Forwarded from Chris Brady (Ken Burns)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Mar 29 18:36:02 MST 2001


With the opportunity afforded by Spring Break, I'd like to offer a couple
of comments stimulated by Jeffrey St. Clair’s critique of Ken Burns’s Jazz
documentary on PBS.

As regards Jeff’s remark that Burns’s babblers never let the music play, a
frustration of the absurd for true lovers of  Jazz music (over and above
Jazz talk): I think that is a happy coincidence—if not a contrivance, for
Burns, Inc.  At the end of each broadcast episode, and at the conclusion of
each video tape (purchased separately)? there appears a commercial message,
or probably a Public Service Announcement ;) , advertising the availability
of a large # of recordings of Jazz music (sans blather) for the price of
about $60.00 (US).   If one were to focus on the sale of these musical
recordings, the Jazz documentary would serve as a shill (for want of a
better term) to drum up paying customers.  Jazz the movie is just a taste;
the first one’s free…

In such a case, I believe Burns et al accurately apprehend the musical
tastes of the general population, or at least the PBS viewership that
watched the show(s), and that the far-out (anti-melodic, etc.) explorations
of the later Jazz artists would not be easy listening for such a
demographic, and therefore not as marketable.

Overall, the Burns Jazz series used public tools (PBS) to reap private
wealth, an ongoing trend.

I cannot say that I disagree with Jeff’s crit, but I also grant Jazz the
documentary some credit in making more people aware of its subject. Many of
us who are not jazz experts, but for whom music of many sorts has always
played a significant role in life—at times a sound track, at times a raison
d’être—may have been stimulated to look into the music more.  I know I
have.  And not so much at the material Burns and crew plainly celebrated,
but with curiosity into the areas left obscure, and Burns-slighted artists
extolled by critics of the Jazz documentary (thus also so stimulated).  In
that sense the series was heuristic.

Not so for an earlier Burns documentary, perhaps a seminal presentation
that established his stylistic fare.  In 1985 Burns made a documentary on
the American regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton.  Benton’s work adorns
the covers of a couple of the mass-circulated US history textbooks for high
schools, and appears in histories of the Great Depression, as well as US
art histories alongside fellow regionalists, and fiends and allies, John
Steuwart Curry and Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame).

Thomas Hart Benton championed a tough Americanism in art as opposed to the
cosmopolitan and Communist(ic) art of an effete, faggy New York and a
dissipated Europe.  Benton had tried to make a name for himself in those
venues but never garnered the attention he felt he deserved.  He had
flirted with fashionable bolshevism in the 1920s but by the 1930s he
rejected the Reds.  He may have discerned splits in the movement that he
could parlay into publicity for his paintings, but his racism, homophobia
and pugnacity became violent and noticeable.  He fled back to his roots in
a smaller pond.  He had come out of a Midwestern progressivism, and
gravitated towards socialism but then swung back out into New Deal
liberalism characterized by its connections to the status quo, and headed
home for Missouri.

Benton’s trajectory in politics paralleled his painting, and its reception.
As he left abstraction behind, and the critical approval of the
cognoscenti, he also found acceptance in the established circles of the
purveyors of public information and mass taste (and the self-perceived
down-to-earth, and therefore supremely honest
"I-don’t-know-much-about-Art-but-I-know-what-I-like" crowd).  His
self-portrait appeared on the cover of TIME magazine.  His name was used to
hawk consumer products in LIFE.  His work became more sentimental and
crude.  (Burns blurb says Benton prefered to show his work in saloons where
ordinary Americans could see them but that was just a one-time publicity
stunt; not all ordinary Americans went to his favorite bar.) He made
friends with fellow Missourian and whisky-drinker Harry Truman, and painted
the commie-hating President’s portrait for the Truman Library.

