Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Progress of Modern Art & Modern Theory

In "19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy" (The Objective Standard, Fall 2006), I argued that the ideas that made works by Matisse and Picasso acceptable by the early 20th c. had been gaining adherents throughout the 19th century, because traditional artists did not have a sound theoretical basis on which to argue against the subjects and styles of the avant-garde. This confusion and defeat came to mind when I began to compile the bibliography and out-takes for Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Essay 6, on John Quincy Adams Ward's Washington at Wall St. The Armory Show of 1913, with works by Picasso, Duchamp, and Kandinsky, is generally cited as the introduction of Modernist European art to the United States. (See Theodore Roosevelt's disparaging but accurate comments.) Even before the Armory Show, however, some American sculptors were anxious about current trends in sculpture. In a memorial address for Ward (d. 1910), Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., (1868-1953), art critic and long-time professor at Princeton, commented:
Both men [Ward and Winslow Homer] cultivated the robust and masculine order of design, both quietly ignored the current shibboleth that a work of art must be precious in every detail; both, I take it, would have scorned the cosmetic theory that surface has a value irrespective of the thing expressed. [Probably a crack at Rodin.] … Such an art presupposes discipline, clearness of aim, self-knowledge on the part of its creator. It is not my purpose to appraise Ward's singularly even and meritorious production. It seems to me to have a high and especial value in view of prevailing notions that hysteria and the artistic temperament are convertible terms. Ward's life and purposeful well-balanced work are an effective protest against the fallacy that the life artistic ranges between overt melodrama and inward tragedy. (John Quincy Adams Ward, Memorial Addresses Delivered Before the Century Association, Nov. 5, 1910 [New York: for the Century Association, 1911], pp. 2, 5-6)
Although representational art continued to sell to conservative collectors, by 1925, F.W. Ruckstull, whose allegorical figure of Phoenicia stands third from the right on the cornice of the Customs House at Bowling Green (Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Essay 4), and whose Wisdom and Force flank the entrance to the Appellate Court at Madison and 25th St., felt impelled to commence his 500-page Great Works of Art with the statement:
Anarchy reigns in the world of art today. The cause is: 'Modernism.' … Let the Reader carefully examine, and reflect over, some works of art illustrated in Figures 1 to 8 [by Brancusi, Picasso, Matisse and others], the result of the inflicting upon the world of one foolish fad after another. He will observe a gradual drifting away from the normal to the abnormal. And, strange to say, every inventor of one of the weird fads which these things represent, has been backed up, as Tolstoy said, by some casuistic 'new theory' of art, of some pretentious critic, to justify its production and its infliction on the public, to the bewilderment and weakening of the present and succeeding generations. (p. v).
In one of my favorite books on 20th-c. art, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe describes with characteristic exuberance how the relationship between theory and the visual arts had progressed by the late 20th c.:
All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand Pollocks, de Koonings, Newmans, Nolands, Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Judds, Johnses, Olitskis, Louises, Stills, Franz Klines Frankenthalers, Kellys, and Frank Stellas, now squinting, now popping the eye sockets open, now drawing back, now moving closer - waiting, waiting, forever waiting for … it … for it to come into focus, namely, the visual reward (for so much effort) which must be there, which everyone (tout le monde) knew to be there. […] All those years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well - how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not 'seeing is believing,' you ninny, but 'believing is seeing,' for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text. (p. 6)
If a painting or sculpture requires that one know a theory in order to understand it, it does not function as visual art. Few of those who stop to admire Ward's Washington have any idea when it was made or what philosophical and esthetic principles were espoused by Ward. There is no need for such knowledge: Washington bears its own message, visually rather than verbally. The bibliography and out-takes for Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Essay 6 appear on the Forgotten Delights website.

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