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Modern Art in the U.S.A.: Issues and Controversies of the 20th Centuryby Patricia Hills
This book focuses on the issues and controversies that have energized American art from 1900 to the present. The entries are contemporary with the art (except for a few excerpts from later memoirs) and include the views of artists, critics, exhibition organizers, poets, politicians, art activists, and writers on culture. The book is intended to serve as a handbook for courses on American and contemporary art and also as a guide to those interested in both the standard interpretations of American art and in alternative readings.
A greet number and variety of voices have been included. This broad spectrum better achieves a replication of the artworld itself—a world made up of diverse practitioners who pursue many agendas and various points of view, and who influence and help direct both the production of the art of our time and its critical and popular reception.
These artworkers continually refer to and build on one another's ideas when engaged in, describing, or interpreting art and art activities. As Max Kozloff has observed, "What we feel about visual works of art is . . . conditioned by what has already been said about them." It is the dialogue about art that enables a wide network of people to participate in art movements. These people include studio and art history teachers, dealers, museum directors, government funding officers, publishers, magazine editors, and individual enthusiasts who may also be collectors. They make possible the training and traveling opportunities for artists and critics; they host and finance exhibitions; they enable the distribution of new images and ideas. Both practioners and facilitators, with their complex network of social and professional relationships, are fully implicated in the consolidation and direction of art movements. Hence, the comments of all artworld people—writing contemporaneously with the new art-are considered as primary documents.
A new movement of artistic trends is not a one-dimensional linear progression, as art history books often present it, but rather an expanding and contracting process. There is a growth period, followed by a consolidation. Then a shifting—of people, ideas, styles—from the margins to the center, and often back to the margins as new people, ideas, styles emerge to challenge or to be absorbed into the previously dominant movements. The older movements, although still attracting loyal curators, dealers, and patrons, often move into the background—removed from all the buzz about the newer art. Galleries may go out of business as the novelty of their artists wanes, or they may establish niche markets for themselves. At the same time, artists may stay with their own cohort in defiance of new trends, or they may change styles—as did many during the 1950s when abstract expressionism swept the artworld. Writers and curators, too, are capable of shifting gears—of adopting new sensibilities and even ideologies as they position themselves to understand, interpret, and promote new movements in art.
During the twentieth century, theories about art, culture, and social life have increasingly and much more self-consciously influenced artworld participants, and, therefore, many theoretical essays are included here. Theories about art, however, need to be tested by the practices adopted by both artists and critics as they confront and question the relevance and applicability of those theories. What we find as the mediation between theory and practice is experience. Hence, many entries in this book focus on the immediately recalled experiences of artists and writers as they approach—both personally and collectively—the art of their time, or as they encounter the social, political, and economic conditions that encourage or suppress specific art ideas and subjects. These experiences, as well as the contested theories and beliefs, will give readers of this book a better understanding of the changing artworld.
Some art world people seem to be in the right place at the right time with the right blend of predispositions. Or, as George Kubler has observed, some artists seem to have a better "entrance" than others. In other words, these artists spoke (and speak) to their contemporaries in ways that resonate with shared experiences. It is risky, however, to predict what will have staying power, since under some historical circumstances people become quick to deny those shared experiences. Documents included in this reader suggest the complex relationships that art has to its history.
Modern Art in the USA presents themes and issues that have reappeared over the century, frequently erupting into highly publicized controversies.
The reigning phenomenon of the twentieth century has been modernism, which has generated a variety of changing definitions from the early decades to the present. Early in the century, modernism meant "to be of one's time" (much like the definition of realism in the nineteenth century). The definition was inclusive and hospitable to experimental techniques, materials, and concepts. It opposed academic rules and set ways of thinking. At mid-century, during the Cold War years and with the dominance of Clement Greenberg's critical authority, modernism came to have a more narrow, formalist definition with a set of seemingly inflexible rules. Greenberg then defined modernism as embodying "purity" of form and characterized by "self-referentiality." By the end of the twentieth century, however, many critics have reasserted the more inclusive definition of modernism that had characterized the earlier decades. Indeed, the term "postmodernism" has often been substituted to describe a modern art that also includes the traditions of realism and the vernacular.
