Of Time and the Artist
Let's begin with "America in the Age of Confidence" and use as our guide the corresponding chapter of the very handsome catalogue Haskell has compiled for this occasion. It shows, as Art, paintings, sculptures and--what might have been heavily contested at the time--photographs. Whether photography falls within the scope of Art was an internal critical problem then, with one influential answer being that photographs are art when they look like paintings. But even photography's most energetic enthusiasts would have drawn a distinction between artistic photographs and vernacular, utilitarian photographs. The "working photographs" would presumably belong to Culture. Punctuating Haskell's text on the historical development of art from 1900 to 1919 are a number of sidebars that address further aspects of Culture: the decorative arts, illustration, dance, arts and crafts, urbanism, vaudeville, early film, popular music, politics and theater. With the exception of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who, until Charlie Chaplin, was the American artist most admired outside the United States, it might be more on the basis of Culture than of Art that the twentieth century can be considered the American Century. American popular culture so infuses the consciousness of the world that everyone, however anti-American in politics or attitude, is more or less deeply American in culture.
Displaying Art, especially from before 1950, is conveniently easy. One hangs the pictures next to one another on the walls and places sculptures where they can participate in "dialogues" with one another and with the pictures. For obvious reasons, displaying Culture is a less settled matter, though the technologies available to contemporary museums allow facilities for showing film clips and playing snatches of music. Beyond that, of course, there are photographs of vaudevillians--actors and actresses and dancers--as well as of important architectural and urban sites. These would be working photographs--they show us things that cannot themselves be shown within standard museum spaces, certainly not in any permanent way. So it is a simple enough matter to distinguish Art from Culture. The paintings are paradigmatically Art. If audiovisual technologies are required to show something, it belongs, roughly, to Culture. So Tiffany lamps might be considered Art, since we can show examples and not just photographic reproductions of them. We can also show handsomely designed coffeepots and vacuum cleaners, as MoMA began to do decades ago. But most of Culture is displayable mainly through secondary means, like photographs of performances, posters, playbills and the like.
I must admit to a certain paranoia when I encounter the word "Art" in conjunction with "Culture." It echoes those earlier exercises in cultural criticism, epitomized by Greenberg's "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," Dwight Macdonald's parallel division between popular and high art and comparable exclusionary schematisms that gave such comfort to midcentury US intellectuals. The exclusionary spirit erupts in anger and resentment whenever an inclusionary effort is made--witness the critical frenzy unleashed by the great MoMA exhibition "High & Low" of 1990, in which the effort was made to demonstrate how art and popular culture were connected under Modernism. My overall attitude is: Why not treat all the sidebar material as Art, instead of separating it by virtue of the "Art & Culture" formula? What US intellectuals resented in popular art was that it could be enjoyed by people who had not undergone a quasi-priestly preparation in learning about history and critical canons. That such art could be so enjoyed was considered a mark against it. But it should not be counted as a mark against popular art that it is popular, as if "popular" were a disabling critical criterion. Chaplin's or Hitchcock's films were both, as were magazine covers in their golden age and much else dismissed as kitsch. The distinction between good and bad art cuts across the distinction between Art and Culture.
Once we reclassify Culture as Art, we are no longer obliged to ask what the relationship is between objects of Art and of Culture or what knowing about Culture helps to explain about Art. If Culture is already Art, then it no more provides a context within which Art is to be understood than painting provides a context within which vaudeville is to be understood. And one of the educational hopes for such exhibitions drops out of the picture. Painting and vaudeville just happened to be going on at the same time, the latter occasionally furnishing content for the former, as in some of the Ashcan School painters or in Reginald Marsh or Edward Hopper. One of my cherished possessions is a theatrical photograph of my uncle Will Aubrey--"The Bard of the Byways" on the Keith-Orpheum circuit. I cannot imagine, however, that it helps one bit in understanding the painting being done in the last years of American vaudeville--though the schematism for showing a singer accompanying himself on the guitar may have been a commonplace since Manet.
There is another way to think of the matter. This is to treat art as culture. That means, of course, treating high as well as low art as indexes of and openings into the American mentalité at a given moment. Here are their songs, their dances; this is what they wore; these were the pictures they looked at; this is how they lived. From this perspective, there is nothing to choose between paintings and MetroCards or $5 bills or IRS 1040 forms or lottery tickets. These all help to open the American spirit up for cultural analysis. Inferring from cultural object to cultural spirit belongs to the methodology of the so-called human sciences, on which so many of the fundamental practices of art history are based. By treating art as culture in this way, the whole exhibition becomes an educational tool. It instructs us about changes in American mentality, 1900 to 1950. The show's billboards around town, reproducing Grant Wood's American Gothic, enjoin us to "make some sense of America." Does American art really lend itself to that?
Hegel wrote that in art the spirit appears made sensuous. But he believed that art belongs not only to what he termed "objective spirit"--to the cultural beliefs and attitudes a people more or less shares for a period of time--but also to what he called (forgive me) "Absolute Spirit." It expresses or is capable of expressing, through sensuous means, the highest truths of philosophy or theology. It is not a simple matter to integrate these two dimensions of Art, even when we construe the latter to include so much of what this exhibition defines as Culture. Art criticism belongs to art considered in Absolute terms, in which we seek to determine what it is about and how it transmits its meaning. On the other hand, art criticism has nothing much to do with Art as an expression of objective spirit. But we can instead, through the art, practice a kind of cultural criticism. It will be recognized that much of art scholarship, including much of what is designated as the "New Art History," is cultural criticism in this sense. Choosing how to have themselves portrayed tells us something about Americans, whatever the artistic merits of the portraits themselves.
There is no reason we should not see art in both ways, though the two kinds of criticism usually take us in opposite directions. This is the problem raised by exhibitions of this sort, and it means that experiencing such shows involves what we may call bifocal adjustments at every step. Making sense of America, however, had better be only part of what we emerge with, if there is any point at all in exhibiting American art. But even when restricted to that purpose, I am unsure how far America's art brings American culture within our reach. The huge success of American popular culture, for just the reason that it is so successful globally, tells us only what global culture is like, since everyone listens to the songs and sees the movies and wears the jeans and running shoes. Even when expanded to cover popular art, however, art is too restricted a sector of American culture to make much sense of it. Like the boundaries of a century, the boundaries of a nation serve poorly to exhibit the latter's spirit when that spirit is the result of so much that takes place outside them, as happened with Modernism. Had my ride downtown with Rabi continued, he might have made a parallel point about American science.