Brushes with History ed. by Peter G. Meyer
Brushes with History: Writing on Art from the Nation, 1865-2001
Edited by Peter G. Meyer with an introduction by Arthur C. Danto
Thunder’s Mouth/Nation. 532 pp. $19.95
From its glee over the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson to its displeasure over the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton, what American magazine has been more consistent than the Nation? It occupies the same terrain in the political landscape that it did in 1865, when it was begun as a journal of radical Republicanism. In its early years, the magazine’s tone was shaped by the abolitionism of its predominantly Unitarian and Quaker founders. That stance led seamlessly and without interruption to turn-of-the-century progressivism, thence to Stalinism, and now, in the post-cold-war world, to a brand of leftism that seldom strays too far from the conventional wisdom of the average faculty club.
This history is well known. Less well known is the Nation‘s tradition of writing about the visual arts. From the outset, the journal has invariably had a regular art critic, a roster that over the decades has included such prominent men of American letters as Henry James, Bernard Berenson, Clement Green-berg, and Hilton Kramer. In fact, as becomes clear from this new anthology edited by Peter Meyer, no other organ of art criticism in the country approaches the Nation either for longevity or for generally high standards.
The high standards may have something to do with the editorial firewall that the Nation has always prided itself on maintaining between the overtly political matter at the front of the magazine and the literary and cultural coverage at the back. This book certainly offers evidence that, on the whole, the magazine’s art reviewers have enjoyed independence: much of the writing consists of genuinely aesthetic criticism that looks at art as art and not merely as a sublimated form of politics. But there is also evidence that, at times, the much-vaunted firewall had all the flame-resistance of a set of Venetian blinds.
The important artistic battleline over the past century-and-a-half has not run between modernism and tradition but rather between an art that seeks to be something and one that seeks to do something. For modernity is a comparative quality, and what is modern or progressive at one moment is hopelessly reactionary at the next. By contrast, belief in art for art’s sake is an absolute, and its presence distinguishes entire episodes—the aesthetic movement of the 1870′s and 1880′s, the heyday of abstraction in the decade following World War II—just as its absence distinguishes others. We are now emerging from a period during which, as in the 1930′s, art has been largely enlisted in the service of politics.
At its inception, the Nation drew a particular link between art and politics. One of the magazine’s founders was Frederic Law Olmsted, the celebrated landscape architect and designer of Central Park. An abolitionist, Olmsted had written an important series in the New York Times during the 1850′s about the American South, connecting the moral degradation of slavery with the physical degradation of the landscape. As a contributor to the Nation, he likewise insisted on the connection between America’s public parks and monuments and the moral health of the community.
Such a link was fully in the spirit of American Transcendentalism, and also in the spirit of the age. The 1860′s marked the apogee of the influence of John Ruskin, the English critic who believed that the artist’s faithful imitation of nature was a form of pictorial prayer—an act of reverence. This heady doctrine was followed enthusiastically by Russell Sturgis, the Nation‘s first art critic and a prominent architect who designed several dormitories at Yale in the Ruskinian Gothic mode (although Meyer does not appear to know this).
The idea of a common moral basis to politics and art gave a congenial unity to the early Nation. But the insistence on judging art in terms of morality swiftly dropped from favor. Instead of serving as an instrument of improvement, it was soon being said that the purpose of art was to delight for its own sake. Aesthetes like the painter James Whistler were fiercely hostile to the prim moralizing of Ruskin’s camp. This was a clash of seismic magnitude, whose culminating earthquake was the 1878 libel suit brought by Whistler in the wake of a sputteringly contemptuous review by Ruskin (“cockney impudence . . . flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”) of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, a nearly abstract rendition of fireworks at night.
By an accident of timing, the Nation was fortunate to have as its critic at this time the young Henry James, who would himself represent the zenith of the aesthetic movement in American literature. James’s bemused ringside-seat reports of the trial (he was living in London) are the highlight of this anthology. Although he acknowledged that Whistler’s paintings were “eccentric and imperfect,” James also took the painter’s side. “Mr. Ruskin’s language,” he wrote, “quite transgresses the decencies of criticism, and he has been laying about him for some years past with such promiscuous violence that it gratifies one’s sense of justice to see him brought up as a disorderly character.”
In the event, Whistler won his suit, but received only a nominal farthing in damages. James’s own verdict was appropriately arch: while the judgment left Ruskin relatively unscathed, he could not have been gratified “at finding that the fullest weight of his disapproval is thought to be represented by the sum of one farthing.”
Well into the 20th century, this sort of erudite and refined criticism remained the rule. Each year, the Nation‘s reviewer faithfully inspected the exhibition of New York’s National Academy of Design, commending and criticizing with confidence, certain that cultivation of the arts was a mark of a high civilization. As with American cultural life in general, the magazine turned cosmopolitan, reviewing European art regularly and expecting products of American culture to be judged by the lofty standards of the Continent.
The key figure in this period was James’s successor, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, a journalist of formidable pugnacity and wit of whom Meyer makes much—perhaps too much. Although he is clearly pleased to have found a progressive feminist aboard the Nation at such an early date, Pennell was not the “first regularly published female art critic in American letters,” a distinction that belongs to Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. One suspects Meyer’s enthusiasm would have waned if he were aware of her social views, or had read her extended tirades in Our Philadelphia (1914) about the “slatternly and dirty” Russian Jews.
In any event, the wind was about to shift again with the onset of radical European modernism. As its reaction to the 1913 Armory Show demonstrates, the Nation was no more prepared for this challenge than any other institution of American culture. The exhibition, originally conceived to showcase the work of progressive American artists, was transformed at the last minute by the addition of works that gave Americans their first comprehensive look at Cézanne, Picasso, and Duchamp.