Looking back on the twentieth century, we see that modernism (whatever its definitions) was not the only component to modern art in the USA. Throughout the history of the country, realism—in its many different visual styles—has persisted as a vital outlook. Even when the modernism of abstract expressionism seemed to be in ascendency, realists held their own. In 1955, when the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the exhibition The New Decade: 35American Painters and Sculptors and the Museum of Modern Art mounted The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors, it was the Whitney's show that made it a point to showcase contemporary realists along with the rising abstract expressionists. Whitney curator John I. H. Baur explained: "Our aim has been to record something of the diversity and vitality of American art . . . ."
Another component of modern art in the USA has been the continuing fascination artists have had for the commonplace: the vernacular, the practical, the mechanical, and the popular. This attraction to the commonplace results from the fact that many Americans—including a great number of artists—have held on to the ideal that the country is a democracy and that Americans are somehow equal. The French writer and traveler Alexis de Tocqueville noted this dogged belief back in 1832, when he published his Democracy in America; Americans, he observed, had contempt for aristocracy even when they secretly aspired to aristocracy's status. The ideal of democracy and egalitarianism has persisted through the end of the twentieth century, even in the face of the reality of huge income and net-worth differences between the wealthy and the working classes.
A major recurring theme in art throughout the century has focused on the social dimensions of art and art making—of bringing social concerns into the content of art and of debating the relevance of politics to art. Do artists have an obligation to communicate uplifting and positive social and collective values? Or should socially concerned artists confine themselves to criticizing the negative and oppressively materialist aspects of life in the United States and around the globe in order to encourage social change? Such issues were especially debated in artistic and intellectual circles in the 1930s and again from the late 1960s to the present.
This issue of the social responsibility of art and artists ties in with the concept of the audience for art. Should that audience be the moneyed elites who can afford luxury items, that is, expensively priced paintings and sculpture to adorn their personal living spaces? Or should art be directed toward the general populace? And if the latter, what are the best means to reach and engage ordinary people?
Issues of "identity" weave through the art and the art commentary of the entire twentieth century. In the first three decades, questions of identity focused on nationalism. What does it mean to be "American" as opposed to European? With African Americans, identity issues revolved around race and W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of "double consciousness" (see Reading 8). From the 1930s to the mid-1950s social class loomed as a major factor of one's identity. Beginning in the mid-1950s, growing consumerism among the middle classes masked the poverty that still existed in the United States. However, prosperity and the prospect of prosperity encouraged hope. In the modern art of African Americans the theme of racial pride asserted itself.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s gender issues also began to preoccupy many women artists and critics. The continuing exploration of gender and racial identities, joined by critiques of neocolonialist power relations and criticism against norms for sexual behavior, infused much art of the 1980s and 1990s. Inevitably, this exploration of subject matter invited attacks and attempts at censorship from religious organizations and politicians. By the late 1990s, however, the rise of globalism encouraged a shift toward the recognition that people carry multiple identities. And, with the wars in the Balkans and in Africa, it became increasingly acknowledged that fixations on ethnicity and ethnic identity dangerously paved the way for "ethnic cleansing" and genocide.
As we review the century, we see modernism's inclusiveness has triumphed. Photography has rightly won its place as a category for serious art. Conceptual art, with its roots in the ideas of Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists, has also found a permanent place in the artworld, as have installations, video, multimedia art, and performance art—in spite of admonishments in the 1960s to artists that such innovations were "theater" and should be avoided in the plastic arts. The digitized and computer generated arts will no doubt come into their own in the twenty-first century, for they are already firmly established in experimental labs in industry and have become part of the curriculum in many studio art programs. This expansion of the category of "art" to include all kinds of activities, processes, and objects will change the way we teach and think about visual culture in the future.
In conclusion, twentieth-century American art was forged in a cauldron of contentions, arguments, and ideological struggle. It is not a smooth, seamless history, but a history punctuated by controversy and debate. What arises as a fierce controversy in one generation becomes resolved, ignored, or absorbed into the next generation's art and art commentary. The art of the present is the richer for these controversies and struggles.
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