One afternoon in 1985, I rode in a taxi down Broadway with the physicist I.I. Rabi, discussing time and age. Rabi told me he was 88–“as old as the century.” “Rabi,” I murmured, “your computational powers appear to be waning.” He responded sharply: “The twentieth century began with the discovery of the electron by J.J. Thomson, in 1897.” In view of Rabi’s immense scientific contribution–he won the Nobel Prize for his work on nuclear magnetic resonance in molecular beams and trained far more Nobel laureates in physics than anyone else–it was entirely understandable that he should identify his birthdate with that of modern physics. And Rabi chided me for supposing that centuries begin and end on a midnight’s stroke. By the time the twentieth century began, it had, so far as physics is concerned, already begun.
It is irresistible to ask, on parallel grounds, when the twentieth century began in art. Since Modernism is prima facie the defining twentieth-century style, the beginning of twentieth-century art must coincide with the origins of Modernism, however that is to be dated. It had its beginnings in Europe sometime in the nineteenth century, defining itself in opposition to a tradition of pictorial representation dating back to the early Renaissance. According to that tradition, the visual and the picturable must be equivalent–a picture of an object should ideally yield the same experience as the object itself. For that reason, illusion played a central role in theories of visual art almost from the beginning. Modernism, for whatever reason, separated picturability and visuality, so that a picture need no longer look like what it was to represent. There is no specific event associated with this discovery. It was rather something that slowly dawned over the face of European art, possibly having to do with the growing awareness of different representational systems, coming from other cultures, which were free of the optical constraints of traditional Western painting. That would have meant a crisis of cultural confidence we can appreciate when we consider that such art had often been disparaged as “primitive” in relation to the towering European achievements. Some writers, Clement Greenberg for example, claim that Modernism begins with Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, in 1863. The first stage of the massive exhibition to which New York’s Museum of Modern Art will dedicate itself over a span of seventeen months–MoMA 2000–will be titled “Modern Starts” and will cover the years 1880 to 1920. Although the beginning of the twentieth century bisects this period perfectly, should we say that our century began in 1880? Or might Modernism itself have been a nineteenth-century phenomenon, which lived on for about two-thirds of the twentieth century? So that, artistically, we have been in the twenty-first century since perhaps 1964?
Gertrude Stein said, wittily but wrongly, that America is the oldest country in the world, since it was the first to enter the twentieth century. From the perspective of art history, the United States was among the last to enter the new century. In 1905 Matisse and his colleagues earned the label of fauves (wild beasts) at the Salon d’Automne. In 1907 Picasso painted the Demoiselles d’Avignon. A memorial exhibition of Cézanne in that same year sparked a series of radical experiments in modes of representation, which made artistic success increasingly dependent on formal innovation. Futurism began in 1909. Malevich’s Suprematism was invented in 1913. Discounting a handful of prophetic figures in the United States, Modernism exploded into American consciousness in the Armory Show of that year, primarily as an occasion for journalistic hilarity. If we follow Rabi’s principle, the twentieth century in American art began well after the calendar, which he held in such contempt, showed that it had begun.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney opened her studio in 1907 as an exhibition space for young American artists to whom the commercial galleries of the time were closed. Most of what they showed was twentieth-century art by calendrical default, but almost certainly it was not Modernist. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned down Whitney’s offered donation of about 500 US works. From its inception the Whitney was obviously an artist-oriented institution, in contrast with the major art museums of the time, which addressed aesthetic consumers athirst for the beauty and spiritual meaning attributed to the fine arts. It is perhaps in the spirit of its continuing championing of American artists that the Whitney has decided to present as its valediction to this century an extraordinarily ambitious exhibition, “The American Century”–as if those who could not find commercial venues in 1907 had taken over the world, artistically speaking, by century’s end. The title is perhaps excusably triumphalist, but it is hardly sustained by the chronology of American art through the period 1900-50, which Part 1 of the exhibition covers (until August 22). Part 2, 1950-2000, will be in place from September 26 until February 13, 2000. American paintings from the first decade of the 1900s look like society paintings from Paris or London in the 1890s or even earlier. They would make marvelous illustrations for the novels of Henry James. (James, who deeply appreciated painting, extravagantly admired the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and so had an understandably difficult time learning to accept Impressionism, which marked the cusp between traditional and Modernist painting.) It is true that after 1950 New York replaced Paris as the artistic center and that American art swept the world, first with Abstract Expressionism and then with Pop and Minimalism. But the social politics of art had so changed by the sixties that successful American artists simply became members of the international art scene, and Americanness as a concept dropped into obscurity. The Whitney itself has sought ways of getting around the restrictions implied by having “American art” as part of its identity–since its rivals in any case now collect American art with impunity–by organizing exhibitions that reflect the internationalist spirit of the age. The exhibition might better have carried the title “A Century of American Art.” The period bounded by 1900 and 2000 contains artistic transformations that perhaps parallel the discovery of the electron–a particle that, it was recognized by 1927, is radically unpicturable–but the periods into which the present exhibition is divided correspond less to the internal development of art within US borders than to the historical events through which the United States lived, the two world wars and the Depression.
