Rocking the Cradle
To the Editor:
Disdainful of every piece of American Jewish music to the left of Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Terry Teachout [“Cradle of Lies,” February] dispatches Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock to the dustbin wherein also reside Kurt Weill, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. But in doing so, Mr. Teachout makes three misjudgments.
First, he speaks of an “ongoing recovery” of the American economy in 1937. There was an upward turn after FDR’s second election, but it was hardly “ongoing” since it fell flat by 1938, rising again only with the advent of war in 1939. Second, he seems to approve of bills of attainder—i.e., the restrictions aimed specifically at Cradle after its initial approval by the Federal Theater Project; surely, Mr. Teachout is aware of American distaste for such actions, beginning with the rebuff of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 18th century. Last, he claims that Howard da Silva “worked regularly for the rest of his life” after playing Larry Foreman in Cradle. Not so. Da Silva was banned from movies, and as for stage, I distinctly recall his spending a couple of years with the Chagrin Valley Little Theater—a theater that has never “regularly” employed anyone, except possibly its bookkeeper, who tracks the deficits.
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout performs a valuable service by providing a more balanced view of the controversies surrounding the original performance of The Cradle Will Rock. But in his anti-Stalinist zeal (which I share), I believe he steps over the line.
First, he commits a sleight-of-hand when he asserts that, “outside of Hollywood and the academy, one would have to search far and wide to locate defenders of a political system whose sole achievement was the butchery of several million innocent human beings.” If this statement is meant to imply retrospectively that Marc Blitzstein as well as the Communists and sympathizers of his day (circa late 20′s to early 40′s) were aware of the killings going on in the Soviet Union, I believe that Mr. Teachout is wrong. I do not believe they knew, or, more to the point, wished to know of Stalin’s horrors.
Second, the statement that Stalin was “the foremost mass murderer of modern times” is pushing the envelope. Perversions of justice, yes; execution of innocents, yes; forced-collectivization evils, yes; gulags, yes; but crematoria, no.
Harry I. Greenfield
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout is correct when he describes as “harebrained” the theory set out in The Cradle Will Rock that the postwar success of Abstract Expressionism can be attributed in large part to the actions of the CIA or corporate America.
After the war, many artists who did representational work suffered greatly. Fine ones, including Jack Levine, Paul Cadmus, Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, and George Tooker were not involved in museum shows, nor was their work critically acclaimed.
It was the movers and shakers of the art world who made this happen. The critics, the curators, and the professors—mostly liberals—promoted only abstract work, to the point that two generations of artists were uncomfortable painting the human figure itself. It is the height of revisionist idiocy to suggest that these changes in the art world occurred because of the influence of large corporations, let alone the CIA or Congress.
Philip J. Schiller
To the Editor:
In his insightful critique of the movie version of The Cradle Will Rock, Terry Teachout goes to considerable lengths to describe the political atmosphere of the period in which Diego Rivera’s fresco was razed from the wall of Rockefeller Center because it contained a portrait of Lenin. It is interesting to recall that during the same period, another fresco by Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Art, depicting the spiritual challenge of the Machine Age, was slated for destruction on similarly specious grounds. But discussion about the fresco’s removal became a tempest in a teapot, and happily it remains intact and on view today.
Terry Teachout writes:
Harold Ticktin’s letter made me laugh out loud. Regular readers of COMMENTARY will hardly need reminding that I have bestowed lavish and heartfelt praise on Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, both here and elsewhere, and while I have never had occasion to write about Kurt Weill, I admire him no less deeply. The rest of Mr. Tick-tin’s poison-pen letter should be read in the light of its author’s clumsily obvious intention to smear me as a crypto-anti-Semite; it seems the hard cultural Left has not changed much in the past six decades.
As for Marc Blitzstein, it may possibly be, as Harry I. Greenfield suggests, that he knew less than he should have—or more than he wanted—about precisely what was happening in the abattoirs of the KGB circa 1937. But as Eric A. Gordon records in Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein, the composer of The Cradle Will Rock “endorsed the [Communist] party’s diatribes against [the exiled Leon] Trotsky without question and happily distanced himself from John Dewey’s anti-Stalinist commission of inquiry by signing an open statement of support for the Moscow Trials.” That was in 1938, the same year he joined the Communist party. Countless other intellectuals understood the moral implications of making such a commitment; there is no reason why Blitzstein should not have known, too.