INSIDIOUS MODERNISM

The Armory Show: 100 years ago, Modern Art came to America

The government of Letters has its lobbyists and wealthy influence, too.  They say politics is show business for ugly people—we don’t know if poets and artists as a rule are ugly, or not, or whether it matters; however, as thinkers who are keen enough to dismiss much that doesn’t matter, we would most likely err if we dismissed the (often hidden) idea that art movements have non-artist and bad-artist people behind them as much as they do theory, people who buy art seeking a deal and may even build a museum or buy off a critic for that deal, people who have political or material interests.  The particular, motivated human, in other words, runs the show, the show of fame and influence and money we grace with the euphemism “art,” “architecture,” or “poetry” in our more idealistic moments.

Modernism is barely a hundred years old and has two chief characteristics: 1) a profound, enduring, and institutional influence on society at large, 2) not understood in the least by the public. Impressionism, as a technique, is understood; as an idea only theorists understand it.  Every technique has an end or result which does—or does not—satisfy the public.  To pretend that art is more than a technique rendered for public satisfaction is for theorists to twist and mangle.

Theorists, lobbyists, institutions, foundations, critics, lawyers, and politicians all have an interest in art-buying, whether it is sculpture, architecture (a trillion dollar industry), painting, photography, or poetry (a zero dollar industry, measured in something other than dollars). Before Modernism, nations used to own and fight over art (pillage in wars being only the most obvious): Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Arnold (and their contemporary sentiment) worked for Great Britain. Whistler v. Ruskin—the famous 19th century painting court case (1878)—was U.S. ‘modern art,’ before Modernism became an international brand, doing battle with entrenched Gothic/Victorian pride. The French painters of the Salon des Refuses (1863) were owned by the despot, Napolean III, for the French government (some forget) sanctioned this avant-garde event.

By the time the spirit of Salon des Refuses came to America as the Armory Modern Art Show (1913), everything had changed.  The Eliot/Pound lawyer who negotiated the Dial Prize (worth an annual salary at Lloyd’s) for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” before it was even finished (Pound was still editing) was also a buyer of modern art, and made the Armory show happen, delivering the welcoming greeting to the assembled on the first day.

Modernism was not an art movement so much as it was a business venture with “art” (Stein, Picasso, and Dewey, Inc.) and “architecture” (Cement, Glass and Bauhaus, Inc.) as its front.  One could not swing Ezra Pound without hitting a wealthy art buyer in the stuffy, ambitious offices of Modernism, Inc. (John Crowe Ransom called the enterprise Criticism,  Inc. or Criticism, Ltd.)

The wealthy art buyer Walter Arensberg hosted Duchamp (“Nude Descending Staircase” the hit of the Armory Show) when he came to America, and Williams and Stevens belonged to Arsenberg’s cabal.  Stevens and Ransom were a mutual admiration society at Kenyon, and Ransom’s fellow Fugitive, Tate, who helped start creative writing at Princeton, was quick to praise “The Waste Land” when it was published in 1922.

If we look at contributors to the first issue of The Fugitive that year, we see: Robert Graves, Oxford professor of Poetry in the 60s who beat out Lowell for the sough-after post and advocated mushroom use from that honored position; Witter Bynner, with a poetry prize to his name; Hart Crane, important poet; Louis Untermeyer, important anthologist; John Gould Fletcher, poet caught in the middle between Amy Lowell and Pound/Maddox Ford during the brief U.S./British split before WW I; Laura Riding, then married to a Kentucky professor; and William Alexander Percy, godfather of the Fugitives, Harvard Law School and later Yale Younger Judge, who would award Paul Engle (Iowa Workshop) his Yale Younger prize.

William James, the first word in the first poem in the first book of BAP (1988, “Garbage,” Ammons), founder of stream of consciousness writing and Psychology as a subject at Harvard, the nitrous oxide philosopher, Waldo Emerson’s godson, brother of Henry, who became British, was Gertrude Stein’s professor; Stein, wealthy deb from Baltimore, was a poet, but more importantly, one of those lobbyists, with her brother Leo, who collected the new art, buying very, very low and selling very, very high.  Low (vulgar) to high (stoned) was the Modernistic lifestyle as well as the simple business practice.   How perfect to be smart and rich!  You will buy Picasso and he will make you famous and they will teach you in college.

