The many masks of modern art

The influence of dogma in American art I can remember walking into John Steuart Curry's Madison, Wisconsin, studio around 1940 and seeing his large and recently complted oil study of "John Brown" on a low vessel.

I remember most vividly how proud he was of his accomplishments in breaking new ground for American art with his painting "Baptism in Kansas," which the critics claimed had brought art back to American soil. Not that he was the least bit arrogant about it. It was just that it was taken for granted by a large segment of the American public that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood had arrived at the style and the point of view which would finally guarantee the future greatness of American art.

But that was not to be. Within a few short years Curry and Wood were gone, and Benton was left to fight the good fight all by himself. Regionalism, the art movement which believed that American art could only truly be art if it represented the face and the manners of America and which had seemed like the grand beginning of something new, had turned out to be the last brave flickering of something old.

By 1950 the American art world had changed dramatically. With the American Scene movement and Midwestern Regionalism discredited, and with European post- World War II art incapable of immediately regaining its prewar prominence, New York became the art capital of the world. To be more precise, it began to resemble medieval Rome insofar as it rapidly became not only the seat of artistic power and influence but also the seat of dogma for that all-powerful movement known as Abstract- Expressionism.

For sheer arrogance of attitude in matters pertaining to art, and for pure dogmatic self-assurance on issues of creative theory, I doubt that there has ever been another period like 1952-58 in American art. The "truth" about art was finally known -- and whole generations of figurative and old-line nonobjective painters became nonpersons as far as the art world was concerned. Careers ended abruptly or were thwarted, and for no other reason than that the artists concerned were content to continue painting as they always had. Even such major and recently acknowledged figures as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield were put into limbo or became little more than this country's tolerated but token representational painters.

In one sense, this housecleaning was a good thing, because it removed from our museums some of the worst paintings this country has ever seen. (I'm not speaking categorically here about any movement or tradition, but of individual artists of various stylistic persuasions whose work simply didn't measure up.) On the other hand -- and this far outweighed its benefits -- this arrogant housecleaning proceeded to contaminate a great deal of what art and its creation was all about.

One began to get the distinct impression in the late '50s that conformity to the prevailing style or styles was all that mattered in art, and that the only reason artists painted or sculpted was to be accredited as true believers. An art career, or anyone hoping to be taken seriously, became as precarious a matter as tightrope walking: one slip, one error in judgment, one word of appreciation for an artist condemned to professional oblivion, and the aspiring artist could be disgraced and his future work ignored.

The three or four important art magazines became the actual source of creative and career information for thousands of young artists throughout the country. A teen-age painter might learn how to stretch canvas and how to mix paint from an art instructor in his local art school, but he learned from his favorite art magazines the really important things such as: which were the recognized galleries, which dealers had the most influence, which art writers were willing to look at art in studios, which collectors were beginning to support which new movements, and which art words were "in" and which were "out."

One could drop into any art school in San Francisco, Seattle or Madison, Wisconsin, and hear exactly the same art patter, the same secondhand and recently read ideas, and the same notion that all that mattered was to have a Whitney or a Modern Museum exhibition by the time one was 35.

Doing the correctm thing rather than the rightm thing became the order of the day. A young artist quickly learned to attune himself to what the highly sophisticated and easily bored art world wanted, or learned to exist as a nonperson as far as that art world was concerned.

From 1956 on I watched generation after generation of talented youngsters stampeding into New York to exchange their special uniqueness for the increasingly empty and shrill manifestations or orthodox and peer approval. It was, to put it mildly, a depressing sight.

But then, around 1976, things slowly began to change. A measure of good sense -- even an element of fun -- began to return to the art world. The trend-watchers decried it as a return to rampant eclecticism, as a betrayal of noble ideals, as evidence of creative decay and cultural mediocrity.

What disturbed them then, and now, is the absence, after almost 50 years, of the bandwagon mentality that dominated our country's art from the time that Curr , Benton, and Wood led us to believe that future artistic greatness was finally assured. To that generation, this style or movement or philosophy had found its truth -- that we must all climb aboard the bandwagon or be left behind.

I think -- I certainly hope -- that we have left this simplistic notion of art behind us once and for all. And that we can continue to go down New York's Madison Avenue (as I did yesterday), across 57th Street, and throughout SoHo and NoHo, and see an endless variety of art. The quality is seldom first-rate, but was it ever? Who says quality must come from conformity to an ideal and not from within the artist's special uniqueness?

For the first time in my memory, American art is not dominated by one or another set of powerful leaders, by all-powerful trend-setters, or by clearly defined and closely observed rules and dogmas on the true nature of art. For once we seem to understand that, while a master artist can inspire, agitate, and help a youngster to find himself, he cannot pass on to him through word or dogma what the secret or art is, for the simple reason that neither he nor anyone else really knows.

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