Corporations lose their grip
By Clay Wainscott
The struggle between corporations and common folk has been ongoing, and it becomes visible when you look at art. There was this famous ‘high-noon’ moment back in the early thirties when corporate mentality gained the upper hand. Seems the Rockefellers wanted to put up the biggest building in the world and call it the “Empire State Building”—a big deal. They hired a famous painter from Mexico named Diego Rivera to paint a mural on the first floor, a work of art to exemplify the era’s highest achievement, like the Parthenon.
They knew each other already. Diego had been raising the self esteem and actually empowering the downtrodden in Mexico’s colonial caste system by recalling pre-Columbian glory, illuminating history and depicting the present day common people with dignity and respect. He was an avowed Communist. The Rockefeller patriarch, old J.D., had established a business reputation for absolute ruthlessness, amassing great wealth and power, and in the public’s mind had become the decrepit poster boy for unbridled wealth. History tells us Rivera committed the unholy faux pas of depicting Lenin as a great champion of worker’s rights, and, of course, the Rockefellers had no choice but to erase it all and start over.
That’s how they’d like to close the book, the one they wrote, but let’s look again. Diego Rivera came to the Empire State project as the spear point of the aspiration and rage of the world’s dispossessed yearning for expression, and he wouldn’t betray them, or their collective opinion of him, for any amount of money. The Rockefellers knew this going in. They baited Diego not only with a lot of money; they commissioned the work to be in fresco, a permanent technique that had lasted since the time of the Romans. It was first of all a chance to create a work of art that could possibly last a thousand years, and he had been guaranteed complete creative freedom.
It was all a big mouse trap as it turns out.
Diego hired assistants, put up scaffolding, and worked grueling hours to get the project completed on time. When the work was finished they handed him a check and went to work with jack hammers immediately, even though they had watched his progress day by day. They allowed no photographs of the work in progress or of the completed work before it was destroyed. For those who think they’ve seen this painting reproduced, Diego recreated it later in Mexico, presumably using the Rockefeller money. Still he was defeated, art was defeated, and common humanity lost its eyes and its voice.
Within twenty years a new corporate form of art, Abstract Expressionism, was installed in big banks all over New York, although not, it seems, out at the Rockefeller homeplace. A culturally imperialist foreign policy sprang up financing lavish exhibitions of the New American Art in shell-shocked, nearly starving Europe, and foundations of all sorts began to subsidize and promote the careers of artists who stood no chance of public acceptance. Print media were enlisted as well, and soon the prohibition on representational images of anything was enforced absolutely by cadres of academic and museum authorities who knew and cared more about tax laws than art. When representation finally found its way to art again it had been reduced to soup can labels and celebrity posters, and new generations cutoff and isolated from past traditions failed to notice the severe downgrade.
Corporations still prefer abstraction and keep the market pumped up for artwork which has no meaning, which poses no threat, which carries no messages they can’t control. Common folk generally prefer images that engage their own memories and life experience, even though they’re continually told such artwork is retrograde, displays no imagination, and has no value. As the ripples from this pointed singular occupy outcry slowly pulse through this and every other community, maybe a new spirit of identity and individualism will lead us back toward an art which expresses our own aspirations and not those of non-person persons.