Indifference, 1944, is a reactionary and transitional painting by Thomas Hart Benton.
Benton was born in 1889 in Neosho, Missouri into a family of prominent politicians whose ideals focused on republicanism and populism (1). Benton grew up moving around the Midwest, where he saw many public murals that sparked his interest in art. Mainly known for his detailed Regionalism murals during the Great Depression, Benton also painted abstract-like pieces later in life about war and politics. Indifference, is one of his transition pieces from Regionalism to the soon-to-be-created abstract movement. Claiming to be an “enemy of modernism,” Benton simultaneously became one of the first American artists to combine modern artistic principles into his structured artistic style (1).
For quick review, Regionalism is an artistic movement where painters focused on the working class and rural scenes, usually in response to the Great Depression.
During his mid 50s, Benton was on tour talking about American Regionalism. However, on December 7, 1941, he was interrupted during a speech to hear the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Benton was immediately struck by the awful events of D-day and left in the middle of his speech with new painting ideas to be excavated (2).
After planning his responsive pieces, it only too Benton 6 weeks to create 8 paintings: together known as the Year of Peril (2).
Indifference, created in 1944, is currently at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia, MO (5). While this piece became very popular during the war effort, many magazines thought it to be too gruesome to show. It was also criticized by those who studied Salvador Dali’s surrealistic works (3). Many of these critics compare Indifference to Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Here is a view of them together:
Both paintings have a fantasy environment that is contrasted by its grim content. The use of ghastly reds and sour greens were not usually on Benton’s palate, proving that Dali influenced him. Also the vertical movement on the left side is mimicked in both paintings with a horizontal line to break up the composition. The beheaded and mangled figures in Indifference are strewn about the painting like the clocks in Dali’s work (3).
Benton used this Year of Peril series as a warning to what could happen to the United States if we did not all get behind the war effort. His vast scenery can be thought to be expanding all the way to the Mid West as a precursor to what could be. Benton wanted to display the “crude reality of violence and blood” from the war, as he stated in his essay on the Year of Peril (3, p292). He wanted it to be gruesome; to be a “warning about what the fascists might do to mainland America and to the Midwest in particular if they were to invade” (6, p118). This was his form of propaganda for the war, and soon some magazines even used his paintings for propaganda for the war effort. The Japanese were the animalistic enemy and demonized by OWI war posters (4). Japanese Americans were moved to camps because Americans feared they could hurt us from our homeland.
While The US was showing hatred towards the Japanese during WWII, American society started to reject regionalism. Many Regionalist painters wished they had never started painting before. However, Benton stated that he started to focus on nature and growth. People became an accessory and “I was thus myself moving away from regionalism” (3, p281). For Benton, it was more of a natural flow into a slightly more modern artistic style, but people wanted more. They wanted Jackson Pollock, who was coincidentally taught by Benton (3).
All in all, Benton was in fear of what could happen to the United States if we did not push for more war involvement. Many see Indifference as anti-war, but in truth, Benton wanted more war because he feared something worse than Pearl Harbor. Also, American society wanted something new. The war was tragic, and regionalism was too. Thus, a new abstract movement was on the way.
1. The Art Story Foundation. Thomas Hart Benton Synopsis. 2014. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-benton-thomas-hart.htm
2. Brinkley, Douglas. Painting to Sound the Alarm in the Wake of Pearl Harbor. 2003. The NewYork Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/08/arts/painting-to-sound-the-alarm-in-the-wake-of-pearl-harbor.html
3. Doss, Erica. Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism. book. 1991.
4. Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class notes. 2015.
5. Thomas Hart Benton. Indifference, Year of Peril Series. 1944. Oil 21×31. State Historical Soceity of Missouri. Columbia, Mo.
6. Whiting, Cécile. Antifascism in American Art. book. 1989.