The ultimate question that arises out of this Battle of Rockefeller Center-—a battle played out mostly on the pages of our nation’s newspapers-—is the question of ownership. Superficially, it is the question of the ownership of art. An article entitled “Walls and Ethics,” in the March 1, 1934 issue of The Art Digest states “the owner of a volume of Poe’s poems has a right to throw it in the fire if he wants to. But if the volume happens to be a Shakespeare First Folio, would he have that right?” In discussing his film, Cradle Will Rock, Tim Robbins maintains:
I think the question the movie really asks is, If you buy a piece of art, do you have the right to determine its contents? And I don't know what the answer is. Part of me thinks that if someone commissions a work of art, they have a right; but at the same time, the other part of me says, art is not interior decoration. It’s not painting a wall in your house beige and then deciding you really wanted canary yellow. The studios pay for movies to be made, therefore the movies are their property, but do they have the right, even years later, to change the movie’s content? Does anyone have the right to reanimate Fred Astaire and make him advertise vacuum cleaners? (Interview Dec. 1999, 58).
If one looks at the incident from a legal standpoint, the answer is clear. When government regulates private speech, the First Amendment applies with full force. Artistic expression enjoys these protections as fully as other kinds of speech. Private patrons, on the other hand, can exercise unlimited control over the content of the creations they fund, limited only by the artist’s freedom to walk away from the arrangement. When a private patron commissions a work of art, the artist is subject to the patron’s unfettered taste or whim, for he who takes the king’s shilling becomes the king’s man.
But this was not just a battle between Rivera and Rockefeller, not just an issue of a Communist figure appearing on the wall, and not even an issue of who “owned” the mural that Rivera painted on Rockefeller’s wall. This was a conflict over identity-—over what standards our communities and our nation will live by; over what we consider to be fair representation of our people and of our leaders. This was a battle over the meaning of the word “America,” over the political and cultural authority to define the term.
Launched on the eve of the stock market crash of 1929, Rockefeller Center's development coincided almost exactly with the Great Depression. John D. Rockefeller Jr. persisted with the development, practically keeping the construction industry afloat single-handedly. Rockefeller Center was to a monument to the things America holds sacred: hard work, ambition, and success. It represented all that was good about capitalism at a time in which our economic system was breaking down and reflected the achievements of the American way of life while standing as a symbol of the future possibilities of American capitalism. Inscribed on a plaque at Rockefeller Center is the credo of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Sounding very similar to the Declaration of Independence, it includes:
I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession a duty…
I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes everyman an opportunity to make a living.
I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character—not wealth or power or position—is of supreme worth.
I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.
In many ways, Rockefeller Center was a temple of hope during the Great Depression. Built with the hard work of many during a time when so much seemed uncertain, the building was a symbol of possibility and prosperity to many Americans. To call the values it aroused “sacred” would not be an exaggeration. Rivera’s “irreverence” within the walls of this building created a shockwave that was felt across the nation. But the Battle of Rockefeller Center was a physical manifestation of many of the contradictions in American life as the country worked to emerge from the Depression; many Americans felt that their ideals were at stake in the conflict.
These concerns were at the forefront of the American mind, as demonstrated by the 1936 publication of a book whose title asked the million-dollar question, Who Owns America? Published only two years after the Rockefeller Center incident, the book seems to sum up the feeling at the time.
When the social and economic system is on the rocks, those who try to build a better world should make a picture, in human terms, of what they want that world to be […] if a reformation is to endure, it must be based on sound political and economic theory; but if a reformation is even to begin, it must be based on an ideal that can stir the human heart (vii).
What was this national ideal that stirred the human heart? According to the editors of this book, Herbert Agar and Alan Tate, the ideal was the American Dream: that the majority of men should be politically and economically independent, not the dependents of either big government or big business. But as maintained by Agar, that dream is derided by two groups: by the communists, “who say that any attempt to realize it must be vain, since the attempt would contradict the laws of Marx,” and by the friends of Big Business, “who dishonor the dream by saying that it has been realized, that it lies all about us today” (viii). Agar, in his description of the fight for America, might as well be describing the Battle of Rockefeller Center, particularly when he points out:
No country can be reformed by the people who hate it—a fact which our left-wing intellectuals tend to miss. The haters can supply useful criticism; they can show the frauds and injustices which corrode society. They can even persuade men to overthrow a world which has grown sick with injustice. But only those who have affection for the national ideal can persuade a people to reform (vii).
Though written over sixty-five years ago, Who Owns America? still challenges many assumptions at play in the American public psyche. As Edward S. Shapiro observes in his Foreword, “The urgency of the questions posed by Who Owns America? has not changed since 1936, nor has the answer.” What isn’t mentioned, however, is that the question is unanswerable. No one will ever know who truly owns America because everyone feels that they do; it’s impossible to know who is right when nothing is black and white.
The Rockefeller Center represented America to those Americans with a capitalistic and nationalistic mindset; Diego Rivera’s mural represented America to those Americans with a socialistic and artistic mindset, but again the lines are blurred. The incident at large was the true representation of America and its fight for unity. As the combatants in the Battle scrambled for their piece of the American pie, their clashes filled the headlines of newspapers across the nation, making the Battle of Rockefeller Center an event that was not exactly black and white, but was certainly read all over.