitual disorder” — the ironic, abrupt, and occasionally unreliable ways that humans express their experiences.

For some Benton’s works might seem like caricature, but at their best his paintings and murals are allegories of America. The achievement of Wolff’s biography is to step behind Benton and peer over his shoulder as he tried to paint the America he thought he desired. The appeal of region often rests in a yearning to escape to some more authentic place than the one we occupy. Benton spent his life alternating between fleeing and seeking some America he imagined he needed. The question Wolff's life of Benton most urgently raises might be this: from or to what is America running now?


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LARB Contributor

Joseph Campana is a poet and professor of literature at Rice University. He is the author of two collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005) and the forthcoming Natural Selections, and a forthcoming scholarly study The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham, 2012). 


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