Popular culture of late has been shopping around in the past for material to fill its screens and stages. And most recently, they seem to all be shopping at the same place. As Mark Steyn wrote in The Spectator:

It seems like only the other day that young Nelson Rockefeller was up on the big screen ordering the destruction of Diego Rivera's mural for the new Rockefeller Center because the artist had refused to remove Lenin from the picture. That was in Tim Robbins’ movie Cradle Will Rock, with John Cusack as Rockefeller and Ruben Blades as Rivera. Now here it is all over again in Frida, this time with Edward Norton as Rockefeller and Alfred Molina as Rivera (March 1, 2003).

This “incident” between Diego Rivera and the management at the Rockefeller Center occurred in 1933-1934, but has appeared—directly and indirectly—many times in recent years. These new dramatizations of the confrontation paint a picture of the players involved in a somewhat disingenuous light, coloring our interpretation of the incident that occurred forty years ago.

In Cradle Will Rock, director Tim Robbins juxtaposes the Rockefeller/Rivera confrontation with the censorship of the Federal Theatre Project’s pro-labor musical, “The Cradle Will Rock.” Congress, just beginning to incite the Red Scare, shut down the theater project, which it considered a breeding ground for Communists, and guards padlocked the theater a day before the show’s first preview. In a moment of mad inspiration, director Orson Welles led his performers across Manhattan and performed the play anyway, from the aisles of an empty theater—against union rules—for an audience that had marched twenty-one blocks to see it.

This event occurred in 1937—four years after the Rockefeller/Rivera incident—but Robbins felt that “the stories had so many thematic links that it seemed natural to interweave them”(Interview Dec. 1999, 58). Nelson Rockefeller is portrayed as a spoiled rich kid, ignorant of art, and though he claims in the film that “there’s not a greater appreciator of modern art—or freedom of expression than I,” he can’t help but wish that Rivera would “cheer it up just a little.”

Julie Taymor’s Frida, although a biography of the artist Frida Kahlo, is dominated by the personality of Diego Rivera. The narrative focuses not on Kahlo’s autobiographical folk-naive art but on her stormy marriage to Rivera. The Rockefeller incident occurs in a segment entitled “Conquering Gringolandia,” which Taymor paints in digital collages. Rivera is depicted as King Kong, climbing New York’s buildings and social ladders, representing his rise and ultimate fall in the city where his political beliefs were unwelcome. In Taymor’s film, Nelson Rockefeller is hard-nosed and business-like. When he sternly informs Rivera that his services are no longer needed, Rivera responds by passionately shouting, “it’s the people’s wall, you bastard!”

In 2002, the New York Irondale Ensemble Project produced a play entitled “The Murals of Rockefeller Center,” which recalls “that dark day in American art history when the Rockefellers destroyed a major mural by Diego Rivera” (United Press International May 13, 2002). As Rivera tells “his story,” he weaves other yarns into the play, summoning up such legendary figures as flier Charles A. Lindbergh and gangster John Dillinger in an examination of American heroes and anti-heroes. The play attempts to capture a moment in history when politics, art, capitalism, and crime were all connected, and when populist heroes (like Rivera, of course) ruled the day.

Every recent dramatic representation of this episode clearly depicts the two fronts in the “Battle of Rockefeller Center,” as Rivera himself referred to it. Each character has their role, and they play it well. Rivera is the man of the people, the romanticized artist fighting for the rights of the laborers. Nelson Rockefeller—or more specifically, the symbolic Rockefeller name—is the capitalist enemy, the ultimate censor who “bought Rivera’s services, then dumped him as if he were a disobedient whore,” as Stuart Klawans bluntly put it in his review of Robbins’ film for The Nation (December 27, 1999).

It is easy to subscribe to these opinions when bombarded with these images; however, closer examination of the confrontation—and the contemporary criticism surrounding it—paints quite a different view. It shows that the Battle of Rockefeller Center was a minor battle in the larger war for America, a war played out in the headlines and on the pages of our nation’s newspapers. And it all began with a wall…