Art across America: An Exhibition to Celebrate the Opening of a New Building for the Museum of Art of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, October 15 through December 31, MCMLX

Art across America: An Exhibition to Celebrate the Opening of a New Building for the Museum of Art of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, October 15 through December 31, MCMLX

Art across America: An Exhibition to Celebrate the Opening of a New Building for the Museum of Art of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, October 15 through December 31, MCMLX

Art across America: An Exhibition to Celebrate the Opening of a New Building for the Museum of Art of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York, October 15 through December 31, MCMLX

Excerpt

The concept of the purpose of the museum in the United States has varied over the decades, but the variation is, I suspect, a function of changing notions about art and about the relation of art to civilization. In America the interpretation of the development of art as well as the valuation put upon art have gone forward in a curious series of waves.

In the beginnings of North American culture (outside of Quebec) artists and craftsmen, not to speak of philosophers and historians, were content to accept the subordinate and provincial status proper to British colonialism. Wandering limners, housewrights, and other craftsmen got their examples out of European manuals. Though it was a matter of pride that painters of the rank of Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley rose to eminence in the mother country, there was small talk before 1775 of "American" values. After the Seven Years War (1756-63), to be sure, theorists foresaw Greek temples rising on the banks of the Hudson or the Ohio, Western culture undergoing a new and happy renaissance in the new world, the prophecies (or the hopes) of Marsilio Ficino or Bacon coming true in an extended British empire. Such forecasts were, I think, commoner among poets and parsons than they were among painters and architects, who have usually expressed themselves more forcibly in materials than in words. But the European orientation of the arts in North America seemed as assured as the permanency of the British crown.

After Yorktown, however, speculation took a new course. A new republic, obviously headed in the direction of becoming the almost perfect modern state, would, out of its own energies and because it was philosophically based, create at once arts worthy of its pretensions. If the immediate result were the unreadable epics of the Connecticut Wits, the attention given New World subjects by Hudson River painters and to American genre pictures by craftsmen of whatever description was more or less conditioned by these assumptions. Nobody invented a revolutionary technique, product of philosophical republicanism; nevertheless the glories of God's hand in creating the Kaatskills (as spelling then went), not to speak (as they were discovered) of the majestic Rockies and the more imposing Andes required expression in color. Expression was to be at once majestical and philosophic; and if the nascent museums of the early republic were not always sympathetic, the painter could hold a commercialized show. Along with these imperial subjects went the red man (as in the case of Catlin), "Western" man (as in the case of Bingham). and the flora and fauna of the New World (as in the case of Audubon and Agassiz). There were a curious lack of Roman ruins in North America, a want of Greek . . .

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