Art Becomes Enigma

ALONG WITH LANGUAGE and the higher learning, art too took on a remarkably popular character. And what had been a domain of patrons, of men of wealth and family, became Something for Everybody. At the same time that art became more accessible than ever to the common citizen, and aimed more and more to appeal to him, he became less certain than ever whether what he saw really was art, and if that wasn’t art, what really was. Art, and especially painting, once the realm of definite rules and categories, the abode of unquestioned beauty, where the real thing was certified and authenticated by Academies and by the generations, in modern America became a world of novelties and puzzles.

DURING THE EARLY COLONIAL PERIOD, in America, as in England, “artist” had meant a person skilled in any “art”—whether one of the liberal arts presided over by the Muses (i.e., history, poetry, comedy, tragedy, music, dancing, or astronomy) or, more usually, one of the manual arts. Thus a colonist could complain of the lack of “artists of all classes, especially smiths, carpenters and joiners, brick masons and layers, painters and glaziers.” Beginning in the eighteenth century, “artist” came to mean primarily one who practiced the arts of design, “one who seeks to express the beautiful in visible form,” and soon the word designated more specifically a person who cultivated the art of painting as a profession. When the American Republic was founded, and for nearly a century thereafter, an “artist” was commonly someone pursuing and embodying the community’s traditional notions of beauty.

The rise of the painter from craftsman to artist was marked by the creation of Academies which were citadels of tradition and which guaranteed the respectability of the most successful painters. In 1768 the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in London under the patronage of King George III, with a limited membership of forty. “I would chiefly recommend,” Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy’s first president, urged in his inaugural address, “that an implicit obedience to the Rules of Art, as established by the practice of the great Masters, should be exacted from the young Students. That those models, which have passed through the approbation of ages, should be considered by them as perfect and infallible guides; as subjects for their imitation, not their criticism.”

This traditional character of painting and the tradition-perpetuating role of the painter were widely accepted. Reynolds himself assigned the highest rank to History Painting. When the colonial American painter Benjamin West arrived in London and was made a charter member of the Royal Academy, George III’s accolade took the form of appointing him Historical Painter to the King, and West then succeeded Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy. Gilbert Stuart, an American pupil of West’s, exhibited his early works at the Royal Academy in 1781. The most prosperous and widely praised artists on both sides of the Atlantic painted the portraits of aristocrats and famous personages, and depicted grand historical scenes.

During most of the nineteenth century, painting in America, with a few exceptions, played this role which had been created for it in the Old World. Here, too, portrait painting and history painting were the most respectable. And to these were added some characteristically American subjects: nature in America by Mark Catesby, William Bartram, Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, and others; the grandeur of the American continent, by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran; Indian life by George Catlin; campaigning, voting, and the scenes of great congressional debates by Samuel F. B. Morse, George P. A. Healy, Currier and Ives, and others. The currents of European romanticism and neoclassicism ran strong on this side of the water, appearing in the canvases of Washington Allston, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and their fellows of the Hudson River School.

ON THE WHOLE, the fine arts in the United States had been the least American of the expressions of this transatlantic civilization. Wealthy American collectors and the patrons of American painting knew the European academies and museums; their notions of art, and of beauty in the fine arts, were shaped by the Old Masters whom Sir Joshua Reynolds and his followers had worshiped. It was in a studio in Florence that Horatio Greenough (sometimes called the first American professional sculptor) spent eight years chiseling the statue of George Washington which had been commissioned by the Congress and was finally placed in the Capitol in 1843, and he depicted the nation’s hero in the undress of a Greek god. At the end of the nineteenth century the leading American painter of the rich and the famous, John Singer Sargent, who had been born in Florence, had studied in Italy, France, and Germany, then made his headquarters in London, and was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1897. Between the 1880’s and the early decades of the twentieth century, an American, J. P. Morgan, was a leading patron of artists in England. Wealthy Americans, from Newport, Rhode Island, to San Marino, California, were building replicas of English manor houses, French châteaux, and Rhineland castles, and then stuffing them with antiques and Old Masters. Observers from abroad, like the Irish poet Mary Colum, described that as “intellectually America’s most colonial period.” But in the era of Mark Twain and William James, she would have been more accurate if she had limited her strictures to the fine arts.

