Where art and ideology meet: Can a dead Communist artist save Detroit?

Diego Rivera’s ghost in Detroit

5 minute read
Diego's heroic workers: This time, up against the politicians.
Diego's heroic workers: This time, up against the politicians.
Detroit, in bankruptcy, may be running on fumes. But one city department, the Detroit Institute of Arts— yes, it's an actual municipal department— has a full tank of gas: about $2 billion worth of art.

Not surprisingly, the Detroit Institute, its head well above water in a place otherwise drowning in debt, has become the target of state and local Republican leaders, and even some Democrats, who want to solve the city's fiscal crisis on the backs of Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, and even, no doubt, Diego Rivera, if in the last case, they are sufficiently blasphemous and devious to chisel Rivera’s fresco masterpieces off some of the Institute’s interior walls.

What was once just a simply anti-Detroit canard— the notion that the arts treasures accumulated over the museum's 128-year-old existence were up for sale— is now developing a ring of truth. For one thing, Christie's is getting into the act. It will soon be appraising the Institute’s imperiled permanent collection.

I got in the act, as well, as one of some 74,000 recent visitors who, as The New York Times reported last week, are visiting the Institute as the museum's plight receives wider publicity. Surely, the growing attendance indicates public support. But perhaps the other visitors were like me: supporters, yes, but also rubberneckers hoping to catch a glimpse of the impending train wreck amidst those unique Rivera frescoes.

What mayors didn’t steal

How all this mischief unfolded is the result of an unconventional civic arrangement by which this encyclopedic jewel box of a museum— as well as its Picassos, Van Goghs, Warhols, Copleys and hundreds of other priceless artworks— are formally owned by the city through its municipal Department of the Arts.

This arrangement meant that Detroit's long stretch of felonious mayors could have, at least hypothetically, taken home a Gainsborough or two to decorate their cribs. No such luck in Philadelphia, where, following a more traditional incorporation contract, the Philadelphia Museum of Art building is owned by the city; its contents, by the Art Museum.

The Rivera frescoes, created when Detroit and the nation were suffering in another time of want— the Great Depression— can also be summoned up as Detroit's conscience, especially as Michigan Republicans, led by Governor Rick Snyder and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, try to gut the city's municipal unions of their rightfully-gained and negotiated pensions.

Ford and the pope

To this end, Snyder and Orr have created a blatantly false dichotomy: strip away pension payments, or we’ll sell the hostages. That the Rivera frescoes are among these bargaining chips underscores more than a bit of irony in Snyder-Orr anti-labor position.

Considering the time when the Rivera frescoes were created (1932-1933), who commissioned them (Edsel Ford, Henry’s son) and their subject matter (the interaction of labor and management), it's not surprising that the murals in the now eponymous courtyard installation— 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 masterworks were always more than just the art. On one hand, there was interaction between the leftist artist and his capitalist benefactor, who ran the Detroit Institute as his privileged fiefdom. While the murals exclusively portray the Ford Motor Company at work (advertising, anyone?), the artist-patron relation wasn’t really much different than that of, say, Michelangelo and Pope Sixtus IV (who was 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?)

Now, the union-busters

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

Today, the murals are no less controversial. Even more so, no doubt, if union-busters like Snyder and Orr were ever to visit the populist, worker-themed Rivera Court.

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

Rockefeller’s fury

Thanks to Ford, Rivera left Detroit unscathed. Not so in New York, where Rivera soon undertook his next commission: a mural in the new Rockefeller Center. Ironically, this work was proposed by another plutocratic Republican 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— an otherwise sophisticated arts maven as well as a patron of the newly opened Museum of Modern Art— had his workmen destroy the mural. Rivera struck back: He copied the mural, stroke by stroke, in Mexico City.

Of course, the Detroit Institute of Arts no longer has a Ford parked in the driveway to come to its rescue. Its only recourse, given the hostility from the local GOP, is a federal bailout— a politically charged position that so far President Obama has opposed.

The Motor City did recently receive $300 million in federal aid that, Washington officials were careful to note, was already in the pipeline. Moreover, the feds, unlike Snyder and Orr, never asked for tribute in return for their largesse— you know, a Picasso or two, maybe.♦

To read responses, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation