Monday, 13 August 2012

Memories of Failed Revolutions

The luminous Diego Rivera retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art started me recollecting about my malspent youth in Detroit. Growing up there, blue collar was no cultural picnic (1930-49), but there were a few oases. Three principal points of purchase on the greater world beyond: the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook and the Paradise Theater.

The Paradise was indeed an Eden for anyone trying to extricate himself from the claustrophobia of Irish Catholicism. It wasn’t until I went back in 1980 to bury my brother (and attend the First Detroit / Montreux Jazz Festival) that I discovered, through a Bicentennial plaque, that this venue for the colored bands, their gigs separated by “B” westerns, was originally Orchestra Hall.

It was put up in the ‘20s to keep the Polish pianist-conductor of the Detroit Symphony from defecting back to Warsaw—as a protest against the shabby acoustical nightmares the penny-pinching Grosse Pointe squirearchy was condemning him to conduct in. No less a personage than Pablo Casals adjudged the Paradise-to-be the best space to play in North America.

But in that use-and-flee mentality that creates so many pockets of dereliction in the U.S. man-made environment, Orchestra Hall was abandoned to the “coloreds” about the time of the 1943 race riot. Still, to us, playing hooky from high school, to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Earl “Fatha” Hines was an exotic alternative to the Lawrence Welkitude of our quotidian lives.

And then there was Cranbrook, the dream of Detroit News publisher George Booth, his visionary scheme for raising the taste of his region with an artists’ colony like the legendary one outside Helsinki where Sibelius, Saarinen and several visual artists rubbed shoulders to psych up their muses. It was just beyond Rackham, in the svelte exurb of Bloomfield Hills.

There I saw my first real architecture—the splendid Jugendstil-turning-to-Art-Deco work of Eliel Saarinen.

In 1983 the Detroit Institute of Arts held a major exhibition celebrating 50 years of Cranbrook. I have never seen a show that made me at one and the same time so thrilled and so depressed. Cranbrook staff included Harry Bertoia and Zoltan Sepeshy, and its grads numbered designers Charles Eames, Jack Lenor Larsen, Florence Knoll, Herman Miller. Such a chrestomathy of high-class creations was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill to savor.

But the sad part was equally evident. George Booth’s “Arts and Crafts Movement” inspired idealism that had almost no contact with Detroit’s contribution to world culture, the automobile. In 1985, when DIA mounted its “Automobile and American Culture” retrospective, it became obvious that Cranbrook had had no impact on civilizing the automobile as artifact and sociological phenomenon.

Its best “products” became interior decorators for the Fortune 500. Booth wanted to make inroads on kitsch. But even Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Tech Center, which so levitated me when it first went up—with water sculpture by Alexander Calder, a landmark logo by Antoine Pevsner, and a stunning chrome steel hanging staircase in the Styling Center (one of the great commercial spaces in the history of our architecture)—even the Tech Center now leaves me with the taste of ashes in my mouth, especially after having visited the Toyota main factory, in Toyoda-shi, outside Nagoya.

The contrast between the Toyota factory (floors so clean you could do surgical procedures without fear of contamination) and the noisome, cluttered, adversarial pits I worked in while going through college (Chrysler / Hamtramck: Lincoln Mercury; Fisher Body / Cleveland) is, alas, the difference between a traditional culture that has mastered the disciplines of mass production and a tradition-busting culture that takes out its spite on the objects being made. (At Fisher Body, there was a morning ritual of jamming a bolt in the assembly line so it would break down long enough for us to have a leisurely smoke.)

Which brings me to Diego Rivera. We had a marvelous history-of-art prof at U. of Detroit who knew his blues, as in collars. He told us, for our first assignment, to go to the DIA and wander around until we finally found somebody who—made us feel new. And write a thousand words about why “It Had to Be You.”

In my blacks-could-do-no-wrong phase (Paradise Theater aura prevailing), it had to be John Quincy Adams Ward’s “The Freedman,” a bronze of a slave breaking his shackles.

I had circled the great “Detroit Industry” mural by Rivera for an hour, trying to get up enough intellectual energy to tackle it. But I wasn’t up to it. Too big. Too epic. Too damn good to begin with.

But in the intervening 40 years, I’ve never failed to begin and end a DIA visit with yet another savoring of Rivera’s masterpiece. I think of it as “the Edsel that worked.” Ford the First’s son, with the canny counsel of Dr. William Valentiner, faced down the sneers and poisoned arrows of the self-righteous Grosse Pointe fortune hunters who were “outraged” to let a commie do a mural in their museum.

But Ford stuck by his guts. (Unlike Nelson Rockefeller, who “hiya fellaed” Diego for a Rockefeller Center mural, then caved in when Diego wanted to do it his way.) the most exemplary patron of Diego in the United States was the great (and scandalously underknown) San Francisco architect Timothy Pfleuger, who hired Rivera to do murals in the lunchroom of the Pacific Stock Exchange. That’s like inviting Daniel Ortega to lunch at the Reagan White House. But all those S.F. stockbrokers grimly grin—and occasionally bare it—for the hoi polloi Rivera buffs to behold.

But once again, back to Coleman Young’s Detroit. The white wealthies have all fled to the burbs, cussing the day that Detroit went black. Discontinuity City. And as much as I love the luminous Rivera mural—as much as I dig Diego—none of my past at the automobile factories is contained in that mural.

Rivera’s romanticized image of the autoworker is a Mexican peon in American overalls—his dream of a revolutionized Mexico projected onto the hapless then-ununionized autoworkers. “There’s no Walter Reuther. No Doug Fraser.”

In fact, “Detroit Industry” is an artifact with very little connection, if any, to the realities of making autos in Detroit. It’s another Cranbrook. Another Paradise theater. Isolated oases. Discontinuities.

Indeed, the more I think about the big three in Mexican murals (Rivera, Siqueros and Oroszco), the more I’m depressed about how little impact their public art has had on humanizing modern Mexico. Every wetback who crosses the Rio Grande is an art-lover lost to a failing economy. For a revolution that started in 1910—with the mural movement booming in the 1920s and 1930s—there seems precious little positive impact.

What we have here is the long and feisty life of an Hispanic Picasso. And just as the clarity of PP’s socialism kind of fuzzed out in the bright light of the Cote d’Azur, so Diego’s revolutionizing seems more bohemian that political.

Maybe it wasn’t as hard growing up in Detroit as I’ve tended to think. It’s a lot tougher world out there these days, with Beirut, Belfast, Soweto and other dead ends reminding us how intractably incorrigible we humans tend to be, even when the best artists try to civilize us.

From Welcomat: After Dark, June 18, 1986

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