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Tuesday, 6 August 2013

DIA Pumps Up the Arts


Detroit, in bankruptcy, is running on fumes.

Meanwhile one city department, the Detroit Institute of Arts -- yes, it is actually a municipal department -- may be the only one in an otherwise forlorn, dollar-short city that has a full tank of gas, about $2 billion worth. For the serious minded, here and elsewhere, the DIA, its head well above water in a place drowning in debt, is also more relevant than ever.

Never mind the anti-Detroit canard, a drumbeat beat by a sensationalistic press, that the Picassos housed here were 'up for sale.' Humbug. This, despite a report this week that Christie's is getting in the act. Actually, more Republican-backed mischief by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

What is true is that the Picassos -- and the Van Goghs, Warhols, Copleys, and hundreds of other treasures in the Detroit's jewel-box encyclopedic museum -- are, in a unconventional civic arrangement, formally owned by the city through its municipal Department of the Arts. This meant, incidentally, that one of Detroit's long-stretch of crooked mayors might have, at least, hypothetically, taken home a Gainsborough to decorate his crib. (Sorry Mayor Nutter. In Philadelphia, which follows a more typical contract,  the Philadelphia Museum of Art building is owned by the city; its contents, by the institution).

Thanks to the DIA's unique Diego Rivera's frescoes, created when Detroit and the nation were equally suffering another time of want, the Great Depression, the museum can also be summoned up as Detroit's conscience. This, especially, as Michigan Republicans, led by Governor Rick Snyder, try to gut the city's municipal unions of their rightfully-gained (and negotiated) pensions. (And no thanks to President Obama who, with apologies to his predecessor Gerald Ford of Michigan, has pretty up written his own New York Daily News headline: OBAMA TO DETROIT: DROP DEAD!)

Given the time in which they were created (1932-1933); who commissioned them (Edsel Ford, son of Henry); and their subject matter, the interaction of labor and management, it's not surprising that the murals in the now eponymous Rivera Court -- occupying the four sides of the former Garden Court -- were controversial from the start. That the Mexican Rivera (1886-1957) was an avowed Communist was just icing on the cake.

Rivera's brilliant masterpiece was always more than just the art. On one hand, there was interaction between the leftist artist and his capitalist benefactor, who ran the DIA as his privileged sandbox. While murals exclusively portray the Ford Motor Co. at work (advertising, anyone?), the artist-patron relation was really not much different than that of, say, Michelangelo and Pope Sixtus IV. (Even himself a sort of a Henry Ford of his era). Rivera got paid to create a theme devised by Ford; not the content. Similarly, Michelangelo was paid to promulgate the Faith. (Advertising, anyone?)

The mural scenes, depicting stoic managers; heroic workers (one sporting a Red Star); and mighty American industry (thanks to the ingenuity and capital of Ford, of course), stirred an outcry. Church and civic leaders and a gaggle of xenophobes (remember, Rivera being Mexican) decried the murals as (take your pick) blasphemous, Communistic, and/or Ford propaganda. Criticism even came from architect Paul Cret, the University of Pennsylvania professor who designed the DIA building.

Today, the murals are no less controversial. That is, if Synder and his union-busting confederates were -- granted, not very likely -- to take away the populist, worker theme in a visit to the Rivera Court. 

In 1933, Ford was able to halt the Rivera-baiting by the local press with a few well-placed words. His minions obeyed.

Thanks to Ford, Rivera left Detroit unscathed. Not so in New York, where Rivera soon undertook his subsequent work. Interestingly, this commission, a mural in the new Rockefeller Center in New York, was also proposed by another plutocratic capitalist, Nelson A. Rockefeller. Rivera painted the mural -- and poked Rockefeller's eye with it by including, within the larger piece, a portrait of Lenin. Rockefeller -- and otherwise arts maven and patron of the newly-opened Museum of Modern Art -- had his workmen destroy the mural. Finally, Rivera struck back -- he copied the mural, stroke by stroke, in Mexico City.

And, yes, another lesson for today.