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Things of the Spirit

Art and Healing in the American Body Politic, 1929-1941

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George Van Cleve Speer

In the 1930s, the crises brought about by the Depression, climatic devastation, and the rearmament of Europe led Americans from all walks of life to believe that capitalism and technology had synthesized into a monstrous force that threatened the human race. And yet, this chaotic decade also witnessed an unprecedented level of support, both rhetorical and institutional, for the importance of art in the lives of everyday Americans. This book investigates that paradox, asking why, when simple survival presented its own obstacles, our historically pragmatic culture began to define art as a necessity rather than a luxury. To answer this question, the book traces the symbolism of the embattled and recuperative body across a broad spectrum of American culture in the Machine Age. The book situates this symbolism within the commentary of artists, novelists, critics, and educators who trusted in the power of artistic expression and the experience of art to restore the health of the body politic.

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Chapter Three: Gentle Persuasion: Detroit Industry and the Labor of Art 121

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• 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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