Glenn Beck: Crack(ed) Symbologist

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Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator and self-proclaimed “rodeo clown”, found a new hobby horse the other night — secretly “communist” and “fascist” art buried into the exterior design program of Rockefeller Center. In Beck’s rant he also managed to imply that “Rockefeller”, it’s not clear which Rockefeller he meant, was also somehow a secret communist. Or was it a fascist? Or maybe both.

But let’s get real, one of the several actual motives for Beck’s latest bug-eyed, comic-sinister monologue — other than to gain himself more publicity and to mash the words “progressive/fascist/communist” into a single loaded term — is to put it to NBC, arch-rival of Fox News and co-owner of MSNBC, which is headquartered at Rock Center. One of the first insidious works that Beck “discovers” are a pair of carved low-relief figures, called Industry and Agriculture, that flank the entrance of one of the low-rise buildings on the Center’s south end. That building will be vaguely familiar to many people because it opens onto the plaza where the Today show holds its outdoor summer concerts. The studio where Today broadcasts from is just across from it. Beck makes sure to mention the Today connection, leaving you with the vague impression that Matt Lauer is insidiously using Miley Cyrus to lure us into a trap set by Joe Stalin.

And what is it that inflames Beck about these carvings? One of the figures, Agriculture, holds a sickle. Meanwhile Industry leans on a hammer. Hammer. Sickle. Hammer and sickle! They’re not actually touching, much less crossing, but never mind — they’re secretly suggesting the communist symbol. Just think — Rockefeller Center is across the street from my office. I pass this terrifying radical fetish figure nearly every day without suspecting its malign intent.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that sickles and hammers were symbols of agriculture and labor long before the communists hit upon the idea of combining them as their symbol. And that workers and farmers were a standard theme in Art Deco. I had actually always thought the “hammer” Industry leans on was a shovel, buried partly in soil represented by the dark grey stone base of the building. That’s why the figure always looked less to me like a symbol of militant labor than a WPA road worker on a break. (At the feet of Agriculture grass grows from the same grey “soil”.) The Rockefeller Center website also describes the thing as a shovel. But images can be ambiguous and you can read it either way.

Meanwhile, it’s the siren song of Italian fascism that Beck hears in another artwork at the Center, a 10 by 16-ft. neoclassical glass wall sculpture by a little remembered Italian-American artist, Attilio Piccirilli. What it shows is a young man walking towards the sun in front a of chariot driven by a muscled figure. Beck takes it to be a fascist tableaux of youth leading humanity towards a bright future and ends up identifying the charioteer as Mussolini.

As related in Daniel Okrent’s book Great Fortune, an altogether terrific history of Rockefeller Center, the story behind this one is a little more complicated. It appears above the main doorway of what’s called Italia House. When Rockefeller Center was built, some of the low-rise office buildings along Fifth Avenue were devoted to Great Britain, France and Italy in the hope of attracting businesses from those nations to sign on as tenants. Rockefeller’s architects commissioned the exterior art for each of the “Houses”, work they hoped would project each nation’s image of itself. France is all about art and luxury. Britain has allegorical figures representing industry, agriculture, etc. Italy has Piccirilli’s tableaux.

There’s not a shred of evidence that Piccirilli had Fascist leanings. (He was the closest friend of that arch democrat, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.) But his work appears on the front of a building that for a while was a business center for Italian companies that were outposts of a sort for the nation governed by Mussolini. So notwithstanding that it trafficks in the kind of neoclassical imagery that was the shared language of representational art in all nations in the 1930s, it sits on the front of a building that was once devoted to Italy in the 30s. In the context of the times it chimed with the blowsy rhetoric of fascist self-aggrandizement, though just about no one looking at it today would take away any such message from it.

The fact is, the most important single figure behind the decorative program of Rockefeller Center wasn’t Joe Stalin or Benito Mussolini, neither of whom were consulted. It was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the millionaire oilman who built the place, and for one reason — he hated modern art. (The famous irony, of course, is that his wife Abby loved it, and was a founder of the Museum of Modern Art.)

Because Rockefeller didn’t want anything too modern at his big project, the sculpture and carvings all around the Center are almost entirely representational, and mostly in the muscular neoclassical style that had been adopted by aesthetically conservative artists all over the world in the 1930s, including the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy and the good old U.S.A.

So Rockefeller Center is full of gods and goddesses and winged horses and whatever else, borrowed from the working kit of Greek and Roman classical imagery, most of them stylized in that Art Deco-Moderne way of the 1920s and ’30s that served both Mussolini in Rome and the eminently anti-totalitarian Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, which was built during the presidency of — gasp! — Herbert Hoover.

You can find Beck’s blather here.