Online Books by Questia Media America,
Modern Art in America
Book by Martha Candler Cheney; Whittlesey House, 1939
THIS BOOK is an attempt to separate some of the influences that have been active throughout the present century in the production of an American art based upon American life by artists who are now able to give their work independent aesthetic significance. It is offered to that part of the public for which this art appears surrounded by confusions. One of its intentions is to emphasize the importance of the individual artist; and insofar as possible, the material is presented in terms of contemporary work, with regard for the points of view of the individuals who have produced it.
The artist is first a craftsman who colors or cuts or models according to the slow-changing traditions of crafts that are hundreds of years old. He can learn to work expertly in his craft, as in any other, given the intelligence and the character to serve his apprenticeship. But he is also a product of his age. Because gifted with exceptional sensibility he is able to make a record of the sentiments and the ideals of his time, and to summarize changes going on in human affairs. He is often able to share a sense of beauty and, at a time of transition such as the present, to suggest aspects of life that are of more permanent worth than the dominant scientific materialism. Not that he voluntarily, or even consciously, assumes the role of seer or dialectician. Notoriously, in past art, the meaning of his work has been clear only subsequently, and after much new history has been made. This American painting and sculpture took its rise in revolt. All new European art of the past hundred and fifty years has been produced under the urge to return to sources: sources in history, sources in craft traditions, sources in human nature (whether the fresh springs of creativeness in primitive society or the flowerings that have distinguished successive eras of cultural progress). This urge has arisen in dissatisfaction with decadent academic art and in efforts to supersede it. Americans at the beginning of the century felt this spirit, but there was also a spreading American revolt against European influences of every contemporary kind in favor of a native and independent expression.
A World War, an American economic depression of world consequences and still recurrent social and human crises, have had their effects upon the character of this art. Less obvious processes in the national life, meantime, have operated to give it a deep-rooted, indigenous character. Permanent policies for the use of art by Americans in public places and the beginning of public sentiment for permanent recognition of the artist in the social structure, conditioned upon the quality of his work, have arisen together to suggest a final representative Americanness in the creative fields of the fine arts. An autonomous position has been given American painting and sculpture in the international scene, meantime, not through efforts of a narrow-minded nationalist character so much as through circumstances in international life, that is, that active art production has been slowed down in Europe by political events. Revolutionary aesthetic doctrines have conditioned this development both at the surface where the controversies have raged and in deep and fundamental ways. There is something in the American temperament which rejects theories about art, with considerable violence. The controversies that raged over Cubism have still not lost their bitterness even among people who rarely go to exhibitions and who familiarly confuse cosmetics advertisements with the fine arts. But meantime there were only a small number of individuals in the country who explored the movement with sufficient thoroughness to be able to grasp the logic inherent in it, to relate it to antecedent influences in traditional art, and to feel it as a creative potentiality in their own work. The leading Cubists themselves have tended to recede...
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