Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America / Ambition and Love in Modern American Art
Burns, Sarah, The Art Bulletin
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. 117). Baigell reminds us that Benton arrived at this position only after a decade of interest in modern, technologically progressive American themes.
No homespun hayseed, Benton steeped himself in Marxism and planned an ambitious mural project, the American Historical Epic, as a Marxist history of the United States. He broke with Marxism in the late 1920s, but for some years continued to mount scathing leftist critiques aimed at the corruption, waste, and oppression of capitalism and big business. Even in the Missouri State Capitol, his murals (completed in 1936) exposed deep social fault lines, past and present: a slave auction, a whipping scene, religious persecution, and "bums warming themselves over an oil-drum fire in front of a shuttered museum, suggesting that the wealthy and the cultured have turned their backs on the poor" (p. 123). Yet during the same period, intense animosity developed between the artist and the leftist art world.
Asking why this should be the case given what would seem to be so much common ground, Baigell explores the formation of Benton's belief in the environmental basis of art and his growing conviction that an American art based on imported dogma or theory could not succeed. More and more, as he evolved into an anti-Communist, anti-Semitic xenophobe, Benton located the real American experience in the Ozarks, where he believed that pioneer American values lived on. Baigell details Benton's sustained and highly public assault on Communist theory and practice, accompanied by the development of his own rosy vision of a return to individualistic, Jeffersonian, agrarian values. Finally, he examines and speculates about the influence of Benton's father, a Populist champion of democratic, egalitarian individualism.
Not quite a Marxist art historian himself, Baigell is politically left of center, a position he makes clear. He tells us that his interest in environmental influences was formed bv family associations with radical and disenchanted critics of American society: the Soyer brothers and the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros. "I grew up hearing about the social view of art, the responsibilities of art and artist to society, and the ways artists reflect various economic and political tendencies in society." This doctrine of social responsibility constitutes Baigell's own art historical brief and forms the bedrock of his aesthetic values, which privilege content over form and political engagement or social critique over art for art's sake (p. 4).
Baigell compares the work of Paul Cezanne with that of Charles Burchfield, the "grim observer" of American small-town life. Cezanne exemplifies that factor "absolutely central to the School-of-Paris sensibility-the interrelation of figure and ground." Baigell takes us through a detailed formal analysis of the figure-ground relationship in Cezanne's Le Jas de Bouffan (1885, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence) and then turns to Burchfield's Winter Solstice (1920-21, Columbus Museum of Art) to point out the absence and even irrelevance there of figure-ground dynamics. "If generalizations may be permitted from this comparison, I would say that American painters of the period tended to start with a particular subject and tried to reach some sort of esthetic statement instead of first searching for the esthetic statement as the motivating force and letting the subject become the outer garment, as it were. They were more concerned with description and evocation of place than with abstract principles of art" (pp. 96-97). Accordingly, Baigell devotes more time to what artists said than to how they said it.
Throughout the book Baigell exhibits an admirable consistency of principle along with an equally admirable flexibility and responsiveness to change. "Any person who maintains the same attitudes over a twenty-year period is probably dead from the neck up," he writes of Robert Morris's twenty-year transition from deadpan Minimalism to impassioned moralism (p. 181). The same goes for Baigell, whose older work tends to measure Americanness by the standards of the early 19th-century American literary Renaissance. In the later essays,Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard. and Frederic Jameson join Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Whitman in furnishing explanatory and interpretative scaffolding for Photorealist Richard Estes, earth artist Michael Heizer, and others. Along the way, Baigell never hesitates to criticize moral vacuity or to condemn pretension. In the end, he rethinks the history of American art, which, using tools from the postmodern arsenal, could be "one long essay about identity politics," ranging from the post-Revolutionary era, when "newly minted Americans tried to distinguish themselves from the British," to the last quarter of the 20th century, when heretofore marginalized groups became the main players in the postmodern art world. But Baigell holds fast to his conviction that "environment is a key, if not the key factor" in writing this history; he sees today's ubiquitous and "persistent need for self-definition" as a continuation of the "master American narrative" wrapped around the question, "What is American about American art?" (pp. 24.-44).
Weinberg's agenda is quite different. His book is a chronological collage, bracketing Jackson Pollock, for example, between James McNeill Whistler (and his mother) and photographer Sally Mann, and concluding with an elegiac chapter on art in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. In the course of the book, he examines Georgia O'Keeffe's complex bond with her husband and manager Alfred Stieglitz; considers homoeroticism in David Hockney's life and art; probes the dynamics of collaboration in the work of two noted writerphotographer teams of the 1930s; and dissects the relationship ofJean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, who produced a series of coauthored paintings in the early 1980s.
