Modern Art in America
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The artist is first a craftsman who colors or cuts or models according to the slow-changing traditions of crafts that are hundreds of years old. He can learn to work expertly in his craft, as in any other, given the intelligence and the character to serve his apprenticeship. But he is also a product of his age. Because gifted with exceptional sensibility he is able to make a record of the sentiments and the ideals of his time, and to summarize changes going on in human affairs. He is often able to share a sense of beauty and, at a time of transition such as the present, to suggest aspects of life that are of more permanent worth than the dominant scientific materialism. Not that he voluntarily, or even consciously, assumes the role of seer or dialectician. Notoriously, in past art, the meaning of his work has been clear only subsequently, and after much new history has been made.
This American painting and sculpture took its rise in revolt. All new European art of the past hundred and fifty years has been produced under the urge to return to sources: sources in history, sources in craft traditions, sources in human nature (whether the fresh springs of creativeness in primitive society or the flowerings that have distinguished successive eras of cultural progress). This urge has arisen in dissatisfaction with decadent academic art and in efforts to supersede it. Americans at the beginning of the century felt this spirit, but there was also a spreading American revolt against European influences of every contemporary kind in favor of a native and independent expression.
Permanent policies for the use of art by Americans in public places and the beginning of public sentiment for permanent recognition of the artist in the social structure, conditioned upon the quality of his work, have arisen together to suggest a final representative Americanness in the creative fields of the fine arts. An autonomous position has been given American painting and sculpture in the international scene, meantime, not through efforts of a narrow-minded nationalist character so much as through circumstances in international life, that is, that active art production has been slowed down in Europe by political events.
Revolutionary aesthetic doctrines have conditioned this development both at the surface where the controversies have raged and in deep and fundamental ways. There is something in the American temperament which rejects theories about art, with considerable violence. The controversies that raged over Cubism have still not lost their bitterness even among people who rarely go to exhibitions and who familiarly confuse cosmetics advertisements with the fine arts. But meantime there were only a small number of individuals in the country who explored the movement with sufficient thoroughness to be able to grasp the logic inherent in it, to relate it to antecedent influences in traditional art, and to feel it as a creative potentiality in their own work. The leading Cubists themselves have tended to recede into eclecticism, neglecting the development of their revolutionary aesthetic discovery and thus further confusing their public. This may be the reason the onetime popularizer of Cubism and other twentiethcentury French art, C. J. Bulliet, now says: "Modernism has run its course. It began with Cézanne and ended in Picasso."
A different and more fundamental conception of Modernism can be seen throughout American painting and sculpture. It is not a product of style seeking or studio practices but is the lively offspring of broad revolt, experimentation, discovery, and fearless sensibility. The "new" art is beginning rather than ending. According to a conception that is making its way in the world, this "new" art has a universal significance. It is seen as a fresh appearance of that creative spirit common to human nature, which appears and disappears according to the rhythms that accent the rise and decline of what we familiarly have called civilization.
The success of the present undertaking, however, depends simply upon its showing, in the text and illustrations, that there is an independent national expression, however crude, formative, and confused it may still appear in places, which is American in the same way that Greek art is Greek and French art French; meanwhile emphasizing the prevailing plastic character that identifies it as art without regard for nationality.
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Modern Art in America
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