Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America / Ambition and Love in Modern American Art

By Burns, Sarah | The Art Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America / Ambition and Love in Modern American Art


Burns, Sarah, The Art Bulletin


MATTHEW BAIGELL

Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 294 pp.; 47 b/w ills. $75.00; $28.00 paper

JONATHAN WEINBERG Ambition and Love in Modern American Art New Haven Yale University Press, 2001. 328 pp.; 175 b/w ills, $35.00

Matthew Baigell and Jonathan Weinberg propose two radically different versions of the 20th-century American artist. In composite, Baigell's artist is a white, heterosexual male painter (or Georgia O'Keeffe) searching for truth in nature and the self. Molded by environment and experience, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, Baigell's authentic American artist is political, patriotic, alienated, self-creating, self-transcending, philosophical, and moral. He finds meaning in the conditions and conflicts of contemporary life and falls short, or fails, whenever he forgets that more is at stake than mere personal artistic expression. He has no sex life and no erotic desires.

Weinberg's artist is a much messier entity. Male, female, white, black, mainstream, marginal, heterosexual, and gay, this artist may paint, scrawl graffiti on urban walls, use a camera, or piece together a memorial quilt. This artist is anxious, greedy, exploitative, competitive, self-serving, self-absorbed, needy, envious, and amoral. Never exclusively a formalist, this artist is enmeshed in and driven by a complex web of personal and social relationships. Success and failure hinge on achieving personal artistic fulfillment and public acclaim. Sexuality and erotic experience make up the core and essence of this artist's life, work, and reception. Irreconcilably different, these two artists both lay claim to being modern and American. To which one should go the palm?

We might ask the same question about the two authors, though we may not find a clear answer. Baigell's book is a collection of historical essays and art criticism written over a period of thirty years. Arranged in chronological sequence, the chapters reflect the author's sustained engagement with the question of modern American art as the product or synthesis of environmental and experiential factors, from the early modernists of the Stieglitz circle to Edward Hopper, the American Scene, Abstract Expressionism, and the increasingly fragmented art world of the later 20th century. Baigell examines competing conceptions and definitions of "American," in particular the recurrent claim of one class, one tradition, or one region to stand for all. Broadly speaking, the artists Baigell considers fall into two groups: those who in an Emersonian fashion seek to escape the past in order to attain intellectual and spiritual growth, or those who, suffering a loss of purpose and commitment, have "no reason to make art other than to make art" (p. 9). At the end of the century, he sees redirection and redemption in the emergence of minority group art circles, whose importance lies in getting art "out of the rut of the aesthetic and back into life" (p. 254). Although Baigell uses a wide range of sources, he accords primacy to the words of critics and of the artists themselves, as well as the voices of philosophers, poets, and social theorists ranging from Hippolyte Taine to Wylie Sypher, who defined modern malaise in his 1962 study Loss of Sef

Baigell's fine essay "Thomas Hart Benton and the Left" showcases his approach. He leads up to the Benton chapter with a discussion of rising nationalism and xenophobia in the 1920s and 1930s, when artists and critics alike sought to discover and celebrate pure American values and subject matter drawn from common experience, couched in a realistic style and based in the Midwest, where the "taint of Europe was less strong than in the East" (p. 90). Of the so-called American Scene painters identified with these goals, none was more visible or more belligerently polemical than Benton, whose paintings of country folk laboring or square-dancing proclaimed that "rural America is essentially more American than urban America" (p.

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