Art and Healing in the American Body Politic, 1929-1941
Chapter Three: Gentle Persuasion: Detroit Industry and the Labor of Art 121
• 3 • Gentle Persuasion: Detroit Industry and the Labor of Art Diego Rivera unveiled his Detroit Industry mural cycle (Figures 45 & 46) in 1933, after many tumultuous months in which America’s great- est manufacturing city had seen factory closings and the beating and shooting of union organizers. The economic and social turmoil out- side the Institute of Arts reverberated in the disputes surrounding Rivera’s hiring and the images he was creating on the walls of the Garden Court. Local clergymen inveighed against the artist’s “disre- spectful” adaptations of Christian themes and condemned the pagan figures through which Rivera linked Detroit’s greatness to America’s ancient past. Other voices protested the hiring of a foreigner and known communist at a time when American artists were struggling to survive. Historians of Rivera’s work have proposed different theories to explain why the artist—who had a contentious but enduring relation- ship with the Communist Party—would agree to create a mural pro- gram for the family of Henry Ford, the world’s most notable capital- ist. Because the panels reveal no militant gestures or hammers and sickles upraised, this secondary literature often concludes that Riv- era’s politics were either ideologically wobbly or compromised by the nature of the commission. These explanations rely chiefly on com- parisons between the heated language of Rivera’s Mexican murals and the inscrutable calm of Detroit Industry. Rivera’s works in Mexico in the 1920s had expressed his view of history both ancient and mod- ern as a violent, class–based struggle in...
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