Against the flamboyant and extravagant cultural colonialism which American Croesuses could afford to indulge, some American movements in art were beginning to take form. “America has yet morally and artistically originated nothing,” Walt Whitman lamented in Democratic Vistas (1871). “She seems singularly unaware that the models of persons, books, manners, etc., appropriate for former conditions and for European lands are but exiles and exotics here.” The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 proudly displayed American industrial achievement, but reminded some Americans of how far the nation still had to go. In 1884 the young Henry Cabot Lodge, in his “Colonialism in the United States,” observed that the increasing American wealth had not yet stifled that sterile “colonial” spirit:

The luxurious fancies which were born of increased wealth, and the intellectual tastes which were developed by the advance of higher education, and to which an old civilization offers peculiar advantages and attractions, combined to breed in many persons a love of foreign life and foreign manners. These tendencies and opportunities have revived the dying spirit of colonialism. We see it most strongly in the leisure class, which is gradually increasing in this country…. men and women of talent going abroad to study art and remaining there…. a wilderness of over-educated and denationalized Americans who are painting pictures and carving statues and writing music in Europe or in the United States, in the spirit of colonists, and bowed down by a wretched dependence…. Sometimes these people become tolerably successful French artists, but their nationality and individuality have departed, and with them originality and force.

Lodge summoned his countrymen to fulfill Herbert Spencer’s prophecy that “the Americans may reasonably look forward to a time when they will have produced a civilization grander than any the world has known.”

THE APOSTLE OF anticolonialism in art was the eloquent Robert Henri. Born in Cincinnati, in the year of Appomattox, Henri had his fill of academy art by studying first at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then in Paris at Bouguereau’s Academy and at the École des Beaux Arts. Returning to the United States, he became spokesman and organizer of an assertive new independence among American artists:

Art is not in pictures alone. Its place is in everything, as much in one thing as another. It is up to the community as a whole, in conduct, business, government and play. We will never have an art in America until this is understood, and when this idea is really understood it will bring us about as near the millennium as we can hope to get….

In this country we have no need of art as a culture, no need of art as a refined and elegant performance; no need of art for poetry’s sake, or any of these things for their own sake. What we do need is art that expresses the spirit of the people of today. What we want is to meet young people who are expressing this spirit and listen to what they have to tell us.

When Henri was named a judge for the 1907 spring exhibition of the eminently respectable National Academy of Design in New York, he was unable to persuade the jury to accept the paintings of his talented young friends George Luks, John Sloan, William Glackens, Rockwell Kent, and Carl Sprinchorn; and the jury slighted two of Henri’s own paintings. He then withdrew all his canvases from the Academy, and organized a show of works by three of the rejected painters and other independents.

In February 1908 the exhibition of “The Eight” opened at Macbeth’s Gallery, then the only New York gallery that showed the works of contemporary American artists. Whatever the academicians thought, The Eight did meet Henri’s prescription to express the life of their time. Four of them were magazine or newspaper illustrators, and they were not a “school,” for they had no common style; but they shared a willingness to paint whatever the artist saw, even if the subject was not “artistic.” Among their conspicuously un-Academic subjects were John Sloan’s “Hairdresser’s Window,” William Glackens’ “The Shoppers,” Everett Shinn’s “Sixth Avenue Elevated After Midnight” and his scenes of the Music Hall stage. Critics objected that their canvases showed a “clashing dissonance” and that the subjects were unpretty. Technically these painters could have been classified simply as “realists,” but the hostile connoisseurs preferred to call them “the Ashcan School.” The connoisseurs had unwittingly gone to the heart of the matter, for in twentieth-century America the artist was to be liberated from traditional expectations: he no longer had to make his work follow the styles of others, nor would he have to offer what was generally recognized as “beauty.”

AMERICAN PAINTERS who had studied in Paris carried back the inspiration of the great European independents. A group of American artists outside the Academies, led by the prosperous Arthur B. Davies, formed a loose organization to bring the gospel of the independent artist to a larger American public. The epoch-making show which they planned on a shoestring and for which they rented the vast 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street in New York City was to be as different as possible from shows seen in the prim salons of the Academies. While this show purported to be international, the non-American works were mostly French, and there many Americans would see for the first time the brilliant canvases of Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.

