June 15, 1933
For the last twenty years I have thought that the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat had need of its own artistic expression, especially in the field of the plastic arts, for a work of art can say the most complicated things in the most simple and direct form that will speak clearly to all that have eyes to see. Furthermore, it is highly important to create a class taste, not merely for the advantages it may bring to the worker in his personal life but even more for the clarification of his class position and strengthening of his confidence and determination to struggle. With this aim, my comrades and I painted in Mexico a long series of mural paintings which were useful for the masses of workers and peasants of Mexico. It seemed to many that our work was successful merely because in Mexico there existed a well-developed tradition of popular arts among the masses. Therefore, it became desirable that we test our theories among the workers of the United States who are not influenced by any tradition of peasant art. This motivated my eager acceptance of the opportunity to paint walls here in the United States. The most important and complete of my American paintings is the series of frescoes in Detroit in which I realized as correctly as possible an analysis of the relations of the worker to the means of production and the natural forces and materials involved, creating a beauty appropriate to the proletariat. The real reason why my work in Detroit aroused so much attack was because it was completely and implicitly a product of dialectic materialism and its opponents, tho they had never heard the term, felt instinctively outraged by the nature of the painting.
It was for this reason too that the workers reacted in its favor, without any request or explanation on my part, proving thus that proletariat art, is immediately accessible to the proletariat of a country in which such popular arts are not developed and proving further that it is not true that the proletariat has "bad artistic taste," but rather an immediate appreciation of beauty, provided it has contract with its life and expresses its needs.
The Case of Rockefeller Center
Those who gave me the work at Radio City knew perfectly well my artistic tendencies and my social and political opinions. And the Detroit affair had just served to make very clear the nature of my reaction to the environment of the United States. They did much urging to persuade me to accept the work, which I finally did only on condition that they would give me full liberty to paint as I saw fit. My interpretation of the theme and my sketches for the painting were discussed and approved. The theme they assigned was: Man at the crossroads, looking with uncertainty but with hope to a better world. My interpretation, naturally, portrayed the crossroads with the road to the left as the socialist world, that to the right, the road of capitalism. The steel worker, in the midst of a connected system of machines which give him control of energy and means of knowledge of the various aspects of life, the infinitely great and the infinitely small, and a simultaneous vision of the most distant and the nearest things, and power over the forces of nature and the vegetable products and mineral wealth of the earth. The axis of the composition was determined by the cylinders of a telescope and a microscope, and their two visual fields, crossed like a pair of scissors with a luminous sphere as its central pivot, containing the representation of the atom and the cell, controlled by the hand of the mechanical power between the two arms of the worker which were placed upon electric controls, while his vision was directed forward. At the sides, arranged in horizontal zones like the floors of a building, were, at the left, an image of a May Day demonstration in Moscow, projected by television, and below, the workers of a factory gathered during the lunch hour to listen to a working class leader. At the right, in the upper part, war-an attack of infantry equipment with masks and flame-throwers, and supported by tanks and aeroplanes. And, below that, as a consequence, a demonstration of unemployed workers in Wall Street corner South Street, with the mounted police just in the act of attacking and dispersing the demonstration; in the background, crossed, an elevated structure and the steeple of a church. In the ellipses, representing the microscopic and telescopic, on the side nearest the war, the wounds and the microbes of decomposition and infection and those of the typical plagues and diseases of war. On the lower edge of the ellipse, the microbes of venereal disease, syphilis, etc., and adjoining a sector showing a scene of gaming, drinking and dancing of members of the bourgeoisie, reminiscent of Marx's observation that such a scene was the overflowing scum of capitalist decay. Beneath this, in the astronomic field, was represented the moon, dead planet, and near the center, the sun, in eclipse. In the same field, on the left, constellations and nebulas in ascending evolution. Near this, a group of young women, youth and pioneers of the Communist movement. On that side, in the microscopic field and balancing the sun, focus of vital energy, was represented a cancerous invasion of the human body as the negative element due to a misdirected concentration of vital energy. Next the organs, fluids, functions and microorganisms of the functions of nutrition and generation of life. In the sector between those two things was represented the union of the worker, the peasant and the soldier, with the industrial worker as leader, and in the background, a group of workers with raised fist.
Since, as much for my personal sentiments and opinions as for the historical truth, the outstanding leader of the proletariat is Lenin, I could not conceive or represent the figure of the worker-leader as any other than that of Lenin. In the foreground, two enormous lenses placed at the two sides gave the magnified vision of all this to the groups of students of all races.
After the Rockefellers had repeatedly expressed their enthusiasm for the work as it developed on the wall, the pretext was advanced by Nelson Rockefeller that the head of Lenin was unacceptable, despite the fact that it was in my sketch and on the wall in outline for over a month. While the correspondence on this subject was being exchanged a whole plan of attack was being worked out and, one night, after getting rid of spectators, an incongruously large force of guards and attendants covered the picture while the architects were expressing their objections to me in the construction shack. Their objections were not merely to the face of Lenin but to the whole painting, its color, its ideology and its spirit. At 7:10 I left the scaffold; but a phone call from one of the workers to the New Workers School brought a demonstration down to Rockefeller City on a united front basis by nine the same evening, with improvised banners and mimeographed leaflets, which demonstration was brutally attacked by the police.
Since then there has been a growing movement among the workers organizations and among artists, critics, and intellectuals, demanding that we be given the opportunity to complete the work according to our plans and that it be exhibited and reproduced.
As the best answer to the financial dictatorship of the Rockefellers my co-workers and I have decided to make the revolutionary painting accessible to the New York workers which the Rockefellers tried to shut off from them. Therefore, we have decided to use the money that the Rockefellers paid to paint without charge in workers schools. Thus the Rockefellers have been stripped of their assumed mask of liberalism as art patrons and yet are paying for revolutionary art in the works headquarters much against their will. At the same time, the whole incident has served to stir the interest of great numbers of workers in the development of proletarian art and the storm aroused demonstrates the living character of the art of the working class as against the art of the bourgeoisie which is no longer capable of stirring controversy.
We are confident that the workers will yet unveil our buried mural and, if it be destroyed or incomplete, they will create out of their own midst the artists of tomorrow who will fulful our intentions and carry revolutionary art to far greater heights.