The Relevance Of Benton’s Painting In The 21st Century That Follows Agrarian Worldview Despite The Availability Of Knowledge About Prevention Of Illnesses

Thomas Hart Benton, “Lord Heals Child”
Thomas Hart Benton, “Lord Heals Child”

Humankind comes from an agrarian way of life (agrarian nomadism and/or sedentariness) like baby from mother’s womb. The agrarian sensibility is womb-oriented, when we feel ourselves as eternally new-born, new-comers of creation. We give ourselves to the sun, to wind and to the seasons as to mother’s body. And we play gods with our children and our animals. We give them existential chance as universe gives it to us. And if illnesses strike us, we ask god and/or medical establishment to help/to save us.

The one-story wooden building Benton has opened before us – the people’s club, theater and church, is a place where people with their passionate belief in Lord’s hospitality and generosity try to invoke the supernatural help to heal the sick child. A modest quartet (violin, mandolin, guitar and harmonica or Jews’ harp) and three vocalists with their choirmaster are deployed to solicit help (while enjoying themselves in the process). People are not praying ritualistically, and there is no priest around. Through their collective concentration people are uniting their hearts. The mother of the sick girl is doing all she can to intensify people’s good will. But people are not only participants but viewers, as in theater. They are not only addressing the supernatural, but observing what they are doing and thinking about it. Collective action is not only instrumentally oriented on inducing result but it’s also a common effort to activate human togetherness and love for the sick child. Benton, who is a gifted sociologist, is very much interested in not only the connection of human beings with the religious agency but in forms of human communal life.

By looking at the painting we don’t have the impression that god’s help is guaranteed – we don’t feel in the faces and eyes of the people the unconditional belief. Rather, by hoping for help they are trying to mobilize their own emotional resources, power of their humanism. They think that their aesthetic equipment (their musical instruments and their voices) and abilities will help. These people are not only believers in the religious sense, but simultaneously secular humanists. They are Benton’s Americans – people of common sense and collective will. They are what we, Americans today, becoming less and less. Deprivations and uncertainties make us more extreme and fanatic.

But also something passive in these people, something quietly inert – their belief, that help will come is mixed with knowledge that healing may not be completed. This possibility is not making them desperate. They are not obsessed; they don’t have convulsive agitation or epileptic zeal in their appeal to the supernatural powers. Ultimately, everything for them is in the hands of the heavens and earthly spirits. And if it is so, losing the child afflicted by illness is part of the order of things. The very agricultural way of life normalizes losses but it also lets the seeds of hope to grow and to flower. The ultimate responsibility for everything is in the hands of life itself, of the creation.

It is impressive how the painting’s images depicting the wholeness and closeness of an agrarian life can be easily transferable to our own epoch, in spite of the fact that our life is much more stressful and competitive. Of course, today, we have developed medical technology and in the case of illness the most of us can consult with and expect cure from medical knowledge and professionalism. But we, as if, have transferred our reliance on the healing powers of benign supernatural agency to benign power of medical competence as an external, almost a transcendent one in relation to our everyday life. When something frightening happens to our health we rush not only to the church but to medical offices, clinics and hospitals to wait for the best possible results. In the immanency of our everyday existence we are as we always were – just live like children. What used to be heavens before, now it is the medical technology and expertise. In his painting Benton registers the transitional phase between reliance on heavens and on earthly medicine and human concentration on fighting illnesses.

Even although today we live in cities, suburbs and commercial farmlands, we still are the same traditional people in our minimally reflective lifestyle. We still are surviving and resting, working and entertaining ourselves and consuming natural resources, some of us more greedily than others. And we don’t think in advance about our health, we take it for granted. In this sense we still belong to the “flora that is able to move around”. While technical knowledge about the reasons for our illnesses already exist, we still cannot act on it, despite the countless physicians on the TV-screens, making money on the attempts to enlighten us in advance, before we’ll fall seriously sick. We as a society are not able to prevent illnesses which have been already understood in their etiology pretty well. This inability makes us in the 21st century as archaically agrarian as were our ancestors. The faces, facial expressions and the emotional code we notice in protagonists of Benton’s painting are universally and eternally human. Look at the singing women on the left of the painting or at the men making music on the right. These faces are of the creatures who don’t know what is likely to happen with them, who just live, chew their fill, have fun and take pleasure from the hope that we will be helped if the disaster strike.

We are not able to prevent numerous barbaric technologies like fossil fuels or nuclear energy from hurting us. We are not able even to do anything about it – because the knowledge about their harm is still too abstract to us. We believe only in what is in front of our eyes. It is because we are still psychologically an agrarian community, the children of ready-made environment on the bottom of which we find ourselves playing our little or bigger games. We are just country people by our sensibility. We don’t understand (we don’t feel) that we obliged in front of our progeny to have knowledge about what is killing us and our environment, and deploy this knowledge every day of our lives. We have to take healing in our own hands. We have to control the technology of our times; we have to be in charge of technology. We have to understand that it is more important than to eat and sleep and consume entertainment.

The sharp gaze of Thomas Hart Benton can help us to become psychologically less provincial and internalize the healing function of medical technology and professionalism into everyday illnesses-prevention activity as our permanent political responsibility in front of the future generations. Instead we treat medicine as our great grandfathers treated god. We awaken when we become sick. And even this awakening is inert, passive and “privatized”. This inertia, passivity and self-centeredness are too dangerous in the times of fracking, the oil-pipelines and oil and coal trains, nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons and the abuses on part of our money-makers who socialize the consequences of their crude greed on us all including future generations.

The readers/viewers are encouraged to pay attention to Benton’s phrenological exercises as a part of his painting. Which two forms of human skull the painter emphasizing here and why can he be interested in doing this?