Weinberg wants to radically reshape the paradigms on which Baigell and other scholars of his generation formed their views. For him, the master key is gender theory, which in addition to "pointing out ... bias in modernist discourse" also "provides new historical and interpretative tools to examine an entire sexualized matrix of interactions among artists, collectors, dealers, critics, and the pub lic." His book is "a queer enterprise ... because it takes sexual identity to be an essential component in the question of artistic production and reception" (p. xx). He, too, draws on the words of artists and critics, but he also delves into a capacious mix of interdisciplinary source material, ranging from psychoanalytic theory to the politics of commemoration and the sociology of urination.
Weinberg's chapter "Women without Men: O'Keeffe's Spaces" deals with public art in the 1930s, centering on the painter's commission to decorate one of the women's lounges at Radio City Music Hall in New York. In the preceding chapter, he interprets Alfred Stieglitz's serial photographs of O'Keeffe as the manifestation of desire for both her body and her art. "Women without Men" takes up the subject of O'Keeffe's effort to establish her personal and artistic autonomy, away from Stieglitz's devouring control. She undertook the Radio City commission without Stieglitz's knowledge; once he discovered the subterfuge, he furiously intervened, first trying to cancel her contract and then to negotiate for an increase in her fee. Finally, Stieglitz called Donald Deskey, who was in charge of the decorative program, and informed him that O'Keeffe had suffered a nervous breakdown and must be released from the contract. She abandoned the project before applying one stroke of paint to canvas.
Weinberg believes that the powder-room commission "was both attractive and repellent to O'Keeffe, because it made concrete the terms of her critical fame and marginalization, that is, her status as a woman artist" (p. 113). In Weinberg's account, this quasipublic space itself was the seat of the problem. Public bathrooms, he notes, "can be sites of anxiety," feared as breeding grounds of disease or places of illicit homosexual encounter. Many women, reportedly, are wary of such public facilities because they were raised to think it "unladylike" to use them. Yet at the same time, the public rest room may be a "place of women's power," as in Clare Boothe's 1936 play The Women, where the characters, under the pretext of freshening up, convene in the powder room to plot and talk about men. Weinberg drives the point home by discussing Stuart Davis's mural Men without Women (the theme inspired by Ernest Hemingway) for the main men's lounge on the ground floor of the music hall. Unlike the covert and conspiratorial women's room, the men's bathroom was considered "a place of exhibitionism and competition." Accordingly, Davis's imagery was graphically phallic, incorporating symbols such as pipes, barber poles, and gas pumps along with emblems of competition such as a sailboat and an automobile.
Had O'Keeffe taken on the project, it would have constituted a send-up of Stieglitz's own exclusive Intimate Gallery, remaking intimacy into the embarrassing privacy of body functions, the purity of the gallery space into the "cleanliness of the washroom," and the communication between artist and audience into "the gossip of women before their mirrors." By agreeing to undertake a large work both popular and commercial in nature, she moved into the realm of everything her impresario husband and his elitist group most vehemently despised. O'Keeffe's acceptance of the project also represented an attack on the Stieglitz coterie's conception of her work as "an intense personal expression of what it meant to be a woman." Although it is not known what design O'Keeffe had in mind, Weinberg believes it likely that she would have based it on one of her signature floral themes, closely identified with her inner feminine spaces yet distanced and decisively depersonalized in the new, public context.
Weinberg conjectures that O'Keeffe abandoned the project because "she could not find a way of actually making the space her own, which she had said all along was her goal. Initially the powder room commission might have offered her the opportunity not only to declare her independence from Stieglitz but also to make an aggressive public statement distinct from masculine bravado." Ultimately, she "lost faith in her ability to shift the parameters" built into the powder room. That is, as a quasipublic space meant only for women to perform necessary but shameful body functions, the powder room, "abject and glamorous at once ... too neatly mirrored her own marginalized position as the Great American Woman Artist of the New York art world" (p. 123). The paradoxes of O'Keeffe's marginalization extend as well to the modernist concept of the purely autonomous work of art. O'Keeffe's powder-room mural implied that the pure and the impure, or, in the words of her ultramodernist detractor Clement Greenberg, "hygiene and scatology," were inseparable, the one always in the process of becoming the other (p. 137).
The above rather neatly encapsulates Weinberg's project as a whole. He, too, wants to mix the pure and impure in his stories of modern American artists. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that this mode of history writing could have emerged at any time prior to the 1990s, that era of the tell-all public confession and the celebrity expose. This is not to denigrate Ambition and Love-far from itbut simply to note that in its insistence on incorporating the body, its needs, desires, abjection, and perversions, into historical narrative and interpretation, it is very much the child of its time. Much more intensely personal than Baigell's, Weinberg's book incorporates his own feelings and his desire to penetrate into the most private and personal artistic spaces, physical or psychological, and to merge them with more public histories to create a rich and occasionally pungent brew.
