Detroit Industry: the murals at the DIA

One of my favorite things about living where I live is easy access and affordable membership to the Detroit Institute of Art. The museum is most famous for the Rivera murals in its great hall, installed in the 1930s and meant to reflect the city at the height of its industrial power. 

Today, the Detroit News reprinted an editorial from 80 years ago, just after the murals were unveiled. The response? Disgust!:

Conspicuously, the figures in the two great panels must seem a slander to Detroit workingmen. Liberties of art aside, it is scarcely surprising if complaints are heard that they convey a false impression of the man and the influence of his work upon him; that this is not a fair picture of the man who works short hours, who must be quick in action, alert of mind; who works in a factory where there is plenty of space for movement, where heavy burdens are borne by mechanical lifts and conveyors of many kinds, where there is good ventilation and light and every facility to encourage efficient labor.

But the most serious criticism heard, and needing examination, is that the whole work and conception is un-American, incongruous and unsympathetic; that it bears no relation to the soul of the community, to the room, to the building, or to the general purpose of Detroit’s Institute of Arts. What must we expect the future generations, viewing this strange picture, will think of our men, our interest in them, our mad jumble of inefficiency? How will they estimate the industrial leaders, engineers, master mechanics, and fine types of workingmen who have contributed to such astonishing results? If Rivera were here giving us a true suggestion of a modern American industrial shop a modern Mexican prison workshop would shame us.

That this one and only space in any of our public buildings available for a really great work of art should have been used in a manner to provoke such serious dissatisfaction among many fine supporters of art in Detroit is without question a matter of profound chagrin, and it is not surprising if these art-lovers now feel that the opportunity might have been reserved for the work of a great artist more instinctively in tune with the purpose and vision of things and emotions truly American.

Reminds me of the reaction to the Picasso in Chicago. Or maybe the Eiffel tower. It’s fascinating to see how reactions to works of art like these–especially huge ones that can’t be packed up and stored away, but are part of the landscape and infrastructure–change over time.


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