The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art acquires America Today

The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is now the proud recipient of Thomas Hart Benton’s mesmeric mural America Today (1930-31). It was gifted to the museum by AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company.
“Thanks to AXA Equitable’s civic leadership, we’ll be able to preserve an important part of our collective cultural legacy,” commented Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “This act is an affirmation that private and public institutions can work together effectively to ensure New York City’s position as a world financial and cultural capital.”
It is a colossal tour de force indeed, comprised of ten huge panels, which come together to form a sweeping story of the lives lived out by Americans who benefited from the country’s booming industrial output and technological advancements during the roaring twenties.
Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, said that the colourful, vividly executed mural greatly enriches its narrative of twentieth century art.
She applauded Benton for composing such a deep, lyrical and poetic depiction of America during this time, highly complex in the amount of subject matter it projects and equally multifaceted in its composition.
“It is a work of immense scale and significance, and represents a uniquely American brand of modernism that condenses the spirit of the Jazz Age, anticipates regionalism, and holds a fascinating and deeply ambivalent relationship to avant-garde European movements as well as to the Mexican mural movement,” Ms Wagstaff added.
It’s such an optimistic painting, which might seem odd given that only a couple of years earlier the Wall Street Crash had turned the world upside down. But, as we have seen throughout the world recently, in the early days, the experience of the financial crash and the ensuing depression were not yet understood or felt so explicitly.
Memories of the good life still lingered, and hope, which is rousing but occasionally misleading, led many to believe that just around the corner was the America they recognised and pined for. Given that this would never be the case, the work of art becomes doubly poignant.
Benton gives us a splendid America, fun, ambitious, a right ole dream of a place where anything was possible. This was a nation with lots to do, was hard working and lived life fast. It was beautiful, it was endless and it was magical.
On the one hand we have depictions of coal miners, farmers and steelworkers shaping the very hard and physical land, while on the other hand we have jazz pianists, loved up dancers – it had to have been the Charleston – and cinema goers set about making the most of the good life.
It is an important acquisition, especially given how the current economic environment in the US has explicit parallels with that of the US in the thirties. Though it doesn’t offer any solutions, it offers escape. Americans might have to wait a few years for a shining light, but they have all the art in the world to keep them occupied.
America Today is a good place to start.
Cadogan Tate has extensive experience in shipping fine art all over the world.