The public could not understand Modernism, not even when John Dewey came to Harvard in 1931 and, in a series of lectures to honor William James, patiently and painstakingly attempted a defense.  The lectures became the book Art As Experience, and as we set eyes on the first sentence of the first chapter, we see at once both the insidious genius of Dewey and the impossibility of a lay reader understanding him:

By one of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them.

And we’re off to the races.  Place your bets. This Matisse doesn’t look like much, but I’ll give it to you cheap. Dewey’s modernist apologia was mentored by art collector A.C. Barnes (1872-1951) of the Barnes Foundation.  Barnes made a fortune selling an antiseptic drug.  He accumulated vast amounts of paintings by Cezanne and Matisse (well over a 100 in total).  Dewey writes in the preface to Art and Experience:

My greatest indebtedness is to Dr. A. C. Barnes.  The chapters have been gone over one by one with him, and yet what I owe to his comments and suggestions on this account is but a small measure of my debt. ** Whatever is sound in this volume is due more than I can say to the great educational work carried on in the Barnes Foundation.

Dewey shows himself adept at saying all kinds of common sense things about art, and Art and Experience reflects wide reading in Classical and Romantic aesthetIcs. Most of the time he sounds perfectly reasonable, and we would expect nothing less from someone lecturing on art at Harvard:

Mutual adaptation of parts to one another in constituting a whole is the relation which, formally speaking, characterizes a work of art.

This sounds like Aristotle or Coleridge or Poe, and it would seem Dewey is sympathetic to centuries of tradition.  But, as a modernist, he’s not.  He’s only playing us.  His loyalty is not to art or tradition, but to A.C. Barnes and his Matisse collection.  But Dewey needs to lull us into a false sense of his erudition.  It is almost like someone who secretly spikes your drink.  The sensible and nonsense are skillfully woven together, and this weaving is where the real erudition is displayed.  Dewey continues in a sensible vein:

Every machine, every utensil, has, within limits a similar reciprocal adaptation. In each case, an end is fulfilled. That which is merely utilitarian satisfies, however, a particular and limited end.

But now he gets hazy:

The work of esthetic art satisfies many ends, none of which is laid down in advance. It serves life rather than prescribing a defined and limited mode of living.

“It serves life” sounds wonderful, but we wonder exactly what it means, beyond a gesture towards art for art’s sake, unless we can define “serves life,” and yet the ill-defined seems to be Dewey’s  whole point.  But we wonder about definitions which are non-definitive.

We also wonder about “none of which is laid down in advance.”  All artists appreciate serendipity, but to censor all planning seems a bit fanatical.

“Experience” is big for Dewey.  He uses the word in almost every other sentence in the book.  Its frequent use can turn into a running joke, if one is not careful.  If it were a drink when you see “experience” game, intoxication would result almost immediately from all of Dewey’s “experiences,” the experience of not being able to rise, the greatest experience of all.

“Experience” for Dewey is like “experience” for Emerson; it allows them to talk and talk and talk without coming to a point; it allows them to expand discussion of two plus two into a cosmos of psychological inferences: how do we feel about two plus two? Who is responsible for two plus two?  What coward dares to oppress us with two plus two?  What sort of experiences are we having when we add two and two?  Is two plus two an insult to our souls?  How shall we free ourselves of two plus two?

