Windsor - I pause on the Windsor side to take in Detroit's dramatic art deco skyline as I near the end of my journey. My destination is one of best galleries a day's drive from Toronto: the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), housing the fifth-largest art collection in the United States. Specifically, I'm making an artist's and leftist's pilgrimage to see the museum's centrepiece, Detroit Industry, a monumental tribute to Detroit workers with an emphasis - of course - on the assembly line.
Diego Rivera, renowned Mexican muralist and husband of Frida Kahlo, painted this 27-panel fresco on the walls of the gallery's brilliantly sunlit centre court in 1932.
Specially commissioned for the gallery and funded by Edsel Ford, the work is idealistically and explicitly pro-worker, anti-war and anti-racism. The beautifully illustrated political narratives nearly caused the entire installation to be whitewashed shortly after its unveiling.
The art gallery is a short trip from downtown Detroit by car or trolley. (Despite its moniker, the Motor City has surprisingly efficient public transportation in the downtown area.)
DIA's elegant white neo-classical facade impresses. In its 1920s heyday, the museum's purchases were underwritten by the captains of an auto industry that was at its most optimistic peak. Through decades of industry slowdowns, its budget has gradually diminished. Early-20th-century Expressionism remains its last great collection, although it has a small holding of contemporary art, with an emphasis on women and artists of colour. DIA also has a top-notch collection of ancient Egyptian and Impressionist works.
What a place to view art! The centre court's high ceilings and natural light invite hours of meditation on Rivera's masterpiece. The north panel, deservedly the best known, depicts a utopian setting where the all-powerful proletariat rules Detroit. In this world of heroic, muscular workers, all toil in harmony. The Marxist artist was aware that Detroit workers' lives were painfully mundane and brutally managed, but his radical vision shows them as godlike, not as victims.
The beauty of Rivera's rich, ambitious imagery puts it on different level from the kitschy workers' posters of the Mao and Stalin eras. In sumptuous colour, a sea of muscles effortlessly operate gears and levers in a dance to the captivating rhythm of the assembly line - a nearly sexual ballet.
However, the mural's beauty never obscures the content that caused so much controversy in 1932. Surprisingly, it wan't the anti-war message of chemical bombs juxtaposed against babies, U.S. airmen wearing menacing gas masks, and hawks attacking doves that caused a problem. Nor were patrons offended by Rivera's granting a visual presence to blacks, Asians, natives and women at a time when this was unusual.
It was the prominence of the blue-collar worker in an elite cultural institution that angered the gallery-going public. And worse, a panel showing a baby clearly refers to, and was accused of mocking, Jesus and Mary.
In a sunbathed setting, a placid sanctuary in the heart of raucous Detroit, these subversive murals are a reflection on the two-sided coin of American progress and destruction - a theme that obviously still has much currency.
I stand in awe of how Rivera's work inclusively yet critically embodied the energetic optimism of Modernist America. Detroit Industry is both a 20th-century equivalent to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel and a complement to Michael Moore's documentation of the exploitative auto industry. It's on this note that I leave Motown an enlightened, satisfied cultural visitor, despite not taking in the music the city is famous for.