The Lenin controversy initially arose with the help of a newspaper. Nelson, Abby, Hood, and the managers had all visited Rivera on the scaffold; they had all witnessed the scenes that were coming to life in his fresco. It wasn’t until Lilly’s article in the New York World-Telegram that the management of the Rockefeller Center started to become squeamish:
Diego Rivera, over whose shaggy head many storms have broken, is completing on the walls of the R.C.A. building a magnificent fresco that is likely to provoke the greatest sensation of his career…microbes given life by poison gases used in war…germs of infectious and hereditary social diseases…so placed as to indicate them as the results of a civilization revolving about night clubs…a Communist demonstration…iron-jawed policemen, one swinging his club…The dominant color is red—red headdresses, red flags, waves of red…in a victorious onsweep… “Mrs. Rockefeller said she liked my painting very much… Mr. Rockefeller likes it too.” (Wolfe, Diego Rivera: His Life and Times)
The article set off the media firestorm that was to follow, making the “Battle of Rockefeller Center” a skirmish not just fought in fresco, but in print as well.
In Cradle Will Rock, Robbins includes a scene between Nelson Rockefeller; Gray Mathers, a fictional steel tycoon; and newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst:
H: What in God’s name were you expecting
from a Communist?
R: He wasn’t my first choice. I wanted Picasso or Matisse.
H: We control the future of art because we will pay for the future.
R: Cultural Power.
R: Pay for the Matisse…
H: Nelson will fund a new wave of art. A traveling exhibit throughout Europe highlighting American artists.
R: Yes, abstract. Colors, forms, not politics.
H: My papers will hail it as the next new thing. We will canonize the artists, make them rich. Before long all artists will be doing the next new thing.
M: Do you think? There’s something about artists that always get socially concerned.
H: Sure. But they won’t get paid for it. They’ll have no influence. They won’t be seen. And rather than starve, they’ll adapt.
M: It’s survival.
H: And artists are whores like the rest of us.
Here, Robbins implies that Rockefeller used the media as a weapon. Taymor is probably closer to the truth when, in her version of the matter, Rockefeller asks, “you really think my family is influenced by newspaper hacks?” In the Rockefeller circle, one sought to avoid appearing in the mass media; for Rivera, the media was one of the few available weapons. And the weapons he used included the print press, assemblies and Town Hall meetings, the organization of defense committees, and even programs on the radio.
Causing controversy was, in fact, Diego Rivera’s modus operandi, for, according to Anita Brenner, “the story of his life and the story of his work is a story of controversies, in which he accumulates scalps and glories” (“Diego Rivera: Fiery Crusader of the Paint Brush” NY Times April 2, 1933). He felt that:
the work of art which contains most completely and most intensely the expression of our own political-social forces…will be more valuable to us than any work of art of the past. And, naturally, it will be attacked by all those who represent stoppage and retrogression within the historical process of our day.
He fully expected critics to disagree with the social-political contents of his work and took a good deal of pleasure in being attacked:
The only proof I can have of achieving this [success] is the human repercussion my work can cause; sympathy from those for whom I work—the manual and intellectual producers—and hostility and attack from the enemies of the workers and the mentally and esthetically backward; so that the greater the attack, for me, the greater the success.
Rivera clearly understood that controversial art-—especially art that has been censored to the point of destruction—-was the best form of advertisement. All of his work in America might be viewed as one big publicity stunt, with Rivera employing the power of the American press as an ally. He was a media darling, “establishing a front page record” (NY Times May 4, 1933), having “once more broken into public print” (Art Digest August 1, 1933) and “caused a tempest in art circles and given the hardworking editors ‘copy’” (Art Digest, May 15, 1933). Rivera admired nothing so much as a machine and felt that “he himself [could] function in his work and with his mind, with the precision and efficiency of a machine” (NY Times, April 2, 1933). Rivera’s favorite machine was evidently a well-oiled publicity machine.
With Rivera’s name in the paper over a hundred times between 1933 and 1934, no one can deny that he was certainly well-cast in the role of agitator and celebrity. Rivera was also playing the role of propagandist—-which he freely admitted—-saying that he was “nothing but a soldier of the proletarian army,” and that the “paintings which my comrades and I have painted represent only one thing. They represent the color, the banner of the proletariat” (NY Times, May 15 1933). Rivera said he had come to America in order to provoke controversy:
The only thing for me to do was to try it in an industrial country… In order to get here I had to do as a man does in war. Sometimes in times of war a man disguises himself as a tree. My paintings in this country have become increasingly and gradually clearer (NY Times, May 14, 1933).
However, Rivera’s numerous appearances in print often revealed inconsistencies in his’s position. For example, even though the May 14, 1933 headline of a New York Times article was “Rivera says his art is red propaganda,” a May 11 New York Herald Tribune article quoted him as saying, “I am not a propagandist. I am an expressionist-—giving expressions to modern trends in social life, wherever it is found.” These discrepancies are better illustrated by an examination of the personal accounts of the incident recorded by Rivera in newspapers, journals, and his autobiographies (plural).