American Modernism and American Art
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In any orderly continuing of present progress, therefore, we are likely to have more of the same kinds of art, for some time to come. Creative artists, with the assurance of even a small measure of security and freedom to express themselves, may be expected to become increasingly a more integral asset of the social and cultural life of their communities. Some of the country's experts in scientific research dealing with social and human problems have already been working on the possibilities of social security for artists. The problem, as they see it, is that of developing public policies for giving opportunities to artists, on the basis of quality and the acceptability of their art as a social and cultural instrument, on a much larger scale than is anticipated in the Treasury Department undertakings.
The emergency nature of the relief program for unemployed artists gave rise to political controversies that became bitter in some quarters. On the one side, taxpayers complained bitterly that a large and specially favored parasite population had been wished upon them by a sentimental administration, in the name of art. On the other, artists on relief were unionized in numbers to defend their rights to permanent government subsidy--rights that they claim as citizens of a democratic country. But on the whole the results of the nation's mass experiment in art, set up under the unfavorable conditions of a pressing national emergency--argue the ability and the will of the people and the government, as well as the creative artists in general, to find a democratic, self-justifying, and self-perpetuating way to carry American art into the future as a well-rooted and well-integrated expression.
That regional schools, when they do inevitably appear, will give any undue stress to regional peculiarities or picturesqueness seems less probable than that they will represent sustained effort to give new expression to art principles, either those revived from past periods, where they may have been overlooked for centuries, or those inherent in revolutionary experiment. It is not unthinkable to students of past art, and of the art that is new in this century, that there may be a revival of craft shops not so different in principle of operation from those that produced Gothic art and laid the foundations for Renaissance art; or from the conception embodied in the Bauhaus workshop experiments. The two do not appear essentially different as expressions within the civilizations of two different ages. Both emphasize sound education in the fundamentals of contemporary craftsmanship and anticipate the usefulness to society of art talents of many grades.
Cennini Cennini, of Padua, who learned his craft from the son of Taddeo Gaddi, godson and pupil of Giotto, is authority for descriptions of the methods used in fourteenth-century Italy. "In the first place, you must study drawing on tablets for one year. Then you must remain with a master at a workshop, who understands working in all parts of the art. You must begin with grinding color, and must learn to boil down glues, to be able to lay ground on panes, to work in relief upon them and to rub them smooth and gild them. You must learn to engrave well. After this for six years you must practice coloring, you must adorn with mordants, to make cloths of gold, and to paint on walls for six more years--always drawing without intermission either on holidays or workdays. And so, through long habit, good practice will become second nature. Adopting other training, do not hope ever to attain perfection."
Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, and others have given not dissimilar accounts of the process for educating creative workers that was developed at the Bauhaus at Weimar and Dessau and that is now being promoted in progressive educational theory and in limited practice in this country.
The paradox of our American art is its un-Americanness, its mobile, transitory, polyglot character; and in its lack of any elements of homogeneity and commonly prevalent idealism may be the measure of the promise for its future. Rémy de Gourmont has said, "A new force in art--as in literature and politics--cannot rise from within an ethnic group." "It is only after the group is formed and individualized that it becomes bound to uniform production or to one systematization of fixed values. The race, the soil, the climate, finally determine the particular nature of its activities and products, and limit their diversity."
If at one end of the scale we have a popular national expression designed to entertain, amuse, divert, and inspire, and in a general way to promote the aesthetic enjoyment of large numbers of people, we have at the other an art of a different kind. It is a medium for giving objective embodiment to intuitions, ideals, and sentiments that belong to an order of experience not readily passed on through any of the ordinary means of communication.
Confusion upon this point--that there is a large body of art of popular appeal and a small body of art of profound, though apparently limited, power of appeal--provides material for most of the controversies about contemporary art. On the one side, there is the charge that popular painting and sculpture may have the ingratiating charm of popular music, but that they seldom have the power to appeal profoundly or to survive beyond the decade that produces them. On the other, there is the argument that artists who work for small audiences wish to be "precious" and to deny the wide social effectiveness to art that is alike a tender point of democratic community pride and an ideal of a collectivist era. We take our choice between the ingratiating charm of a popular song or the "difficult beauty" of a symphonic creation. George Santayana has called this the dilemma of culture. It is probably a permanent dilemma so long as art is a matter of individual sensibility and creative imagination on the part of its makers, and so long as the enjoyment of art is a matter of kindred degrees of aesthetic receptivity; and particularly so long as judgments about art are confused by predispositions and prejudices on the part of the spectators at large, which have nothing to do with aesthetic matters.
The numbers of men and women active in our American art who --regardless of whatever else they are doing--are producing work with the qualities that are implied in this second order, or are manifesting the power or the promise to make this kind of art, constitute our brightest outlook. It is art of this order that constitutes a link between past and future and ultimately shapes a new era of art history.
Effort has been made in earlier chapters to indicate that there is no one plastic ideal or plastic order prevalent in American modern painting and sculpture, but rather that, through the century, we have had a succession--or at times a confusion--of plastic ideals and efforts towards plastic order. The men of 1908 felt a compulsion to observe American life with the factual accuracy of newspaper reporters and to seek the technical authority of certain groups of Old Masters in their paintings of it. The new groups of young experimenters, who put in a conspicuous appearance toward the end of the thirties, are convinced that the ephemeral aspects of everyday life are unsuitable to the permanent purposes of art and that the literary preoccupations of painting and sculpture, for artists, reached a blind alley with Impressionism.
The most conservative of modern creative artists, however, exhibit a character in their art that could not be found in art of other centuries and that is observable in the boldness and simplicity of the design, the strength and purity of the color, and the amount of attention that is given to problems of construction. It does not seem too much to say that a typically twentieth-centuryway of recording aesthetic experience is gradually asserting itself throughout American art, and that it is the abstract way.
To define abstraction as it applies in our strictly contemporary art is to reassert that it is the organization of the elements of painting or sculpture according to the principles of formal unity. There are "great changes that come over art at stated intervals of time, and are as fixed and systematic in their operations as organic matter itself. Each creates a definite type in accordance with underlying ideas evolved from permanent principles, while each produces forms that are transitory." The general trend of all our art towards principles of abstract and formal construction implies one of these great and slowmoving changes.

Modern Art in America
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