This leads to what may be for some a debatable facet of Weinberg's method. His scholarship is rigorous, yet the reader is never allowed to ignore or forget the particularity of the author's persona: his class and educational background, sexual orientation, social milieu, artistic taste. These come into high relief in the last chapter, "Advertisements for the Dead," in which Weinberg commemorates and celebrates the watercolors of his "best friend," Marc Lida, a victim of AIDS, and ruminates on the meaning and affect of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Like many commentators on the quilt, Weinberg is ambivalent about its middle-brow taste and sentimentality, stating that despite the loss of many friends to the disease, "not one is memorialized in the Quilt.... My circle of New York art-world intellectuals and artists has not found in the Quilt an apt expression of mourning" (p. 269). Given this admission, Weinberg's humane and sympathetic analysis of the quilt is all the more worthy of respect as an example of how scholarly "objectivity" and a highly idiosyncratic "subjectivity" can function productively together.
Elsewhere, problems inherent in this transparently personalized mode of scholarship come into view. Weinberg at one point writes (borrowing Harold Bloom's terminology) that "all interpretations are misreadings" (p. 215). This projects the reader squarely into an evershifting morass of unreliable meaning. Weinberg looks at images with sensitivity and great subtlety (one of the many pleasures of the book), yet often his readings are stamped with his own desires-that is, he sees what he wants to see. In his chapter on Whistler's famous portrait of his mother, Weinberg contends that Anna Whistler's eyes in the painting "almost line up with the eyes of the young man" in Whistler's etching of Black Lion Wharf depicted on the wall behind her. "This longshoreman is both a surrogate for the father who died so many years before, but for whom Anna still mourns, and for Whistler himself' (p. 15). Even if Anna's eyes did line up exactly, what would be the grounds for justifying such a claims Weinberg also tends to make imaginative connections. He suggests, for example, that Kathryn Harrison's novel Exposure (1993), about a father whose photographs of his daughter in the nude wreak havoc with her mental stability later on, may have derived inspiration from Alfred Stieglitz, whose daughter Kitty, photographed by him in babyhood, eventually became a schizophrenic (pp. 59-61). And when Weinberg wonders why it was considered "such a terrible thing" for Erskine Caldwell and documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White to invent monologues for their subjects, the Southern poor, we find ourselves in a place where fact and fiction seem to have traded places. In the end, the reader must decide how far to go.
Baigell's book is the most recent contribution of a scholar whose work has played an important role in defining and shaping the field, and who continues to grapple with what makes American art American. Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America is linear, humanistic, politically impassioned, outspoken, and often judgmental. Ambition and Love in Modern American Art is nonlinear, eclectic, deeply felt, probing, artistic, and challenging. Baigell focuses on cultural politics in conjunction with questions of national and artistic identity; Weinberg delves deeper into the art world's complicated social, commercial, and sexual matrices. They deal with questions of selfhood in different ways. For Baigell what matters is the meaning of selfhood in relation to the realms of nation, nature, and thought. For Weinberg what matters is the push and pull of autonomy and dependence, inside and outside the work of art. For Baigell, the personal is the political; for Weinberg, the personal and the political are bound up together within the private and erotic spaces of body and mind. For Baigell, meaningful content is the basis of value in art; for Weinberg, value comes out of close engagement with and absorption in the object. Together. these two studies constitute a map (or possibly a time capsule) charting the evolution and directions of the field over a span encompassing the shift from modern to postmodern and beyond.
It is interesting and significant that despite their differences, both move in the end to the margins rather than the mainstream. In his last few pages, Baigell ruminates on the emergence and development of self-consciously Jewish-American art in the later decades of the 20th century. Like other minority groups, these artists struggle against the idea that to be "American" mandates homogeneity and institutionalized forms of behavior. Such combative groups strike Baigell as "provoking the most vital art of our time, [in] their battle for the most democratic forms of cultural and artistic pluralism" (p. 255). The AIDS Memorial Quilt is also the expression of and for a minority. In Weinberg's view, the greatness of this vast, anonymous, and still-evolving work lies in its transformation of "the usual carrier of so much monstrous ego, the name in itself," into "a plenitude that embraces the world. The Quilt is no achievement of famous artists; nevertheless it feels to me like great art in its vividness and scope, its ambition and love" (p. 274). The conclusions of both these authors suggest that the American art history of the 21st century may in due course centralize the margins and progressively marginalize what was once the center. Whether this move will topple idols we cannot, of course, know. But at least the landscape will be interesting.
Department of History of Art Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts Indiana University Bloomington, Ind. 47405…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Artist and Identity in Twentieth-Century America / Ambition and Love in Modern American Art. Contributors: Burns, Sarah - Author. Journal title: The Art Bulletin. Volume: 84. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2002. Page number: 694+. © 2009 College Art Association. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.