Columnist's Note: The following originally published in June 2009. I was telling someone the other day about Thomas Hart Benton's escapades while growing up in Neosho, so I thought I would just share a little bit about Benton with everyone. Happy New Year!
You know, the more I read about Thomas Hart Benton the more I like him.
I ought to mention from the start that I am not particularly a great fan of art. It's not that I dislike art, only that I perhaps don't appreciate it like I ought to. History – facts, dates, fantastic stories from the past – that is my love, not abstract ideas on canvas. Some would argue that art DOES tell a story – particularly murals, of course. That is true enough. But I suppose I would rather paint the colors of a story in my own mind's imagination rather than interpret someone else's imaginations before me on a wall. But that's just me.
And Thomas Hart Benton was just him.
Some years ago my dad told me, "You go on and be an individual, son. But don't think it's going to be easy." Those words came back to me this past week while discussing Tom Benton with a new acquaintance. Benton is the poster boy of individualism. Not only did he not just follow the crowd, he actually agitated it. And when hit, he hit back harder.
From the very start, Benton bucked the system. You see, Benton came from a prominent political family. His great-uncle and namesake was one of Missouri's first Senators and a personal friend and ally of Andrew Jackson. His father was a five-term U.S. Congressman. As the eldest son, Benton was burdened from the beginning with "great expectations" (to borrow from Dickens.) His powerful father wanted him to become an attorney and then maybe run for public office.
Benton just wanted to be himself.
But that's not the only reason I like him.
Forget the bloody fist fights he got into on the streets of Neosho. Forget the rough and tumble "fight club" matches he participated in in the basement of "one of the buildings on the Neosho Square" (which one I don't know). Forget his many publicized dalliances with trouble and danger around town. Though his tough reputation earned him some hard criticism for being "a disgrace to his family" (according to one account), Benton was just being a boy as far as I'm concerned.
No, the biggest reason I have come to personally admire Benton is for the way he stood his ground against the influential people of various circles. Not only did he not bend under criticism, he actually fought back.
While Benton was making his living in New York as an up and coming artist he became closely acquainted with the "in crowd" of the art world. Many of these were not only ideological socialists, but also outright communists. When his realistic paintings of pure Americana started showing up, Benton took fire from the Marxist crowd and other important people in the art culture for being "chauvinistic" and "isolationist." Today we would probably call this not embracing the "global community."
Page 2 of 3 - Instead of backing off, Benton shot back and said the New York Marxists didn't "know or understand" America. He went on to lambast them for their ignorance of the history of American political thought. Then he really let them – and the rest of his opponents – have it. Burning bridges behind and forward, Benton didn't seem to care that antagonizing influential people might seriously damage his career and livelihood. The way he looked it, "they started it." I love him for that.
It got to such a point that a New York art dealer finally pulled him aside and, according to Benton, said, "Tom, for God's sake, shut up. You are not only making the Commies mad, you are making everybody mad."
But that was Tom Benton. He also rebelled against the prevailing art style at the time and basically started his own movement.
Later, after he returned to Missouri, Benton faced many more attacks, but this time from the conservative crowd who didn't care for the depictions in some of his murals.
For one, the political big wigs in Jefferson City were upset that Benton included outlaws and gangland political bosses in his mural at the statehouse, while leaving out some of Missouri's "clean" famous sons (such as Benton's own great-uncle). They thought it gave Missouri a black eye. In the same painting, Benton also created a woman changing a baby's diaper and some not-so-picturesque landscape scenes. And then, of course, there is Benton's work "Persephone," wherein he depicted a creepy old man staring at a naked young woman. Certain folks didn't appreciate that too much, either.
Even Benton's Joplin mural, which now hangs in that municipality's city hall, is said to have raised some eyebrows because he included the brothel "House of Lords" in the painting.
Benton "called 'em like he saw 'em." His artwork reflects the way things really are and not the way we would like them to be or even try to make them appear.
Fact is, there's a theory that when Benton returned with great fanfare to Neosho in 1962 no one approached him about doing a mural for his own hometown because people were afraid of what he might actually put in it!
But Neosho's most famous native son, Thomas Hart Benton, was his own person. He never took anything lying down and he paid no attention to what others may think when he acted on his own convictions. Thomas Hart Benton of Neosho was no sheep blindly following the rest of the flock – even when doing so may have made his life easier.
With that in mind, guess what I told a group of about 100 first graders who stopped at the museum this week? I told them, "Be yourself" and "Don't follow the crowd."
Page 3 of 3 - We adults could heed the same.
Wes Franklin serves on the Newton County Historical Society Board of Directors. He is also public relations director and events coordinator for the City of Neosho. Contact him at 658-8443.