American Reality vs. American Democratic Dream of Freedom

Thomas Hart Benton, “Slavery”, 1924 – 1927

As a truth-seeking sociologist of the American reality and a daring truth-teller (by means of visual expressiveness and symbolism) Thomas Hart Benton (THB) invites the viewers to witness what is so unbearable to see – the failed attempt to flee – to run/swim/fly away from the violence of non-freedom (a human history mired by). Benton’s depiction of the attempt to sail away from slavery which is interrupted by the slave owner, immediately reminds of forbidden for decades emigration from Soviet Union (breached only in early seventies by diplomatic efforts on the part of the international community), and the impossibility today in US to get away from the American financial elite comfortably settled in wars and economic collapses, like inside the luxurious interior built on tax-payers’ money.

We see in Benton’s “Slavery” that the task of labor-exploitative power is not only to oppress, repress and manipulate. It is also to humiliate (to uproot the very potential for future mutinies). Slave-owner’s way of operating with his whip is disgustingly sophisticated. To humiliate a husband and a father – the head of the enslaved family, and to break his soul, the master whips not him but his wife, his sister or daughter, and his son. It is by this humiliation he manages to put the man down to the ground. You can see how innocent (not threatening) the slave is trying to look – as if he doesn’t understand what he has done to create the master’s fury. Is he trying to withdraw his left arm from being caught by the slave-owner? Or is he trying to point to the sky for protection, to appeal in vain to the master’s “fear of god”?

There are four compositional components in the painting expressing the four motifs of semantic verticalization of the reality: deformation of the existential world through its verticalization (the tendency of the people living in society which accepts slavery to understand the world in vertical rather than horizontal terms). Three motifs are positioned in relation to the sky, and fourth one is cut by the upper frame of the painting. While the first three motifs are connected with people’s tendency to define themselves through their relationship with what they perceive as a reality above this life, the fourth motif shows the overcoming of this tendency. To this, following Benton’s intuition, we can add his particular characterization of nature as a part of the reality of the world he depicts in “Slavery”.

The first motif is the semantic relation between church and the sky above it. The church and its steeple are as if stretched skyward (the church as if is trying to reach the sky with its steeple). This motif represents a theological verticality (theological yearning, a tendency to define human identity through creating the association with the super-human power and wisdom).

The second motif is expressed by the shape of the head and face of the slave-master (which are painted as deformed by his unconscious desire to be closer to the heavens as the abode of God). His elongated head and face (in combination with his raised hand with whip) symbolize his yearning for more power and points to his self-aggrandizing psychological posture. His small skull has a pathetic bump (probably, Benton’s caricature of the white racism’s claim to extra-smartness, or/and of religiously fundamentalist orientation assuming to know god’s intentions and believing in privileged rapport with God through religious dogma). The master’s protruded beard verticalizes his head not less than his predatory bird’s nose and the bump on his sinciput.

The third semantic motif is the fact that enslaved man has turned toward the heaven for rhetorical (self-consoling) protection. This moment registers the psychological posture/gesture (so widespread among the helpless people), of finding refuge in feeling of being protected (by a caring God), in believing that they are protected despite the fact that real protection is not coming – this family of slaves is not allowed to depart, and they will be severely punished. As soon as we have slavery, Benton states, people will have a need in this rhetorical consolation through the very believing in the existence of above-actual authority or wisdom.

The fourth semantic motif of verticality is the broken verticality – the motif of the mast that is cut by the upper frame of the painting. This cut separates the existential world from the heaven, makes it stand on itself. It makes the mast (symbolizing the human desire for freedom: holding the sails to freedom) as if bigger than the sky. The fourth (liberatory) motif by asserting the moral power of the very dream of freedom overrides the three vertical motifs of human life in slavery (theological, megalomaniacal and petitionary) and returns us to earth. This democratic dream about freedom has nothing to do with heavens, with desire for power and with appeal for metaphysical help. This is completely earthy and an intra-existential need in freedom in order to just be human. This is the subject of the painting THB invites us to identify with.

The fifth semantic point of the painting is that as soon as we are still amidst a “fallen” reality of non-freedom – even mountains and clouds cannot look like alive nature but as nature which is exploited, over-mined, maimed and artificial. Clouds and hills look de-naturalized, as artifacts, as a dough for making profit from it – as remnants of the natural world after it has been plundered by the corporate and military establishment which (and this is prophetic aspect of THB’s “Slavery”) digests nature and natural resources (including human labor and intelligence) into pollution and destruction of life. Benton’s nature in this painting is destroyed because it is exploited like the family of slaves by the slave master.

Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975