Anyone who’s ever read a Wespeak by famed Wesleyan curmudgeon Martin Benjamin ’57 probably wouldn’t peg him as the “sensitive artist type.” For the last decade or so, the University alum and current Middletown resident has been infuriating and amusing students – not to mention professors and certain University presidents – with a steady stream of conservative rants on topics ranging from incorrect punctuation to Obama’s terrorist leanings. (This, to give you a better idea, is the man who once called female students the “Rodney Dangerfields” of Wesleyan, and compared then-President Bennett’s push for diversity training to Mao’s Great Leap Forward.)
It came as something of a surprise, then, when Benjamin contacted the Argus at the end of January to plug an art show he was having at the Book Bower – “Invitation to the Dance” – for the month of February.
Members of the Argus staff were unreasonably intrigued – what kind of art would this man, notorious for his condescending, often bigoted opinion pieces, turn out? This week, Benjamin was gracious enough to meet me at the exhibition, “Invitation to the Dance,” to show me his work, and explain the story behind his craft.
Benjamin was disappointingly normal-looking. Somehow I had expected someone who looked like the Penguin – a snippy, sharp-faced and slightly rotund older man who wore bowties, and carried a heavy wooden cane, the better for whacking whatever liberal moron chanced to get in his way. The real Benjamin was tall and thin with glasses and a beard – and he was wrapped in flannel, rather than a suit. He greeted me and then almost immediately disappeared (the better, he later told me, to let me absorb his works without distraction). The exhibit, as it turned out, was not sculpture (as the press release had implied), but a series of five photographs depicting leaves in varying states of “dance.” At first glance, Benjamin’s pictures resembled the kind of generic, season-appropriate artwork that decorates the walls of doctors’ office and apartment lobbies. As I studied the photographs more closely, though, I started to see an elegance and vivacity in the leaves that had to be the result of either luck or painstaking craft.
When Benjamin returned, he introduced me to his work with an almost verbatim recitation of his email to the Argus.
“A few years ago the editors of the Ampersand bestowed upon me the coveted award for the ‘Best Wespeak Written by Someone with Too Much Time on His Hands’ – as if to say I had nothing better to do with my time,” he said with more than a hint of bitterness. He turned to the photographs. “Well, I don’t know if that is something better to do, but it’s something I would rather do.” He paused, before adding cryptically, “If I ever had some cooperation from people in high places, I’d have more time to do it, and I wouldn’t have to write Wespeaks.”
I wondered briefly if this was about to turn into a conspiracy theory, but Benjamin dropped the subject. His statement started to make sense later that day, when I returned home and began scrolling through Benjamin’s copious portfolio of diatribes from the last ten years. Benjamin, it seems, has spent a good deal of time “seeking cooperation from people in high places” – which is to say, writing critical Wespeaks addressed to the University administration. The Wespeaks are weirdly fascinating, and almost impossible to quit reading once you’ve started. (See especially his Dec. 1, 2006 open letter to then-President Doug Bennet – one of Benjamin’s many – in which he decries sensitivity training, laments the decline of Wesleyan academics, calls Bennett “an ideologue in drag…who masquerades as an educator,” declares X-House a “reactionary restoration of segregation,” and seems to imply that women are academically inferior. It is, in short, a veritable “best hits” of Martin Benjamin, and essential reading for any good fan.)
As you may have gathered, Benjamin is a bit of a kook and more than a bit of a bigot, albeit a sharp one with a talent for rhetoric. It is this – the perverse magnetism and novelty of his writing – that has allowed Benjamin to install himself as a fixture in the Argus’ Wespeaks page, and thereby vex generations of Wesleyan students.
To hear Benjamin’s side of it, though, Wespeaks are a mere distraction from his real work – making art. He began photographing leaves roughly 15 years ago, originally as illustrations for a book of historical poems. “Since [the poems] were intended for kids …to get them interested in the drama of history, I thought that history could be illustrated somehow in a way that would make the poems more alive to them,” Benjamin said. “The problem was that I had no talent for painting or drawing.” From this predicament was born Benjamin’s novel solution – leaves.
The eureka moment came as Benjamin was trying to figure out how to illustrate a poem on Shakespeare. He realized that the veins of tree leaves resembled tragic and comic masks when turned one way or the other. “So that began my work with leaves. I did a lot of faces, and then I just came to see that I could do other things with leaves without doing anything to them – simply by arranging them in a particular way.”
Soon, the photographs had expanded beyond his poems, and the leaves became artistic subjects in their own right.
Benjamin took me through the brief display with a kind of grim relish, explaining in detail the mechanics of his photography and composition. Some of the pieces displayed are visual riffs on Benjamin’s writing, whereas others stand on their own. “Partners” I and II, which depict pairs of dried leaves mid-dance, were inspired by a poem about the love between Odysseus and Penelope. Another photograph, “Firebird,” was inspired by a Stravinsky ballet. The last two, “Flight” and “Leap,” are luminous, animated portraits of dead, curling leaves suspended in mid-flight.
Although verbose in his explanations, Benjamin was less forthcoming on other fronts. For a man who’s spent so much time cultivating his own notoriety, Benjamin proved surprisingly reticent to talk about himself. He refused to have his picture taken and was taciturn about his own history. When pressed, Martin admitted that, after college, he’d spent a couple years in the army before going to Columbia for grad school. Of the years between then and now, he’d only say that he’d spent a few years as a bartender in Midtown, Manhattan. He said anyone who wanted to know more could read his novel “Bagatelles” (which, he only mentioned later, has not yet been published).
Benjamin declined to answer follow-up questions, insisting that further information about his life would only distract from the work. Still, as our interview drew to a close, Benjamin seemed unable to resist throwing a quip into an otherwise sincere conversation.
“Now let me ask you something,’ he said, after answering my last question. “Would you rather look at that, or would you rather look at mounds of rice on white board?”
I laughed. “The Rice Show? I assume you’re not a fan.”
Benjamin crossed his hands behind his back and grimaced. “I’ll just leave you with that.”
“Invitation to the Dance” will be on display at Bower Books in the Main Street Market through Feb. 28.