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I PAINT WHAT I SEE A Ballad of Artistic Integrity by E. B. White
Diego Rivera's Ill-fated Rockefeller Center Mural
John D. Rockefeller
I Paint What I See, E.B. White
"What do you paint when you paint a wall?"
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.
"Do you paint just anything there at all?
"Will there be any doves or a tree in fall?
"Or a hunting scene like an English hall?"
"I paint what I see," said Rivera.
"What are the colors you use when you paint?"
Said John D.'s grandson, Nelson.
"Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?
"If you do is it terribly red, or faint?
"Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?"
"I paint what I paint," said Rivera.
"Whose is that head I see on my wall?"
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.
"Is it anyone's head whom we know, at all?
"A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?
"Is it Franklin D.? Is it Mordaunt Hall?
"Or is it the head of a Russian?"
"I paint what I think," said Rivera.
"I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,
"I paint what I think," said Rivera,
"And the thing that is dearest in life to me
"In a bourgeois hall is Ingegrity;
"I'll take out a couple of people drinkin'
"And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln,
"I could even give you McCormick's reaper
"And still not make my art much cheaper.
"But the head of Lenin has got to stay
"Or my friends will give me the bird today
"The bird, the bird, forever."
"It's not good taste in a man like me,"
Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,
"To question an artist's integrity
"Or mention a practical thing like a fee,
"But I know what I like to a large degree
"Though art I hate to hamper;
"For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
"You painted a radical. I say shucks,
"I never could rent the offices.
"For this, as you know, is a public hall
"And people want doves or a tree in fall,
"And though your art I dislike to hamper,
"I owe a little to God and Gramper,
"And after all,
"It's my wall...."
"We'll see if it is," said Rivera.
[First published in The New Yorker, May 20, 1933 during the controversy over Diego Rivera's mural in Rockefeller Center which was destroyed the following year on February 9, 1934.]
If you like this poem, try "Obliviously on He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme" and "A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme" by Calvin Trillin, the master of topical political poetry with an edge.]
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E. B. White Biography
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