Letter from London

Letter from London: Beck to the Future!


The “cultural cringe” – the crippling inferiority complex that members of a particular country feel about their homeland, as evidenced in the bluffed provenance of just about every college student on a year abroad – must have reached its apex in the U.S. about, what?, two years ago, when Americans I met would brazenly describe themselves as Canadian and dare you to disagree. Not any more, of course, which is why the current art world bemusement/frustration/outrage/weary familiarity around the Fox News anchor (yes, “Fox News anchor” has become the insult of choice for London’s cockneys) Glenn Beck’s series of spluttering rantstelevised spluttering rants — about the hidden pinko messages in the architecture of Rockefeller Center, New York, has the unmistakable whiff of nostalgic delight.

Beck who, when he gets angry, looks like a Hanna-Barbera bear leaping up and down in frustration, little puffs of steam popping out of his ears, laid into the supposed communist undertones of the sculptural decorations with mounting, incredulous fury. “It drives me nuts that nobody knows what this is!” he says, describing a ’30s relief sculpture by Attilio Piccirilli of a chariot being led into a rising sun by a buff dude and a little boy. ‘This’ (the buff dude), according to Beck, “represents Mussolini…the wheel [of the chariot] is always representative of industry in any of these progressive, uh, uh, pictures or paintings or artwork.” Somehow, in a dizzying display of stream-of-consciousness argument, he links the presence of the child in the sculpture to President Obama’s “indoctrination” of America’s cowering schoolchildren in his education speech that implored students to, effectively, “stay in school” — something Beck might do well to consider taking on board. Beck to school!

Beck’s wild-eyed analysis continues with a close reading of Diego Rivera’s destroyed 1933 mural, Man at the Crossroads, made for Rockefeller Center’s lobby but demolished in the wake of controversy over its inclusion of a portrait of Lenin. Or pace Beck, in furious air-quotes, “some ‘crazy journalist’ raised a stink over it.” (A Beck forebear, is the implication.) His sarcastic irritation over Rivera’s juxtaposition of a syphilis bacterium and a portrait of patron John D. Rockefeller is a delight: “Yeah, the artist didn’t like Rockefeller too much, even though Rockefeller commissioned this art for the lobby of NBC!” How dare he! It’s probably fair to suggest that Beck isn’t much of a Michelangelo fan, on that evidence.

Beck’s stab at art criticism has elevated heckles to such an extent that even the mighty Jerry Saltz has thrown his hat in the ring, in a kind of open letter to Beck in New York magazine. Describing Beck (rightly) as “harebrained” and “batty,” Saltz challenges him to curate two exhibitions in New York: one of contemporary art he actually likes, and one of “works of art that exist in New York City that he would like to see demolished.” Saltz then promises to review both shows. Naturally, Beck – whose rapidly dwindling roster of sponsors and bizarre on-air blubbering and accusations of Presidential “racism” have made his show a “YouTube sensation” (= televisual train wreck) – isn’t going to indulge Saltz, enlightening though it would be.

Saltz’s implication, that Beck’s paranoid free-association and empty-headed censuring has parallels with Nazi rebranding of avant-garde art as “degenerate,” is an accurate one. It has similarities, too, with the standard line on MoMA’s promotion of Abstract Expressionist shows in Europe in the late ’50s, as a CIA-endorsed espousal of liberal democratic values during the Cold War — a reading as skewed, in its own way, as Beck’s. To quote Kirk Varnedoe, whose brilliant dissection of this theory, in Pictures of Nothing, neatly punctures any claims it has to plausibility: “the big problem with the idea of these exhibitions as tools of Cold War propaganda is that one simply cannot control the outcome of abstract art such as Pollock’s.”

That goes for all art. It’s hard not to wish one could control the outcome of a career such as Beck’s. Still, he’s doing a pretty good job of that on his own.