Burns’s documentary on Thomas Hart Benton only glanced once and briefly at
the outspoken painter’s often-expressed homophobia, overlooked his racism,
but also only once and hurriedly noted his fights with the left in the
great decade of radical Leftism in US history.  In one particular instance
the importance of Benton’s socialism, and thus his subsequent
anti-socialism, remains exceptional by its absence: his illustrations for
Marxist Leo Huberman’s history of the United States, aptly entitled "We,
The People" (1932).  And Huberman’s was no piffling screed.

Benton had been friends with Huberman—but they were going in opposite
directions from when they met in the late 1920s.  "We, The People" in its
first edition, was what I call a progressive socialist narrative. Through
study and direct experience, Huberman learned Marxism, and turned out a
more fully realized Marxist history of economics in 1936, "Man’s Worldly
Goods."  By that time, being born from privilege, Benton had finally
recognized his opportunities.  Nevertheless, while he was in the New York
socialist milieu he had previously produced his New School for Social
Research murals.  He inserted many of his friends and relatives as models
into the crowded scenes of his dynamic America Now panorama.  The mural’s
soda jerk, being fondly gazed upon by an attractive young woman, was none
other than a youthful Leo Huberman. No one mentions that in any of the
literature. Some critics note Tom Benton's wife or a friend, even Caroline
Pratt the Progressive Educationist who was also Leo's employer at the time,
but not Leo.

It’s not for nothing that I mention Huberman.  "We, The People" became a
best-seller in the Great Depression, when people barely could scrape
together enough money for food let alone books.  Here are some quotes that
underscore my observations, some from sources that, like Benton, were once
much more radical than they were later to become:

The New Republic then reported: We, the People is an imaginative,
courageous and mature work… a performance no person of any age can afford
to neglect…  characterized by a lively vocabulary, a happy utilization of
original documents within the body of the text without muddying the swift
flow of the narrative… This is history of the American people in the true
sense, with the mass as hero and victim, too."

The Baltimore Evening Sun warned its readers that Leo Huberman’s "We, the
People" "may seem almost harsh to those who have been fed on idealistic
and, too often, unreal histories. It is strong and vital…"

The New York Herald Tribune announced, "It is vivid, direct; it has the
drive of purpose and of an unmistakable and winning sincerity… The reader
bumps into the last page, surprised to find it come so soon."

The Herald Tribune’s Lewis Gannet suggested the book for the Pulitzer Prize.

>From another part of the political spectrum, New Masses called "We, the
People" a "Remarkably lucid history of the United States."

"We, the People" later was recommended by the editors of LIFE magazine in
their American Heritage Issue as one of the six outstanding books of the
American past.  It was selected by a national booksellers’ committee as one
of two hundred books to be presented to President Roosevelt for the
permanent library in the White House.

And one of the reasons perhaps Burns overlooks this book, and more
importantly what it represents in American history, Benton’s early
associations, etc., is that it was one of the suspicious books in American
embassies in Europe discovered by commie-hunter and Joe McCarthy gopher Roy
Cohen with his partner David Shine in their postwar,
US-taxpayer-all-expenses-paid trip to the Continent, the one that helped
set off McCarthy’s spectacular career.  In the Red Witch Hunt such books as
Huberman’s were verboten, especially those authored by a founder of a
Marxist magazine, i.e., Monthly Review.

Maybe Ken Burns simply did not know anything about it, altho art history
books about Benton usually make some mention of "We, The People" if only in
passing.  Overall, Burns’ documentary on Benton celebrated the artist more
than critiqued his work.  (We can’t expect a critique of his politics in
this culture!)  The only negative criticism of Benton’s work was expressed
by Hilton Kramer, now of the ultra-conservative New Criterion.  But in
interviews in Burns’s film Kramer comes off as a caricature of the very
effete New York critics that were the objects of Benton’s rage. A clever
device by a liberal movie maker whose career would be staked on definitions
of "American."

Burns's Jazz series also never mentioned any of the close associations
between the Marxist left and the great musicians of the 1930s and 1940s. As
with Benton, maybe Burns just did not know anything about it. But where
politicans can perhaps get away with such excuses, for self-acknowledged
historians that is categorically bad work.


Louis Proyect
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