March 23, 2013 at 1:00 am

Detroit News editorial on the Diego Rivera murals, March 19, 1933

A mural, such as the Rivera mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which actually becomes an integral part of the building in which it is located, should be a decoration harmonious with the structure and with its general embellishment and contents. The first impression on entering the courts of the Institute from the public lobby should be an invitation, not a shock.

It is disappointing to record that to many that first view seems one of something psychologically erroneous, coarse in conception and, to many women observers, foolishly vulgar. Where the first impression should be one to draw the observer on with eagerness to see and enjoy the rest of the pictorial decoration, here instead there is a false, or at the best incomplete impression of our day to be passed on impressively as a record to the generations to come.

Even if the public, expert or otherwise, accepts the unaccustomed patterns, apparent distortions and distasteful lack of color harmony, which already seem to have aroused a measure of shocked criticism, it is admittedly true and unfortunate that the murals are without meaning to the generally intelligent observer without the artist's own interpretation.

Conspicuously, the figures in the two great panels must seem a slander to Detroit workingmen. Liberties of art aside, it is scarcely surprising if complaints are heard that they convey a false impression of the man and the influence of his work upon him; that this is not a fair picture of the man who works short hours, who must be quick in action, alert of mind; who works in a factory where there is plenty of space for movement, where heavy burdens are borne by mechanical lifts and conveyors of many kinds, where there is good ventilation and light and every facility to encourage efficient labor.

But the most serious criticism heard, and needing examination, is that the whole work and conception is un-American, incongruous and unsympathetic; that it bears no relation to the soul of the community, to the room, to the building, or to the general purpose of Detroit's Institute of Arts. What must we expect the future generations, viewing this strange picture, will think of our men, our interest in them, our mad jumble of inefficiency? How will they estimate the industrial leaders, engineers, master mechanics, and fine types of workingmen who have contributed to such astonishing results? If Rivera were here giving us a true suggestion of a modern American industrial shop a modern Mexican prison workshop would shame us.

That this one and only space in any of our public buildings available for a really great work of art should have been used in a manner to provoke such serious dissatisfaction among many fine supporters of art in Detroit is without question a matter of profound chagrin, and it is not surprising if these art-lovers now feel that the opportunity might have been reserved for the work of a great artist more instinctively in tune with the purpose and vision of things and emotions truly American.

The blame for this unhappy condition is obviously not on the patron who generously provided the money, but on those who hold this property in trust for the citizens of Detroit and assented to this equivocal undertaking, or it must rest on Dr. Valentiner, and, if so, he must be placed as an unsafe leader in the art development of Detroit; and it is probably inevitable that a doubt will be raised whether the Institute's executives really comprehend the community which employs them.

If weird and grotesque qualities bring the curious, they do not and can not raise the standard and high purpose of Art in our State. It is feared that they tend rather to mislead inexperienced and ambitious youth to accept a dubious standard. It would be a grave misfortune if these much-discussed works should injure rather than raise the pride of youth in our City or raise in the minds of labor a resentment against the leaders in high places who, by carelessness or intention (they will not know which), have permanently placed what may be regarded as a cruel caricature for the world and posterity to behold.

Owing to the criticism of so many, as already expressed, and the impossibility of an artist altering his work merely to please the people of "less aesthetic taste" than Mr. Rivera, perhaps the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work and return the Court to its original beauty.