When the Armory Show opened on February 17, 1913, it offered Americans a novel democratic experience of painting. The catalogue listed 1,112 works by 307 American artists, but more paintings were added after the show opened, and the number exhibited finally came to about 1,600. Since the show aimed to exhibit canvases by the young, the unknown, and the unconventional who would have been ignored or rejected by the Academies, it obviously could not apply usual standards. “It was bedlam,” one of the planners recalled, “but we liked it.” The watchword of the show, borrowed from Henri, was “Independence,” the motto was “The New Spirit,” and the official emblem was the pine-tree flag used by Massachusetts during the American Revolution.

“Art is a sign of life,” the catalogue explained, “There can be no life without change, as there can be no development without change. To be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar, is to be afraid of life…. This exhibition is an indication that the Association of American Painters and Sculptors is against cowardice even when it takes the form of amiable self satisfaction.” Walt Kuhn, a painter who had gone to Europe to collect works for the show, bristled when someone praised him as a better painter than Cézanne; such praise, he said, expressed “the same damned provincial loyalty which has hurt us so long.”

Public attention was snatched by the most novel and unintelligible of the French painters, and especially by the Cubists. The bombshell of the show was Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” which was a sitting duck for old-fashioned critics. “This is not a movement and a principle,” one of them wrote. “It is unadulterated cheek.” The American Art News sponsored a contest to find the nude in the painting, and the winner explained, “It isn’t a lady but only a man.” The cliché joke was that it was “A Staircase Descending a Nude,” while others called it “an explosion in a shingle factory.” But to get to see the picture people had to stand in line.

“The lunatic fringe,” Theodore Roosevelt’s picturesque phrase for the Cubists and Futurists, was repeated with gusto by the critics of the time and by later historians of American art. But Roosevelt himself, in his “Layman’s View” of the Armory Show, had actually praised the New Spirit:

In some ways it is the work of the American painters and sculptors which is of most interest in this collection, and a glance at this work must convince anyone of the real good that is coming out of the new movements, fantastic though many of the developments of these new movements are. There was one note entirely absent from the exhibition, and that was the note of the commonplace. There was not a touch of simpering, self-satisfied conventionality anywhere in the exhibition. Any sculptor or painter who had in him something to express and the power of expressing it found the field open to him.

After a hundred thousand visitors saw the show in New York, it went to Chicago, where outraged students of the Art Institute who could not share Roosevelt’s sympathy for the adventurous spirit burned Matisse in effigy; and then on to Boston. About a quarter-million Americans saw the show.

A symbolic victory for the champions of modern art was won by John Quinn, a prominent lawyer and a member of the Democratic National Committee who had helped the Armory Show. Until then, paintings less than twenty years old, and hence presumably not genuine art, were subject to United States customs duty when they were brought into this country. Quinn testified before the Senate hearings on the tariff that this law was undemocratic because it favored the rich, who alone could afford the high-priced Old Masters. Others, too, he argued, should be allowed to enjoy painting without having to pay a penalty. The Congress agreed and so endorsed the “artistic” quality of the most recent painting.

BUT THE ARTISTS’ new independence of the stuffy Academies would before long lead to a new bafflement and new burdens of judgment for the layman. “There is a state of unrest all over the world in art as in all other things,” declared Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, J. P. Morgan’s handpicked director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, when “The Eight” opened their show. “It is the same in literature, as in music, in painting and in sculpture. And I dislike unrest.”

Some of this unrest was a by-product of the revolutionary and already popular technique of photography. Soon after the Civil War, photographers on both sides of the Atlantic had seen some promise for photography as art, although it was still unclear precisely what that promise might be. The posed studio portraits by Mathew Brady and his followers had brought photography into one of the domains formerly monopolized by painters. Still, the technical limits of wetplate photography and the long exposure time required had strictly limited the photographers’ subjects. Action photography was out of the question, and spontaneity seemed impossible.

