Glenn Beck and the Society for (In)sanity in Art


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Last night Fox News ranter Glenn Beck went off on the art made more than 70 years ago for Rockefeller Center, corporate headquarters of NBC and -- not coincidentally -- supposed arch-enemy of Rupert Murdoch’s television empire. To the surprise of no one, but to the great amusement of the blogosphere (here, here and here) -- Beck donned his art critic’s tin-foil conspiracy hat to find hidden evidence of ‘progressives, fascists and communists’ in the carved reliefs and paintings of a landmark Manhattan building complex that was made a national historic monument in 1987. (Let’s see; who was president that year? Oh, yeah: Commie-symp Ronald Reagan.)

How nutty did Beck get? As nutty as usual. He pointed to a portrait of Lenin in Mexican master Diego Rivera’s destroyed Rockefeller lobby mural, ‘Man at the Crossroads,’ but forgot to mention that old John D. had the mural removed because of it. (Facts are stubborn things -- even more stubborn than demagoguery.) With comedy stylings like that, Beck is turning out to be the Harold Harby of our day.


Who was Harold Harby? A Los Angeles city councilman in the early 1950s, Harby took up propaganda-arms with a paranoid group of right-wing loonies called the Society for Sanity in Art. They made it their patriotic duty to search out Communist symbols they just knew were hidden in that weird, postwar abstract art.

Here’s an explanation of what went down back then, from a Times interview I once did with venerable L.A. artist June Wayne, witness to those events:

We had a little city councilman named Harold Harby. The occasion was a city-sponsored exhibition at Griffith Park, and in that exhibition was a watercolor [of a sailboat] by, as it happens, a Republican artist whose name was Rex Brandt. Rex liked to sail, and he had a certain class of sailing sloop, the insignia of which vaguely resembled a hammer and sickle. Harold Harby went to the exhibition and saw this painting, and the next thing we know, ‘communists invade the Griffith Park exhibition!’ Before you knew it, the police were out there gathering in works of art and dragging them downtown to the City Council to be investigated.So I thought to myself, this I have to see, because how do you investigate a painting for communism? I went down to City Hall, and it just scared the wits out of me. They had a circle of easels, with various paintings, semi-abstract. People came up and testified. There was one complete abstraction, and some woman got up and testified that this was really a secret code, and that this was how the communists were getting the details of Boulder Dam so it could be sabotaged. From this painting!

Remember that tale if you watch the Beck clip above, when he gets to the part about the hammer and sickle and how President Obama is trying to brainwash America’s children.

-- Christopher Knight