The epic, which focuses on the artist’s struggle for creative autonomy while being flanked by worldly and commercial demands, springs to life in the artwork’s varied depictions of contemporary cultural flashpoints, e.g. climate change, COVID-19, and the police brutality protests that spread across America this year.
Yet to appreciate the full richness of Who’s the Controller Now?, we first have to understand the masterpiece it updates: Diego Rivera’s 1933 piece "Man at the Crossroads" and a finalized version of that same fresco, Man, Controller of the Universe.
The Choosing of a New and Better Future
The Rockefeller family, among the world’s wealthiest families and the dynasty whose namesake forever marks the famous 30 Rockefeller Plaza skyscraper, befriended Diego Rivera in the early 1930s.
The ensuing friendship with more than a few family members led to the Rockefellers commissioning Rivera to paint the central mural in the lobby of the RCA Building, itself the centerpiece of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Envisioned as a creative nexus, the RCA building housed over 35 radio studios from all the major networks and immediately became the largest international hub for radio communications. In this spirit, the two sides agreed the piece would centrally explore the theme of “Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future.”
But while the family knew of Rivera’s prior communist activism and had vetted the proposed mural’s contrast of capitalist and socialist imagery, controversy erupted in 1933 when the New York World-Telegram outlet lambasted the in-progress Man at the Crossroads as anti-capitalist in spirit. Rivera protested the charge by painting a portrait of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin into the work. In the ensuing public outcry the Rockefellers demanded Lenin be removed.
When Rivera refused, believing his contracts protected his creative autonomy, he soon discovered those contracts gave the Rockefellers unique ownership rights allowing them to essentially destroy the work. Despite the support of artists and a flurry of plans to save the piece, this breakdown eventually led to the Rockefellers having the mural tragically wiped from the RCA Building’s walls in early 1934.
The mural’s demolition was one of the great creative tragedies of the 20th century. But Rivera charted his own path forward and salvaged the work using photographs taken before its destruction. Through these, the artist was able to repaint a smaller and modified version of the fresco, titled Man, Controller of the Universe, in Mexico City at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The move allowed Rivera to transcend the Rockefellers’ ownership rights to Man at the Crossroads and reassert control of his own creative property.
At the Crossroads
A reimagining of these aforementioned works for 2020, Hidden Forces’ "Who’s the Controller Now?" reminds us, like Rivera's works, to actively struggle for a “new and better future.”
In doing so, creators will get caught between the great forces and current events of society. As Hidden Forces explains in his description of the new work:
“In a time of global economic distress, an oligarch's contracts came with the right to silence an artist, and erase an enormous physical work from one of the world's most famous locations - 30 Rockefeller Center. Pressured by client and peers alike, Rivera found himself at that familiar crossroads - can I remain the captain of my own artistic destiny in a world of commerce?”
This is the grand question of Who’s the Controller Now?, and it’s one the artist aptly distilled from one of the 20th century’s great muralists.
In his new Async Art masterwork, Hidden Forces has created a deep and open work that explores autonomy in powerful style. He does so through the lens of contemporary issues in a cryptoart scene that’s grappling with creative autonomy in unprecedented ways, a scene where the forces of creativity, commerce, and politics are treading new ground on smart contracts.
For these reasons, I think Who’s the Controller Now? could go down as one of the most important cryptoart pieces of 2020, both aesthetically and thematically. Zooming out, I’ll be specifically diving into the work’s Master and Layer tokens in my next write-up. In the meantime, you can already start placing bids on Who’s the Controller Now? or dive deeper into my recent profile of Hidden Forces here.