But as early as 1887 a pioneer American photographer, the young Alfred Stieglitz, foresaw that photography, more than any earlier art, somehow might be able to capture the moment. Stieglitz, the Hoboken-born son of a German immigrant wool merchant, had gone to the Berlin Polytechnic in 1881 to become a chemical engineer, but he acquired there a passion for photography that shaped his life. Before he was thirty, by taking advantage of technical improvements, including the new dry plate, he demonstrated in a series of photographs how the camera could transcend the old limits. “A Good Joke” showed Italian children surrounding their mother at her household chores; “Sun-Rays” showed a young lady at her sewing; others showed a peasant girl asleep on a pile of kindling wood, villagers at the pump. Stieglitz had joined the new English movement of “Pictorial Photography,” which had seceded from the Royal Photographic Society to establish their own annual salon where they aimed to set an aesthetic standard for photographic artists.

Returning to the United States, Stieglitz became an apostle of Pictorial Photography. His own works included a cabdriver in the snow on Fifth Avenue, a horse trolley preparing to leave from an uptown terminal, and a street scene of immigrants milling outside “Five Points Clothing House: Cheapest Place in the City.” While the photographic technicians still wanted to keep photography technical, simply a device for making the “precise” likenesses needed by newsmen, scientists, and salesmen, Stieglitz championed photography as an art medium that was free to do all sorts of things.

Stieglitz and his friends withdrew from the conservative Camera Club, and at the National Arts Club in New York in 1902 they offered their own exhibition, which they called “Photo-Secession.” From this small beginning Stieglitz became the apostle of liberation in all American art. By the mid-twentieth century, when the United States had become the innovating center of painting in the Western world, Alfred Stieglitz would have played a leading role. While Stieglitz made photography his point of departure, he insisted that all art was emphatically an individual vision. If the photographer could actually make something individual and fresh out of the automatically correct image, then people might see all painting with refreshed eyes, and be ready for individuality there too.

In 1905, when Stieglitz rented three small rooms at 291 Fifth Avenue and christened them “The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession,” at first he showed only photographs. Later, when he began to show drawings and paintings, photographers objected. “The Secession Idea is neither the servant nor the product of a medium,” Stieglitz replied, “it is a spirit. Let us say it is the Spirit of the Lamp; the old and discolored, the too frequently despised, the too often disregarded lamp of honesty; honesty of aim, honesty of self-expression, honesty of revolt against the autocracy of convention.” In 1908 he shocked the New York art world with a show of Rodin watercolors, followed by the first American exhibitions of Matisse (1908), Toulouse-Lautrec (1909), Rousseau (1910), Cézanne (1911), Picabia (1913), Braque (1914), and Severini (1917); he offered an extensive show of Picasso (1911), and gave Brancusi his first one-man show (1914). “291” became famous—“the largest small room in the world.”

In other ways, too, Stieglitz set free the artistic imagination of the American audience. He exhibited the works of untaught children; and he offered the first American show (1914–15) of African sculpture exhibited not as anthropology but as art. Stieglitz was not only showing how photography could help liberate the American’s vision of all art. He was also beginning to say—what would become an American cliché in the late twentieth century—that art might be anything that anybody anywhere produced in his quest for self-expression.

Even before the end of the nineteenth century, photography had begun to deprive painters of their staple, the portrait. Photoengraving was displacing wood engraving, while machine production and countless techniques for making repeatable objects brought chaos to the whole world of handicrafts. Many of the craftsman’s traditional opportunities were disappearing. One result, as the art historian Edgar P. Richardson explains, was that painting became “diluted with talents that did not belong to it…. overwhelmed by a flood of displaced talents.” Painting was now the métier of the “untrained professional.” At first, Americans who could afford to buy original works of art were puzzled that “artists” were no longer painting dead fish and cows beside purling brooks. But they gradually began to think of the artist as simply another American pursuing his own kind of novelty, not so different from the inventor in his laboratory or the Go-Getter in merchandising.