Among the ranks of the scandalized was the Nation‘s rather fastidious reviewer, Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., who dismissed not only the artistic movements on display—cubism (either “a clever hoax or a negligible pedantry”) and post-impressionism (“the emotional reduction to the absurd of the . . . anti-naturalistic fallacy”)—but even those that were not, like futurism (“charlatanry and shameless puffery”). Mather was no know-nothing. But his elegant criticism worked from within tradition, and as he correctly observed, the Armory Show required nothing less than a comprehensive reassessment of the relationship of art to society. This he was not able or prepared to do.
For the next few decades, the Nation did not speak with a coherent voice on modernism, publishing reviews by such impassioned modernists as Louis Lozowick and Marsden Hartley while giving the role of art critic to Thomas Craven, a stalwart champion of tradition who regarded Thomas Hart Benton as the chief luminary of American art. But then came the 1930′s, and, at a stroke, progressive art and progressive politics were once again neatly aligned. In the wake of the Depression, coverage of art exhibitions dwindled, issues of quality were downplayed, and criticism tended to be more about what art did than about what art was. Fortuitously, this seems also to have reflected the ideological predispositions of Freda Kirchwey, who became editor in 1933 and owner in 1937.
A sure sign of the new dispensation was the appearance of reviews, often highly partisan in nature, by critics untrained in art, including Paul Rosenfeld, a novelist and music critic; Margaret Marshall, the journal’s literary editor; and the leftist newspaper columnist Heywood Broun, who wrote that painting “must be done by people who are hot and burning and very much bothered” and who spoke at a notorious rally of the Artists Congress in New York, an arm of the Moscow-steered Popular Front.
But the story does not end there, either. In the cold-war years, in still another turn of the screw, the Nation was destined to become the voice of a rigorous art criticism that had no use for politics, or indeed for any content other than the aesthetic and formal. This was the legacy of Clement Greenberg, who served as critic from 1943 to 1949 and whose dry and urgent reviews vaulted Willem De Kooning, the sculptor David Smith, and above all Jackson Pollock to national prominence.
Ironically, Greenberg’s demand for an apolitical art had a political motivation. A former Trotskyist and later a prominent cold-war liberal, he had become disgusted by the art of the 1930′s in which the same vapid realism promiscuously served Hitler, Stalin, and the Roosevelt administration. Political art, he argued, was inevitably kitsch. This was the strongest word in Greenberg’s critical vocabulary, conjuring the worst of bourgeois taste while also betraying his own lingering habit of judging art according to Marxist class analysis. Indeed, Greenberg’s trademark style was to meld the impersonal and “objective” vocabulary of Marxism with a highly personal reaction to art itself, which he expressed in exceptionally pungent prose.
In 1949 Greenberg resigned (eventually taking a position at COMMENTARY), but he ended his tenure with a characteristically belligerent gesture, writing an attack on the Nation‘s reflexively pro-Stalin editorial line. The editors refused to print his letter, and when he published it elsewhere he was promptly sued by Freda Kirchwey. Brushes with History reprints the journal’s various pronouncements on the suit, but not—significantly?—Greenberg’s letter.
Greenberg’s handpicked successor was S. Lane Faison, a Williams College professor who served from 1951 to 1955 and is regarded as one of the great practitioners of connoisseurship. Faison, now ninety-five, is also an alert and active writer and my colleague. When I spoke to him about this book, he recalled that a condition of his writing for the Nation was independence, which Margaret Marshall assured him he would have so long as she edited the back of the book. Upon leaving the magazine in 1953, she warned Faison that his position would eventually become untenable.
This happened two years later when Kirchwey summoned him to prescribe review topics like the social-realist art of the brothers Moses and Raphael Soyer and government art at the United Nations. When he demurred, he says, Kirchwey suggested cordially that perhaps they could no longer work together. It is surely significant that none of his pieces is reprinted here, and that he was not interviewed for the book. Indeed, this whole period of the early 1950′s is misleadingly represented by a few items on cold-war policy toward the arts; in actuality, the formalist tradition at the Nation extended continuously from Greenberg through Faison and into the 1970′s in the hands of such distinguished successors as Fairfield Porter, Max Kozloff, Hilton Kramer, and Lawrence Alloway.
Which brings us closer to the present. One hardly needs to have followed the scene during the 1980′s to know that art became more relentlessly political than at any time in American history. The so-called art wars of the 80′s turned on issues of censorship, public funding for the arts, artistic agitprop (frequently over AIDS), and public sculpture and memorials. In that overheated environment, the Nation published some of the most embarrassing reviews in this volume; perhaps the most appalling is the cumbersome and interminable attempt by Paul Mattick, Jr. to defend the public funding of Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe—they, respectively, of chocolate-smeared nudity, Piss Christ, and the inserted bullwhip. That even during that contentious decade there was also resistance at the Nation to reading art in purely political terms was largely due to Arthur C. Danto, the Columbia philosophy professor who became art critic in 1984. Among other welcome surprises, Danto vigorously supported the fight to disinstall Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, a gigantic and particularly hateful rusting steel blade that had been placed athwart the Jacob Javits plaza in New York City, thereby rendering it useless as a public space.
The impulse to use art to accomplish something, to tell a story or teach a lesson, is one to which American art is peculiarly susceptible. It is a legacy of our Puritan culture, with its suspicion of art as idolatry and its grudging willingness to tolerate it only for the instruction it might impart. This same impulse is what connects the pious and wooden narrative art of the early 19th century with the equally pious and wooden consciousness-raising art of the last two decades.
Given the consistent political heritage of the Nation, and the perennial temptation to mistake good politics for good art, what is striking in the end is how well its art criticism has held up. But a random sampling of reviews from its pages would have illustrated that better than the self-conscious, somewhat censored, and mildly tendentious selection given us in Brushes with History.