When Thomas Hart Benton was asked how he started the Missouri murals, he gave a straight forward answer: “Well, I sat down and monkeyed with a pencil.” However, this one simple act sparked a controversy so large that it caused many Missourians to speak up on the subject.
The earliest reactions to the murals in the House Lounge in the State Capitol were actually favorable. Those newspapers that reviewed the murals first such as the Kansas City Star thought that Benton did a commendable job portraying Missouri’s history and showing it in an unbiased way. However these same positive reviews were quick to point out that come January when the legislature returned there was bound to be problems.
These predictions turned out to be true as soon as the legislature returned in early 1937. When the representatives returned there was talk about a resolution to cover up the murals. Legislators gave many reasons for wanting the murals covered up, including: the subject matter; the largeness of the figures; the bright colors; and the crowds flocking to the Lounge to look at the murals.
There were much debate between those in the legislature about the murals. For every representative who complained there was likely to be one who approved of the murals. Among the representatives in favor of Benton’s work was Bill Lafferty, the Democratic caucus chairman. His response related to those who did not like the subject matter saying that it did not represent Missouri. Lafferty was adamant that everything on the walls had happened in Missouri history, and therefore that the other representatives did not have anything to complain about. However there were others who thought that either not enough of Missouri’s history was included, or that Benton had portrayed the wrong aspects of Missouri history.
Benton responded to these critics by holding open question-and-answer sessions throughout the spring of 1937. On January 10, right after the legislature had returned Benton held a show at the Kansas City Art Institute to showcase the developmental stages he went through to complete the mural. This calmed some of his critics because they saw how meticulously he prepared each subject in the mural as well as the thought process that went behind every figure. In the question-and-answer sessions that followed during the spring Benton would face and respond to every critic who came to confront him. There were those who did not like the fact the Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast was included in the mural. Benton responded by stating that the political boss was included in the murals because he was one of the most important men in Missouri at this time, and that if he had been asked to paint a mural for Illinois he would have included Al Capone, so Missouri had nothing to worry about. For those who complained about the style of the mural, arguing that it was not pretty enough, Benton responded that the murals were not beautiful but truthful, and that by being truthful they were beautiful.
The fervor was so great in Missouri that it caught the attention of those outside of the state. A newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma accused Benton of not portraying his home state in a good and proper light. The Chicago Tribune however, defended Benton’s choice of subject matter. Oddly enough there are not many reports of other artists during this time either defending or criticizing Benton. When Benton had moved from New York to Kansas City, the artists on the east coast had seen his move as a “retreat and betrayal of the cause of national culture”. Thus, perhaps the eastern artists did not have anything to say about the murals because they were angry at his move to the mid-west.
One of the last moves by representatives in the Missouri state legislature to get rid of the murals was a backlash to a proposal by Representative T.E. Roberts. Roberts believe the murals were a great work of art and introduced a resolution to protect the murals from the crowds that came to see them. As a retort Representative C.P. Turley amended the resolution calling for the murals to be whitewashed six feet up the wall. Turley saw this as a good compromise, because what was left of the murals would be protected and at the same time the representatives who used the lounge would not have to look at “the monstrosity out there on the walls”. Luckily this resolution did not pass; however, Representative Roberts also never again pushed for his proposal to protect the murals.
When the legislature broke for the summer of 1937, the criticism of the murals died down. It seemed as if those in Missouri who had an opinion had spoken and had their opinion on the murals stated and heard. Some people had been swayed to accept the murals and those that did not were never going to change. The murals also would not change; the proposals to destroy the murals never came to fruition. In 1938 the legislature returned and while there was some grumbling about the murals there was never the zeal that was shown in 1937.