Yesterday, Glenn Beck offered viewers a daffy lecture, no doubt pulled from his forthcoming issue of Oligarchitectural Digest, in which he took a pictorial tour of New York City, pointing out instances of decor that were, in his mind, coded references to crypto-fascist-communism-Obamaism. All of this seemed to be some strange rant against Nelson Rockefeller, but who knows? NBC, New York City, the United Nations, and Communist-themed art in general may have all been targets. It's not really...clear. Our own Nick Graham reported on the segment last night, and you can watch the video, below:
By means of an addendum, I'll tell you that there are a lot of weird ideas going on in the segment. Beck thinks that a bas-relief at Rockefeller Center with fascist imagery was some sort of unique piece of artistic insurgency. In truth, there was nothing unique about it at all. Fascist imagery abounded in America throughout the twentieth century. In fact, the fasces appeared on our own dime until 1945. He also seems to not understand that the concept of "swords-into-ploughshares" did not originate in the Soviet Union, but in the Bible -- Joel 3:10 and Isaiah 2:4.
But the strangest part by far was Beck's discussion of Diego Rivera's mural "Man At The Crossroads," which was originally commissioned to be displayed at the Radio Corporation Arts Building at Rockefeller Center. It's not something that you can drop by and look at, however, because the mural did not last very long at RCA. Beck tells his viewers that "they actually broke it because it became too controversial."
What Beck elides over is that it was Nelson Rockefeller -- the target of his criticism -- who made a stink about it, and the piece was destroyed in a unilateral decision made by Rockefeller Center's own management team. This sort of debunks the whole premise that Rockefeller and the people who ran the Rockefeller Center were stealth Communists, bent on subtly undermining America.
PBS' "American Experience" has an excellent recounting of the Rivera controversy online. As you can read for yourself, Rockefeller commissioned the Rivera piece for the plaza entrance at the RCA building after Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse had turned down the patronage. Rockefeller had some misgivings about Rivera's outspoken Communist beliefs, but rationalized the choice on the grounds that it would be good for business, remarking: "As for Rivera, although I do not personally care for much of his work, he seems to have become very popular just now and will probably be a good drawing card." Rivera offered sketches of the project, won approval, and set about working. Nelson Rockefeller would make "frequent visits" to assay Rivera's progress. Soon enough, Rivera and Rockefeller found themselves in conflict.
On one of those visits, in May of 1933, Nelson was taken aback by an unexpected addition: "While I was in No. 1 building at Rockefeller Center yesterday viewing the progress of your thrilling mural I noticed that in the most recent portion of the painting you had included a portrait of Lenin," he wrote to Rivera. "The piece is beautifully painted but it seems to me that his portrait appearing in this mural might very seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing, but this mural is in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so, I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears."
Rivera refused to do so, and raised the stakes in a letter to Rockefeller, in which he wrote that "rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity.'" Rivera thought Rockefeller would not go so far as to destroy the mural entirely. But the management team at Rockefeller Center, which "had never felt comfortable about Rivera's involvement," called that bluff by ordering Rivera to cease his painting, paying him the money he was owed, and sending him packing. Later, that same management team would order the murals destruction:
As they strolled around midtown Manhattan one night in February of 1934, two of Rivera's assistants noticed a dozen fifty-gallon oil drums near the entrance to the RCA building. When they looked inside, they recognized the smashed-up shards of Rivera's mural. The piece had been hammered off the walls, following orders from the center's management team.
So, no one involved in this sage, save Rivera himself of course, turns out to have been a particular fan of Communist art. Rockefeller put his politics aside in hiring Rivera because he thought a Rivera mural would be a "good drawing card," and because he was trying to ingratiate himself with arty high-society types. These are the pure impulses of capitalist fat-cattery. And if the the people who ran Rockefeller Center had some grand design where they would subtly influence American politics by festooning their building with a few items of Leninist kitsch, they sure went about executing this plan in a weird way, smashing Rivera's mural to bits at the first whiff of controversy.
A final note. Watching Beck's segment, I have to wonder if he only recently became aware of the existence of Rockefeller Center. He seems to think that it's best known as the venue where NBC stages outdoor concerts. Actually, it's best known for hosting a Christmas tree. A rather lovely one at that. Tourists flock from all over to take pictures, and retailers in the area do brisk trade.
For fun, here are the opening credits to NBC's 30 Rock, where Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin clearly foment a proletariat rebellion through the subliminal inclusion of shots of the Rockefeller Center's architectural details.
[Hat Tip to Huff Post Media Monitor Daniel Harrison, and thanks to art historian and all-around Texas-style bon vivant Kriston Capps.]