The series of “One-Man Shows” at “291” helped set a new style in the exhibition world and provided Stieglitz his way of offering conspicuous hospitality to the individual with a private vision. As the One-Man Show, in contrast to the Academy Exhibit of a “school” of painting, became the dominant form for introducing works of painters to the public, it helped authenticate the new role of the artist. Stieglitz—and after him numerous other owners of private galleries—found their stock in trade to be not craftsmanship but originality, not tradition but idiosyncrasy.

Of course the idea of a One-Man Show was not new in twentieth-century America, nor was it an American invention. A patron who visited an artist’s studio anywhere would view a private one-man-show of that artist’s work. And in the United States, even a half-century before Stieglitz, there had been a few public showings of the works of only one artist, but it appears that planned public showings of the works of only one artist were rare. When they occurred, as with an exposition of the works of John G. Chapman in 1848, or of the works of J. F. Cropsey in 1856, they merely exhibited conventional academic works, and aimed to show how the particular artist’s work fit into the accepted tradition. Commercial art galleries had dealt almost exclusively in older works, in Old Masters or their imitators, while the Academy salons at any one time customarily showed the works (approved in advance by an eminent jury) of numerous artists in the dominant style. By the early twentieth century, however, the One-Man Show had become the usual format for commercial galleries and was familiar in public museums.

The One-Man Show, by putting the spotlight on the individual artist, aimed to display the range of his originality. While from the artist’s point of view the art world was newly atomized, for the layman the world of art was a new set of puzzles. The gallery visitor, like the supermarket shopper, was thrust back on his own judgment, to decide whether this was good art, or indeed whether it was art at all. But while the consumer in a wilderness of packages was bewildered by the similarities of things, the layman in the world of democratic art was tantalized by the spectacle of unintelligible originality.

THE LAYMAN BEGAN to believe that he was supposed to be puzzled. The sophisticate in art was no longer the connoisseur (of whom Bernard Berenson was the American prototype) who knew all about the schools and traditions and techniques of the Old Masters. The democratized sophisticate was a person who was open to shock but still remained unshockable. He was a man who admired novelty. By the late twentieth century, the alert American was flooded by “art” from new galleries, from new museums of modern art, using novel materials and innovative techniques. Whatever other satisfactions he was securing, he could no longer look to art as his refuge from the flux of experience. Art, the par excellence arena of novelty, taxed the individual judgment. Where could the American find his objects of tradition-guaranteed beauty?

The stage was set for a struggle between older and newer meanings of democracy in art. The champions of novelty were saying that the layman, for the first time, should be allowed to decide for himself without the intervention of Academies, what he liked, and even what was art. “It is not easy to know what you like,” Robert Henri observed. “Most people fool themselves their entire lives through about this.” But the new traditionalists insisted that a truly democratic art was one which the people could understand, and which anybody could recognize as art.

The few strong talents who united in revolt against the new dogma of novelty themselves became a popular school of American painting, and they produced some of the best traditional painting that had yet come from this country. They celebrated the American landscape and everything else that they found characteristically American. Forced home from the Paris Left Bank by the Depression, they were inspired by the New Deal and supported by the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.). And their regional painting, unlike much of the earlier American genre and landscape painting, was not bland and genteel. It was a vigorous search for roots, an outspoken and even vituperative reaction against the New Spirit of Novelty.

The leaders were Thomas Hart Benton (1889-), Grant Wood (1892–1942), and John Steuart Curry (1897–1946). They had all been to Paris, and came back to live in their American hometowns, spiritually as well as physically. Benton made Missouri his base for painting murals of American history, Wood painted Iowa people and places, Curry depicted Kansas. And there were scores of others, less vigorous and less original, who were encouraged by these three and who also painted, in traditional ways the layman could understand, the scenes of all America.

