Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America

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Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

392 pp.; 130 b/w ills.; $50

"Inventing": Sarah Burns uses the present participle to convey something more flexible than the abstract models of cultural production once associated with the sociology of art. By "Inventing," more precisely, Burns wants to suggest that the image of the artist in the Gilded Age was at once malleable and contested. No single image prevailed in this respect, even as the figure of the artist assumed center stage in the popular imagination. From the urban dandy to the rugged individualist, from the ambitious mural painter to the humble illustrator, from the society painter to the bohemian, the roles played by artists remained fundamentally unstable-no less unstable, Burns holds, than the competing cultural discourses and commercial pressures that underwrote them.

In part those roles tracked shifting public expectations. In bohemia, for example, American audiences claimed to discover an arena dedicated to youthful fantasies of wild conduct and artistic liberation. Here, Burns writes, "was a sort of Oz," where "almost nobody grew old and where there was always something odd and diverting going on" (p. 247). Still other artists rode ethical, scientific, and religious waves: the virtuous antimaterialist, for example, or the genius whose renditions of nature relied on a new, secularized conception of the artist as a privileged seer. Often those discourses targeted artistic behavior for social criticism, typically framing their concerns in gendered terms. Accusations of degeneracy, for example, led artists and critics to suppress, expel, and recast those attributes of artistic character typically gendered as feminine.

The notion of celebrity assumes a commanding role in Burns's narrative-to the point, in Burns's phrase, where "the identification of product with producer became complete (p. 5). What Burns means in part is that public attention fell less to the art than to the painter's self-image, expressed in details of lifestyle, in personal conduct, in the artist's spaces and social activities and, finally, in the character of his or her painting (more on this below). If this "media driven cult of surfaces" sounds awfully current, it is supposed to. Here, Burns claims, lie the roots of a commercialized practice of artistic self-fashioning that found its apotheosis in the career of Andy Warhol. Whistler was the first great master of this new "commodified self" and "post-- modern performance art" (p. 245). If the analogy to Warhol seems overdrawn, we should not underestimate Whistler's efforts in this domain. As Burns explains, nearly every aspect of Whistler's existence served his program of self-promotion. Fabricating his public self to "stimulate interest" and to "stimulate sales," Whistler stands at a cultural threshold, the first artist truly to have manufactured his image to serve a media age: "being an artist in the realm of spectacle entailed how to perform as one, cultivating the right kind of identity" (p. 221).

These self-stagings relied on a new and burgeoning media apparatus: illustrated magazines and other reviews, daily newspapers employing professional art critics, as well as caricatures, fictions, and other mass-market vehicles. The criticism no less than the art, Burns argues, demands interpretation, and across her text Burns traces the emergence of a new, media-driven cult of personality. Burns also gives that cult a specifically American spin. European artists, from Monet at Giverny to the academicians at the Institut de France, walked into roles of ancient standing. But Whistler and his colleagues worked without scripts. Improvising the terms of their celebrity, American artists discovered unparalleled opportunities to shape their own reception. Celebrity, however, was also a two-way street. An insatiable public constantly threatened to replace one act with another: "whether courting publicity or shunning it," whether male or female, the artist in these years had become a "consumable personality, fodder for a curious public never satisfied for long. …