Of course there is nothing wrong with a little expansiveness, as long as it’s not blah blah blah; to examine ‘process’ and the ‘process of process’ and all the pushes and pulls of the integrative efforts towards aesthetic unity and wholeness is all very good, but too much of this “experience” business can turn us into someone obsessed with spots swimming before our eyes.  Too much “experience” and not enough focused thought will be reason’s undoing.  The following (from the same chapter, Chapter 7, The History of Form) is important because it describes a painter’s method:

Matisse has described the actual process of painting in the following way: “If, on a clean canvas, I put at intervals patches of blue, green, and red, with every touch that I put on, each of those previously laid on loses in importance. Say I have to paint an interior; I see before me a wardrobe. It gives me a vivid sensation of red; I put on the canvas the particular red that satisfies me. A relation now exists  between this red and the paleness of the canvas.  When I put on besides a green, and also a yellow to represent the floor, between this green and the yellow and the color of the canvas  there will be still further relations. But these different tones diminish one another. It is necessary that the different tones I use be balanced  in such a way that they do not destroy one another. To secure that, I have to put my ideas in order; the relationship between tones must be instituted in such a way that they are built up instead of being knocked down. A new combination of colors will succeed to the first one and will give the wholeness of my conceptions.”

Now there is nothing different in principle here from what is done in the furnishing of a room, when the householder sees to it that tables, chairs, rugs, lamps, color of walls, and spacing of the pictures on them are so selected and arranged that that do not clash but form an ensemble. **  Even at first glance there is the sense of qualitative unity. There is form.

We are reminded by Dewey’s remarks of Poe’s “A Philosophy of Furniture.”  The principles expounded here by Matisse and Dewey are perfectly sound, nearly to the point of truism.  Matisse is clearly a bridge to abstract expressionism; we can see it in the way he privileges blobs of color.  We doubt Da Vinci painted this way.  In any case, this is Dewey behaving himself, generally drawing upon the wisdom of those who have gone before:

In a word, form is not found exclusively in objects labeled works of art. Wherever perception has not been blunted and perverted, there is an inevitable tendency to arrange events and objects with reference to the demands of complete and unified perception. Form is a character of every experience that is an experience. Art in its specific sense enacts more deliberately and fully the conditions that effect this unity. Form may then be defined as the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, sense and situation to its own integral fulfillment. The connection of form with substance is thus inherent, not imposed from without. It marks the matter of an experience that is carried to consummation.  If the matter is of a jolly sort, the form that would be fitting to pathetic matter is impossible. If expressed in a poem, then meter, rate of movement, words chosen, the whole structure, will be different, and in a picture so will the whole scheme of color and volume relationships. In comedy, a man at work laying bricks while dressed in evening clothes is appropriate; the form fits the matter. The same subject-matter would bring the movement of another experience to disaster.

The problem of discovering the nature of form is thus identical with that of discovering the means by which are effected the carrying forward of an experience to fulfillment.  When we know these means, we know what form is.

Dewey is eloquent even as he propounds the truism that matter and form are mutually self-supporting.  We like this: “a man at work laying bricks…in evening clothes” and “When we know these means, we know what form is.”  We admire Dewey’s attempt to see art as an active process.  These are bracing, healthy statements.

The reader might think: Dewey sounds old-fashioned.  This is radical Modernism?  Yet one must remember: Modernism was a Business.  Conservative-sounding critics like Eliot, Ransom and Dewey were key to radical Modernism’s acceptance and success.

But at our backs we shall hear Modernism’s clunky chariot drawing near.  Dewey is a good man for the task of selling Modernism’s lunacy, precisely because he can sound like a learned Aristotle for days on end.  But he does not forget his agenda: to sell modern art.  First, however, he builds and builds on tradition:

Admiration always includes an element of wonder. As a Renaissance writer said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”

The quote is from Lord Bacon, and Poe loved this quotation, too, making it famous in both his criticism and fiction.

Poe also said, “The senses sometimes see too little, but they always see too much.”

This statement is almost a summary of the whole bare-boned aesthetic of Modernism, beginning with “Ornament is a crime” by Anthony Loos (1908).

But we doubt Poe would have liked the works of Modernism; he would have found Modernism repellent and dull.  Dewey can sound aesthetically agreeable to almost any time and place for long stretches, to Modernism’s advantage: making abstract remarks on matter and form, for instance, can lend an air of authority to any artistic enterprise; the more abstract the criticism, however, the more likely it is to be fraudulent.  Bad poems, as well as good, have form and content doing the same thing, have rhythm, have ordering systems, etc etc.  But the real test is when we observe the art itself.  One can make a critical laundry list of aesthetic characteristics shared by a masterpiece and a pile of garbage: the dishonest critic can make anything sound good.

