Modernism's Subjects in the United States

By Leja, Michael | Art Journal, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Modernism's Subjects in the United States


Leja, Michael, Art Journal


Visual images and their viewers engage in processes of reciprocal definition. Viewers "constitute" images, assigning them salient features and meanings, while images "interpellate" viewing subjects, offering them viewing positions and identifications. The flow of power is circular, or more precisely spiraling, since the constituted image and its subjects are constantly shifting over time and in correlation.

This paradigm of dynamic, mutual constitution between art and its audiences poses questions for the history of modernist art. It provokes explanation of the forms and mechanisms by which modernism interested and held audiences in particular places and times and under specific historical conditions. It motivates development of analytical strategies that may illuminate particular instances of these dynamics in the history of modernist art. Of course, as retrospective viewers, we are ourselves involved in the same reciprocally constitutive relationship with the art historical representations we produce and endorse, in ways we no doubt recognize only partially. The will to postmodernism, for example, has reduced modernism to that which we are not now and do not want to be. In these circumstances, close historical study of the shapes and social grounds of modernism is warranted both as an antidote to the binarization of past and present and as a measure of the stakes of our self-fashioning as postmodern.

I propose in this paper to explore the dynamics of mutual definition between art and its audiences in one of the dimly lit regions of artistic modernism's historical geography: the moment of its early appearances in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of my purposes is to suggest ways in which viewing modernism through this particular lens might affect our understanding of the changes modernism entailed, its connections to traditional, academic art, and its relations to social experience. Another purpose is to promote a more rigorous and complex account of modernism's early history in the United States, one that recognizes art's involvement in fostering social differentiation and identification in its viewers and recognizes as well the complexity of the processes by which European modernisms were selectively appropriated and reconstituted.

The consensus of historians of culture, literature, and art is that in the nineteenth century U.S. audiences exhibited a strong resistance to modernism.l Among the most modernized countries in industrial, demographic, economic, and technological terms, the United States was slow to accommodate art committed to discerning forms and visual practices characteristic of modernity. Perhaps it is not surprising that the difficult, even shocking economic, social, and demographic changes encompassed by modernization would have yielded in many shapers and users of culture a preference for the reassurance of traditional aesthetic forms and classical utopian visions. Sensible though this hypothesis may seem, it leaves unexplained discrepancies among the receptions accorded particular modernisms. Why should Impressionism have received a relatively warm reception from art audiences in the United States and Post-Impressionism a chilly one?

Whatever its motivation, something like resistance to artistic modernism was given monumental embodiment at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The exhibits at this World's Fair-characteristic nationalist celebrations of progress, evolution, and technology-were housed in sprawling steel-framed sheds whose exteriors were, for the most part, pure neoclassicism. Neoclassicism in architecture, architectural decoration, and art was presented at the fair as the characteristic form of Caucasian artistic expression, which contemporary theories of race positioned as the culmination of evolution in human artistic production. Contrasted with the "primitive" villages and non-Euro-American arts exhibited at the fair, neoclassicism was able to signify both established Western tradition and evolutionary progress; it enveloped modernity in a reassuring and stable yet progressive form.

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