Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

An Artist of the American Renaissance: The Letters of Kenyon Cox, 1883-1919

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

An Artist of the American Renaissance: The Letters of Kenyon Cox, 1883-1919

Article excerpt

Morgan, J. Wayne, ed. (1995). An Artist of the American Renaissance: The Letters of Kenyon Cox, 1883-1919. Kent, Ohio and London: The Kent State University Press. 197 pages, (ISBN 0-87338-517-9).

Reviewed by Sharyn R. Udall

University of New Mexico

Almost everyone now agrees that the cultural codes we live by are neither universal, natural, nor permanent; we know instead that they are subject to frequent change and critique. Twentieth-century America has seen a succession of art forms and critical models, but none have been more pervasive than modernism. Even now, in the last years of the decade, modernism remains the cultural standard against which subsequent change has been measured. Today's welter of styles and alternative critical premises would not themselves make sense if we could not see in them the many challenges to the ideals of modernism.

The dismantling of modernism's monolithic myth, underway since the 1960s, has required repudiation of the notion that works of art are products of autonomous, disengaged labor; that they exist apart from specific social and historical contexts. In the 1990s, as we re-insert art objects into those contexts, we want to understand not only what cultural roles art has now, but what roles it had before the mighty engine of modernism moved it-some would say sidetracked it-onto a narrowly formalist road. Was modernism inevitable? Was there any resistance to its juggernaut?

Recent books, beginning with T. J. Jackson Lears's No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920 (1981) began to help us see the cultural conflicts within late l9th-century America, the era from which modernism emerged. An Artist of the American Renaissance furthers that understanding. Revealed in these collected letters are the development and artistic credo of Kenyon Cox (1856-1919), often described as the best-known American art writer of his era. This volume, gathering Cox's private correspondence from his years in New York (1883-1919) is a companion to the editor's previous volumes of Cox's early letters, his full-scale Cox biography, and his other books on American art between the Civil War and 1920.

The longstanding art historical bias in favor of modernism has placed Cox among the conservatives, regarded as obstructionists in the path of change. …

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