We now reach the middle of the chapter where Dewey begins to show his true modernist colors:

Some of the traits mentioned are more often referred to technique than to form. The attribution is correct whenever the qualities in question are referred to the artist rather than to his work. There is a technique that obtrudes, like the flourishes of a writing master. If skill and economy suggest their author, they take us away from the work itself.

Here Dewey frowns upon the individuality of an artist—what else but the input of a unique human could make a work interesting?  His objection is icy and stern.

And here is where his obsession with “experience” begins to betray him; Dewey assumes radical changes in “experience” throughout the ages; should an artist assume we “experience” all sorts of things our ancestors never could?

Significant advances in technique occur, therefore, in connection with efforts to solve problems that are not technical but that grow out of the need for new modes of experience.

Which leads him to this, which really jumped out at us:

If we take the developments in the major techniques of painting during and since the Renaissance we find that they were connected with efforts to solve problems that grew out of the experience expressed in painting and not out of the craftsmanship of the painting itself.

This is nuts.  We should ignore “the craftsmanship of the painting itself” (think of the craftsmanship of the old masters!) and focus on “experience expressed?”  The vague term, “experience,” has now carried Dewey away.  The great painters of the Renaissance did not pay attention to “the painting itself,” but rather to “experience” that had to be “expressed.”  This begs the question: do we “experience” the craftsmanship of painting itself?  Most certainly we do.  So what, exactly, does Dewey mean, then?  “Experiences” of love and war drove great painting?  “Experiences” of religious devotion?  Dewey never defines these “experiences;” he merely uses the term “experience” to diminish the importance of “craftsmanship” by Renaissance artists, a highly suspicious ploy by a modernist critic.  It is nice to think of Michelangelo, by the use of pure will, transforming his “experiences” into great art.  But we don’t think this is what happened.

There was first the problem of transition from depiction of contours in flat-like mosaics to “three-dimensional” presentations. Until experience expanded to demand expression of something more than decorative renderings of religious themes determined by ecclesiastic fiat there was nothing to motivate this change: In its own place, the convention of “flat” painting is just as good as any other convention, as Chinese rendering of perspective is as perfect in one way as that of Western painting in another. The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art. Something of the same sort applies to the next great change, mastery of means for rendering aerial perspective and light. The third great technical change was the use by the Venetians of color to effect what other schools, especially the Florentine, had accomplished by means of the sculpturesque line—a change indicative of a vast secularization of values with its demand for the glorification of the sumptuous and suave in experience.

Look how often he uses the word “experience.”

This claim is foolish and cannot be proven: “The force that brought about the change in technique was the growth of naturalism in experience outside of art.” What can “growth of naturalism in experience” possibly mean?  As Shakespeare wrote, “Perspective is great painter’s art.”   Surely “perspective” is not put into painting because of a “growth of naturalism,” unless we assume that technique in painting is just an expression of “naturalism,” and in that case, we are not saying anything at all, except to add significance to certain words: experience, naturalism, etc.  And then it becomes the critic’s business to define more rigorously terms such as “experience” and “naturalism,” which finally bankrupts what the “naturalist” critic was trying to say in the first place.

Worse, for Dewey, is that he claims the second great technical change after “three-dimensional presentation” was “rendering aerial perspective and light,” but if he had studied Da Vinci, he would know that light is crucial for “three-dimensionality.”  Art history has this flaw, that it needs to show “advances” in definite historical “stages,” when this only distorts the truth produced by the Renaissance masters.

“The convention of ‘flat’ painting is just as good as any other.”  But then Dewey writes, in a harsh manner, “Thus in the later seventeenth century, the treatment of dramatic movement characteristic of Titian and still more of Tintoretto, by means chiefly of light and shade, is exaggerated to the point of the theatrical. In Guercino, Caravaggio, Feti, Carracci, Ribera, the attempt to depict movement dramatically results in posed tableaux and defeats itself.”

A Modernist can manage abstract theorizing, but whenever they talk history, whenever they start talking about real works from the past, their judgements fly apart.

Given the Modernist agenda, this is not surprising.

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