By: David A. Smith
Because people value only what they pay for, things that are free the same people devalue … until those things are threatened, whereupon the same observant herd that was indifferent and whose pockets were claimed empty suddenly discover newfound reserves, a point mentioned only in passing by an article in The Economist (March 23, 2015) that was actually going somewhere else:
The story’s about to head that way
When Graham Beal, the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), realised about a decade ago what a turning point an 11-month visit by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had represented for the city’s art scene in the early 1930s, he decided to make an exhibition out of it.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1933
The culmination would be the DIA’s immovable crown jewel: Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, a series of frescoes depicting machinery and workers at Ford’s River Rouge plant, which the Mexican artist described as the finest work of his career.
Certainly they’re mesmerizing.
Organized concentrated activity reminiscent of Brueghel: a detail from a larger panel
Diego Rivera was a modern Marxist Brueghel, and while as a technician his work leaves much to be desired, something about the scale of his conceptions makes them absorbing.
Ennobling the peasant three centuries before it became fashionable
During the period, which Mr Beal refers to delicately as a time of “interesting financial circumstances”, the planned exhibition was put on hold for several years.
DIA was hostage to Detroit’s bankruptcy, and Mr. Beal stayed at his post, but with Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy, he is retiring, and this exhibition is his swan song.
Another detail from the Rivera workers’ murals
At that time the city’s funding of the DIA dwindled to nothing and Detroit sank ever deeper into a financial morass.
Which raises the question, what is a city doing owning a museum, anyway?
After the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, the emergency manager considered closing the DIA and selling off its art.
‘Considered’ understates both Mr. Orr’s intentions and his impact – he planned to close DIA and liquidate it, because that was the city’s best unilateral option – and it largely worked:
It was saved by a “grand bargain”. Together, private donors, charitable foundations and the state of Michigan raised $816m to help pay public workers’ pensions in return for transferring ownership of the museum out of the hands of the municipality.
A previous article (Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2015; navy blue font) adds some important color:
The DIA announced this week that it had finished raising its $100 million share of the “Grand Bargain.”
Why did the foundations and the oligarchs pony up? Even at seventeen bucks a ticket for exhibitions, it could not have been an economic decision; nor could it have been to placate the angry masses, as I never saw any protesters demanding that pensions be cut to save the art collection.
No, they did it because they wanted to, and they wanted to because the museum and its collection represented something psychological to those donors; a theme park for the upper crust, spirited away from unreliable public control:
Under the agreement, the museum and its collection no longer will be owned by the city, but by the private, nonprofit entity that’s headed by the museum director and board of trustees.
Part of what the hundred million bought
And now controlled by those who paid for its protection:
It now belongs to a charitable trust.
Quite clearly, those who wrote the checks had no confidence in the City of Detroit (nor should they),
Observe, didn’t trust the City of Detroit, but did trust the independent institution.
We want one of our own minding the store
In fact, although the other parties chipped in most of the money, they’re done paying, whereas the plutocrats have more checks to write:
The DIA has announced a $275-million campaign to increase its endowment and stabilize its long-term finances.
And what the heck is a city doing owning a museum anyhow?
“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit”, which opened on March 15th [Tickets are $17.50 apiece – Ed.], is the DIA’s first exhibition as an independent institution and the last major show under Mr Beal, who is retiring after 16 years in the job. As Detroit so nearly lost its 130-year-old museum, Mr Beal feels it apposite to be leaving with a show so focused on the city.
The upper crust enjoyed having the city pay for a benefit that they predominantly used.
Rivera’s murals were commissioned by William Valentiner, a German art historian and director of the DIA, who had convinced Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford, to pay up $10,000 ($170,590 today) for the project.
Edsel Ford and director William (born Wilhelm) Valentiner, painted into Rivera’s murals
Rivera was a communist, but he never hesitated to pocket his fee—just as he had once accepted a commission by the San Francisco stock exchange, another engine of capitalism.
Political theorists of the Thirties were fascinated by assembly lines
With the rise of industrialism and the parallel rise of Fascism/ Communism, Thirties political theorists were returned again and again to the assembly line and automation as metaphors for the changing society.
On arriving in Detroit, Rivera immediately started to tour factories around the city, in particular Ford’s River Rouge plant, then the world’s biggest, making hundreds of sketches. Kahlo, who was pregnant, sometimes came along, but most of the time she was bored and unhappy.
Were men being liberated by the machines, enslaved by them, or mass-produced into mass movements?
“Asking Diego to be consistent is a non-starter,” says Mark Rosenthal, the curator of the exhibition, who points out that Kahlo was more ideological than her husband and accused him of “dressing like a capitalist” in his elegant three-piece suit.
BY the way, Diego, how much did that cigar cost?
In July 1932 she suffered a miscarriage (which she subsequently described as an abortion), a traumatic event she depicted in “Henry Ford Hospital” with her lying on a hospital bed surrounded by surrealist images of a pelvis, a snail, the torso of a woman, a machine, an orchid and her lost child.
Surreal and powerful
For Rivera, the visit marked one of the great successes of his career, even though the first showing of the murals turned out to be highly controversial. Depicting despondent workers –
Any critic is entitled to his own interpretation, but the workers have never seemed despondent to me; rather, they are focused, diligent, coordinated, as suggested by Wikipedia’s anonymous editors:
Harmonizing with the machines, not subjugated by them
Rivera depicts the workers as in harmony with their machines and highly productive. This view reflects both Karl Marx’s begrudging admiration for the high productivity of capitalism and the wish of Edsel Ford, who funded the project, that the Ford motor plant be depicted favorably. Rivera depicted byproducts from the ovens being made into fertilizer and Henry Ford leading a trade-school engineering class.
Closer to the mark is this throwaway comment:
– marching in line –
The period between the world wars was for many intellectuals a crisis of faith – faith in progress, faith in democracy. With the Depression sweeping the industrialized world and the democracies, winners of the War to End War, seemingly helpless before it, the only confident answers were proclaimed by the tyrannies – the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Fascists/ Nazis in Italy/ Germany – and it seemed at the time that only these mass movements were economically successful. For many people, the choice was between Fascism and Communism, and rejecting one meant embracing the other.
Rivera’s hagiographic portrait of Lenin, painted into Rockefeller Center
– or a machine as an animal was decried as subversive; some even called for the walls of the DIA to be whitewashed.
Opening the space into a gallery
It was in Detroit that Rivera and Kahlo established themselves as a power couple. They encouraged each other in their art and conspired in their acceptance of the honours and riches bestowed on them by the capitalists that Rivera pretended to infiltrate with his prolonged sojourns in America. In a reversal of artistic fortunes, today it is Kahlo—with her unmistakable eyebrows and feminist aesthetic—who is regarded as the rock-star artist, whereas Rivera is respected but far less popular internationally. This show may help him re-emerge from the shadows.
Recapitalizing the museum will also help Detroit emerge from its self-inflicted half-century decline.
Director Beal and Mayor Duggan applaud DIA’s recapitalization
Diego Rivera: Undone by the proletariat, rescued by the plutocracy. I’m sure the old rascal would have smiled at that.
A little paradox is good for the character