Sunday, July 1, 2012

Benton, the Elite's Whipping Boy

Every well-brought up Missouri kid has an affection for Thomas Hart Benton. We claim him as ours, though the biography that inspired this post calls him "America's portraitist,"a notion that makes me feel grumpily cheated. (We can't claim all that many cultural heros, so we're perhaps understandably possessive about our Twains and Binghams.)

Reading the review of a new Benton biography in the Times, a thought occured to me: there is a strong parallel between the intellectual dismissiveness of "accessible" artists like Benton and the disdain shown toward writers of certain genre fiction, particularly, as I thought about it this morning, cozy mysteries and romance. (Fuck you, NYTBR, for not reviewing romance! There, I always have to say that. Done.)

Pollack, once a close friend and protege of Benton's, said (and he was evidently an insufferable, insecure little jerk so maybe take this with a grain of salt) that Benton's work was "something against which to react very strongly."

Does this bring to mind remarks you've heard, or perhaps made, about certain authors? I will admit right now that I have been dismissive of fiction I consider lesser. I'm absolutely guilty, despite my passionate defense of all genres, of calling books "fluff" or "irrelevant" which are well-written and serve a grateful readership. I regret that, and I'm working on it.

This is where I often think, or someone else says, "- but no cat mysteries!" I wonder if Benton is like the cat-mystery author, doomed to sneering obsolescence. But consider this. Benton's early years were spent running around with his congressman father on rural campaigns, and he was deeply affected by the everyday experience of average people. His paintings celebrate a populist vision. Isn't that what our best-selling fiction does? One of the things that enrages many of us about authors like Franzen, and makes us bitterly resent the reviewing media's slavering enthusiasm and willingness to crown him king of American fiction, is his steadfast repudiation of readers with popular tastes - readers who might, if he wasn't such an asshole, actually enjoy his work. (Well, they probably enjoy his work plenty, but would not enjoy tossing back a cold one in a bar with Franzen, who gives the impression that he'd raise an eyebrow at the beer you ordered and talk about birding as though it were more interesting than anything you might contribute.)

Stung once too many times, Benton vilified intellectuals (and come on you guys, my fellow genre authors - sorry, I'm now contradicting myself - don't we give literary writers such a hard time for similar reasons?) - despite being something of an intellectual himself. He was not a naive artist. He worked smack in the middle of, and certainly understood, and even tried the techniques of, Impressionists, Cubists, Abstractionists, etc. The review points out similarities, and a possible influence of, El Greco, which i had never considered, but wow, yeah:

...and El Greco is one of the anointed. It's like saying that - well, hell, rather than pick on anyone else I'll use my own work.  It's like saying that AFTERTIME was influenced by THE ROAD. Which it was! - but McCarthy is one of Our Men Of Letters and I'm ....well, I'm in danger of being Benton, I guess.

So if I may be so bold...may I suggest, as we head into the conference season, that we all try to be a little more tolerant of each other's work, and carve for ourselves a broader appreciation of contemporary fiction?

Incidentally, the book in question was THOMAS HART BENTON: A LIFE by Justin Wolff. And the excellent reviewer (ah, i have such a fetish for dense, thoughtful criticism!) is Holland Cotter.


Bill Cameron said...

There’s a reason nobody can name most National Book Award winners, yet we’re now teaching Hammett, Sayers and Chandler in college courses—just to name a few.

Rachael Herron said...

Nicely done.

L.G.C. Smith said...

I get to be so grumpy on these issues that sometimes I wonder if the only reason I got a PhD was to be able to criticize literary fiction with some small authority. (Very small, as it turns out.) Well, that and to annoy the anti-intellectuals in the family. And because I love language and writing. A little. Nice post, Sophie. I will always associate Benton with Missouri, and I will be more circumspect about lit fic and cat mysteries.

Reina M. Williams said...

A good post. I have similar feelings...the artist I love who is also criticized is Norman Rockwell. It's difficult because reactions to art are subjective, yet there are basics of quality...I give up the debate and enjoy what I enjoy and hope others do the same! :)