Ron Radosh

Glenn Beck Takes the Stage- Marching to the Music of the Popular Front

Now that the Glenn Beck old time Christian revival meeting at the Lincoln Memorial is over- and yes, with a minimum of 350,000 attending- one moment of unintentional humor has all but been passed over and gone unnoticed.

When the rally began, and right before Beck was to speak, the audience heard a substantial excerpt of music, that continued to play as he came on stage.  And it continued to be played at various times throughout the event.

That music was none other than Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, written by him during the period of the Communist Popular Front of the 30’s and 40’s, when Copland was not only a man of the political Left, but an actual- although secret- Communist Party member.

The main point about the composition is made by historian Sean Wilentz, in his new book, Bob Dylan in America, to be published soon by Doubleday. Wilentz writes:

The title contains an obvious paradox. Fanfares, rooted in the music of the court, are supposed to herald the arrival of a great man, a noble. Copland’s Fanfare, however, heralded the noble groundlings, grunts, and ordinary men- not just their service and sacrifice in the war, but their very existence and their arrival in history. The title had more specific political connotations as well- for Copland borrowed it, as he later informed [Eugene] Goossens, from a widely publicized speech, ‘The Century of the Common Man,’ delivered  earlier in 1942 by the New Dealer most closely identified with pro-Soviet and Popular Front politics, Vice President Henry Wallace.

The composition, Wilentz continues to point out, was “a subtly esoteric piece of music written for the democratic masses as well as to honor them.”  The composer Virgil Thomson, a contemporary critic of Copland, commented that the work was evocative of “the speeches of Henry Wallace, striking in phraseology but all too reminiscent of Moscow.”  Thomson’s comments were in line with the repudiation of pro-Communist Popular Front culture that came from the anti-Stalinist Left around Partisan Review, The New Leader, and other sophisticated cultural figures who were espousing modernism and more than dismissive of CP culture. As Wilentz concludes, Fanfare “fit in perfectly with what [Clement] Greenberg had been denouncing since 1939 as ‘kitsch’ and what Dwight Macdonald eventually defined as ‘mid-cult;-a style…that ‘pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.’”

These critics were opposing what they saw as the subordination of art to politics—and to left-wing pro-Communist politics.  And for Copland, as Wilentz writes, the new simplicity he espoused was “inevitably bound up with his Popular Front political loyalties of the 1930s and 1940s.”

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with using Copland’s wonderful music to frame an event. But this is the same Glenn Beck who last year, as Steven Heller who teaches at the School for Visual Arts wrote, “As one of the many justifications for why the Obama administration is leading us headlong into Socialism and Fascism, Glenn Beck has turned to the history of propaganda art. In a recent broadcast,…[he] takes Rockefeller Center’s vintage public art and architecture to task for promoting Communism and Fascism through murals, friezes, and engravings bearing symbols that subliminally project vile values.”  Beck, he continues,  “deconstructs works that include workers and farmers, hammers and sickles, iron-fisted leaders, and swords beaten into plowshares, equating the ‘progressive’ mass art of the 1930s with the so-called subversive art of Obama.”

And art critic Richard Lacayo, points to Beck’s dismay at same carved bas-relief figures you can see at Rockefeller Center. Called Industry and Agriculture, they flank the entrance to Rockefeller Plaza at its south end. What is the problem with them, Lacayo asks? His comment: “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.” He adds this comment:

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 that 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.

 I happened to be watching Beck’s show and saw his actual presentation, and you can watch it here.  Lacayo and Heller’s summary of Beck’s case against the art is accurate, as you can see for yourself. As I recall, Beck was stunned as he recounted how on walking with one of his staff past the building, he commented how amazing it was that we take such propaganda for granted, and don’t realize what is being put over on an unsuspecting public.

Beck also noted on that same program that a glass wall sculpture by an artist named Attilio Piccirilli, that is found at the entrance to one of the Rockefeller Center buildings, is a “a fascist tableaux of youth leading humanity towards a bright future and ends up identifying the charioteer as Mussolini.” As Lacayo accurately writes- and I hope you read his account- the story is much more complicated. The bottom line is the following:

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.

Beck, to make it clear, saw in these works of art the secret code of communist and socialist propaganda foisted on the tourists and citizens of New York who never knew what was being imposed on their unsuspecting eyes. “Gee,” he commented, “who’s having indoctrination next week?” He then stated: “This is propaganda, hidden in plain sight. In plain sight!”  It was hidden, he told his audience, but you can see it “if you look.”

Well, I ask the following? If Beck was right about the hidden message of this communist and fascist propaganda propagated by the Rockefellers—-what subliminal hidden message came through the cascade of Copland’s Popular Front symphonic compositions put upon the unsuspecting ears of the few hundred thousand present at his rally, and the scores of others watching it on C-Span?

Could it be that Glenn Beck’s razor eye for propaganda is slipping, and that someone on his staff played a trick on him— picking Popular Front culture as the front piece of his long planned rally? Could the Communists of the past have managed to hoodwink even Glenn Beck? We’re waiting for an answer.


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