It is a staggeringly rich exhibition that integrates a massive number of objects, selected and organized into a coherent whole by Barbara Haskell. There is, on the other hand, the major question of how so large and diversified an exhibition is to be critically addressed. Critics like to complain that there are few surprises or that certain works from the years the exhibition covers are not included. But even if there were many surprises and all the canonical works were on view, the large question would remain: How are we to address an exhibition on the scale of a century of American art? A few years ago, an important New York museum director declined to put on a proposed show called “The Twentieth Century” on the grounds that we already have, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, as full a selection of twentieth-century art as might be wanted. But an exhibition is something more than a collection of objects, however expansive, and it seems to me that critical attention might better focus on the larger exhibitional structure here, rather than attempt the object-by-object scrutiny with which art criticism is most comfortable. How is one to experience the exhibition on its own terms, whatever objects may catch one’s aesthetic attention or evoke one’s historical memories?
So far as the internal history of art is concerned, 1950 is a good place to pause. Most of the artists who were to define the American presence in the consciousness of the world were already in possession of their signature styles. In 1950 Jackson Pollock painted masterpiece after Modernist masterpiece. Mark Rothko felt that a period in art that might last a thousand years was under way, replacing the period that began with the Renaissance. The future looked reasonably clear. But Abstract Expressionism, for complicated reasons, came to an end a dozen years later–and though art in more or less Modernist styles went on being created after that, as part of the pluralism that has overtaken the art world, that very pluralism makes the future of art after 2000 exceedingly obscure. (These matters will have to be addressed when Part 2 is installed.) Since both parts of the show use the subtitle “Art & Culture,” however, I shall suppose that this conjunction marks the way the organizers of the show intend each part to be experienced and explains why many of its objects have been selected as well as how they have been arranged.
Like the old “theater of memory,” which Renaissance speakers used for mnemonic purposes, the Whitney periodizes the twentieth century with reference to its own architecture. The show begins on the fifth floor with “America in the Age of Confidence” (the overall title, “The American Century,” itself seems an “Age of Confidence” expression). One descends to “Jazz Age America, 1920-1929” on the fourth floor, and, after “America in Crisis, 1930-1939” and “Wartime America, 1940-1945” on the third; the show ends on the second floor with “Postwar America, 1945-1950.” I have no idea how Part 2 will be structured, but it is reasonable to suppose that it will begin with something like “America in the Cold War”–though it is not easy to think of much American painting done in response to that sullen phase of recent history. The spirit of American art after 1950 might be better expressed through Mark Tansey’s allegorical masterpiece of 1984, Triumph of the New York School, which depicts the Americans–in World War II uniforms and led by Clement Greenberg–receiving the surrender of the French, dressed in the uniforms of World War I and led by André Breton. In any case, the show divides, under its general subtitle “Art & Culture,” each of its periods into objects regarded as Art and objects meant to exemplify Culture. So there is an initial question of which is which and a further question of how they are related to each other, other than belonging to the same historical moment.
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.