The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935

By Aaron, Daniel | The Art Bulletin, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935


Aaron, Daniel, The Art Bulletin


WANDA M. CORN

The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 447 pp.; 138 color ills., 183 b/w. $65.00

In 1876, Walt Whitman sent a special invitation to the Muse (the occasion was the Philadelphia Exposition) to vacate her classic haunts and to install herself in the United States. There, "amid the kitchen ware," the "illustrious emigre" could settle down "Bluff'd not a bit by drain-pipe, gasometers, artificial fertilizers."1 At that time, not many of his readers on either side of the Atlantic expected to encounter her in rackety America, but eventually that time arrived. In the early teens of the next century, a troop of French painters spotted her among the sky-scrapers and electric signs of a carnivalesque Manhattan or, more precisely, at the Port of New York, Brooklyn Bridge, Broadway, and Coney Island. Once acclimated and having sloughed off her Old World vestiges, she seemed to have turned into an "American."

But by what criteria? Presumably a sea change, something extrahistorical and geographic, had occurred, but what was this "something"? When and why and how did American art become "American"? That is the question threading Wanda Corn's book. She is not the first to raise it, but she is among the first to do so from the perspective of a trained art historian with a special competence in American studies.

The title of her book, a phrase of Georgia O'Keeffe's, more or less defines its contents. Sections on five modernist painters-Gerald Murphy, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Sheeler-anchor a loosely linked text interpolated with commentary on related coteries (for example, the two circles of artists and writers around Alfred Stieglitz) and reflections on the city, the machine, and American vernacular culture between two world wars. Obviously, Corn has more in mind than a survey of twenty years of modern art in America, or a sustained essay on American national consciousness, or the cultural history of a period. To a degree, The Great American Thing is all these things and, inadvertently, an intellectual autobiography as well. But most of all it is an overview of American "exceptionalism": how a belief in it climaxed during the first third of the 20th century when, to some local and foreign prophets, the nation's pending economic and political hegemony presaged a comparable supremacy in the arts; and how a selected company of artists and intellectuals responded creatively, and ambivalently, to their triumphalist society.

The story unfolds in six discrete yet overlapping sections. It takes off in the period 1913 to 1916, with the arrival in the United States of a parcel of French "missionaries," Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Albert Gleizes, and Blaise Cendrars. To them New York was a whiff of the future and a source of raw materials (skyscrapers, spark plugs, toilet bowls, fountain pens) from which they derived their "vocabulary of phallic and ovular forms" and their "mechanomorphic" collages (p. 81). American high an struck them as derivative and boring, but they professed to find more vitality in American hardware stores than in all the tired museums of Europe. (Corn is very good at evoking the mix of wonder, disdain, and comedy that marked Franco-American cultural exchanges in the 1910s and 1920s.)

At the end of the Great War, the Euro-American cultural shuttle was still operating, but now the swelling traffic of "migrants" was eastward-bound. Whereas the bona fide pre-war expatriates (Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and the like) had metaphorically, and sometimes literally, yielded their American citizenships, the "Transatlantiques," as Corn calls them, were only camping in foreign parts for short or lengthy periods with no thought of changing their nationality. On the contrary, they exploited it. Corn dramatizes the vogue of americanisme in Paris circles in her chapter on the professional and social success of Gerald Murphy, friend of Fernand Leger and Pablo Picasso and their consultant on things American.

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