Glenn Beck’s art criticism explained

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When Fox television commentator Glenn Beck played art critic two weeks ago, giving a now-notorious rant about some 75-year-old art commissioned for Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, it wasn’t the mash-up of socialist, communist, fascist and other symbolism he identified that left some viewers slack-jawed. That obvious information has been known and studied for, well, 75 years.

No, the surprise lay elsewhere.

First, Beck lamented that few observers now have any idea what that symbolism is — which made his wild-eyed concern bizarre. If people today don’t recognize the symbols, how could they be a threat?


Second, Beck kept linking the symbolism to über-capitalist John D. Rockefeller Sr., founder of the Standard Oil monopoly, and to the Rockefeller family, presumably including his philanthropist son John Jr. and grandson Nelson, who oversaw construction of much of Rockefeller Center and was later a Republican governor of New York. Monopoly capitalism doesn’t usually fit very well with socialist and communist ideals, so Beck’s adamant insistence on the Rockefeller family connection seemed weird.

Turns out there’s a fairly simple — and quite horrifying — explanation.

Writing in Salon Wednesday, journalist Alexander Zaitchik, who is working on a Beck biography, detailed the commentator’s admiration for the late conspiracy fantasist W. Cleon Skousen. What kind of all-American fellow was he? In addition to his radical John Birch Society activities, Zaitchik writes that “The Making of America,” a history text authored by Skousen, “characterized African-American children as ‘pickaninnies’ and described American slave owners as the ‘worst victims’ of the slavery system.”

More to the point of Beck’s foray into art analysis, Skousen also developed a conspiracy theory that dynastic families like the Rockefellers used left-wing front groups “to do their dirty work and hide their tracks.” In 1971 Skousen founded the Freeman Institute, Zaitchik adds, “a research organization devoted to the study of the super-conspiracy directed by the Rockefellers....”

Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief who died at 92 in 2006, authored more than a dozen books and pamphlets on Christian child-rearing, the communist threat to the United States, the global conspiracy of a New World Order and Mormon end-times prophecy. The LDS Church has distanced itself from Skousen and his ‘theories,’ but Beck, a professed alcoholic and drug-abuser who partly attributes his recovery to his conversion to Mormonism, wrote the preface to a recent reissue of Skousen’s best-known book, “The 5,000 Year Leap.” The Freeman Institute later changed its name to the National Center for Constitutional Studies, Zaitchik observes, and now publishes the Skousen book with Beck’s foreword.

To Beck, Rockefeller Center’s art therefore appears to be some sort of evidence confirming Skousen’s loony theories. A dynastic family was supposedly hiding behind socialist and communist front groups, like the Wizard of Oz furiously pulling levers behind a curtain.

“These things have been in plain sight, and nobody notices it,” Beck sputtered about the Rockefeller Center friezes and murals. “It makes sense!”


It doesn’t make any sense, of course — until you read Zaitchik’s chillingly informative article.

--Christopher Knight