Thomas Hart Benton was the voice of their protest, which resounded louder than their affirmation. In his Artist in America (1968), he explained:

… We were all in revolt against the unhappy effects which the armory show of 1913 had had on American painting. We objected to the new Parisian aesthetics which was more and more turning art away from the living world of active men and women into an academic world of empty pattern. We wanted an American art which was not empty, and we believed that only by turning the formative process of art back again to meaningful subject matter, in our cases specifically American subject matter, could we expect to get one … The coteries of highbrows, of critics, college art professors and museum boys, the tastes of which had been thoroughly conditioned by the new aesthetics of twentieth-century Paris, had sustained themselves in various subsidized ivory towers and kept their grip on the journals of aesthetic opinion. … They had, as a matter of fact, a vested interest in aesthetic obscurity, in highfalutin symbolisms and devious and indistinct meanings. The entertainment of these obscurities, giving an appearance of superior discernment and extraordinary understanding, enabled them to milk the wealthy ladies who went in for art and the college and museum trustees of the country for the means of support…. Wood, Curry and I were bringing American art out into a field where its meanings had to be socially intelligible to justify themselves …

Benton blamed “this anarchic idiocy of the current American art scene” partly on the uncritical importation of foreign ideas of art, but also on “over-intellectualization,” and especially on “the ‘public be damned’ individualism of the last century.” He begged artists to seek “American life as known and felt by ordinary Americans.”

Despite the wide appeal of their individual paintings, these regionalists were fighting a losing battle. More and more “ordinary Americans” could now be reached by the “highfalutin” priests and arbiters of artistic taste. Laymen, increasingly puzzled by what was really meant by art, could feel less uncertain of what they meant by novelty. And they relished its habit-forming delights. Americans had shallower roots; the nation was becoming less a landscape of regions. The local scenes which the Regionalists celebrated were each year becoming less characteristic than ever. A democratic nation of everywhere communities was now measuring its success by its power to erase differences.

Wood and Curry both died discouraged. In 1946, in his last talk with Curry, Benton tried to bolster his friend’s spirits by telling him that he would have a lasting place in American art. “I don’t know about that,” Curry replied, “maybe I’d have done better to stay on the farm. No one seems interested in my pictures. Nobody thinks I can paint. If I am any good, I lived at the wrong time.”

In the struggle between the old Americanism which celebrated the place, and the newer Americanism which celebrated man’s ungovernable reach for novel visions and juxtapositions, the result was not in doubt. The next stage in American painting was as far as possible from a patriotic regionalism.

PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURE was Jackson Pollock (1912–56), whose career was itself a parable of the new dilemmas of art in American democracy. Born in Wyoming and raised in Arizona and California, Pollock lived through many of the vital movements in the painting of his day. He studied with Thomas Hart Benton and worked on Federal Arts Projects before coming to his own version of “Abstract Expressionism,” which, as christened by Harold Rosenberg, came to be called “Action Painting.” Pollock had unwittingly translated John Dewey’s idealization of growth and action into a philosophy of painting. Pollock himself explained:

My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the outstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be inthe painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West.

I continue to get further away from the usual painter’s tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass and other foreign matter added.

When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

Along with Pollock came other originals—Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Morris Graves, and others—each with his own notion of what a painting might be.

In the artists’ world, the world of Academies and “schools” and movements, as the art historian James S. Ackerman has explained, this quest for novelty led to “the Demise of the Avant Garde.” The concept of an avant garde, ahead of and in advance of the culture of its time, was rooted in French romanticism, although it would reach a climax in twentieth-century America. Originally the idea had meant the artist’s freedom to work without worrying about his audience. Then the rise in the United States of a new class of “professional manufacturers of opinion” in the art world, together with the increase in the business of selling paintings (from private galleries to department stores and Sears, Roebuck, which opened a traveling show in the 1960’s), made change a value in itself. The opinion manufacturers, by multiplying museums, by reducing the cost of color reproductions and increasing circulation of “serious” cultural media, turned art into a kaleidoscope.

The innovating painter found his works snapped up by critics, exhibitors, and collectors, who were always in search of the next shocker. “Minimal Art” (which consists of doing little or nothing to an object, but simply considering an object as art) and “Pop Art” (the determination to treat a common object as art) showed the desperation of the late-twentieth-century quest for novelty. Innovation became the condition of survival. The last stage in democratizing the art-flavored experience, as Ackerman observes, was that “there is almost no territory left to conquer on the extreme borderline between art and non-art.”

What did this mean for the naïve layman, for whom art was still a synonym for beauty? With Jackson Pollock and action painting, with the certification of sheer novelty as art, Benton’s “ordinary American” felt puzzled, troubled, and perhaps even deprived.

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