1. Art in America

To many Americans the arts have always seemed to have little connection with everyday life. Architecture, painting, literature, and the other arts have been regarded as rather remote things, vaguely foreign, no direct concern of ours. As a people we have been proud of American civilization and of its political and social institutions, but we have been less confident about our performance in the arts. There have been many respected American architects, painters, and poets, to be sure, but their total achievement, regarded from the conventional critical and historical points of view, has appeared to be only a somewhat crude dispersal of the western European tradition. There are, for example, still a good many institutions in our educational system where American art and literature are regarded as mere appendages to other-and, on the whole, weightier- matters.

Most historical and critical studies of the development of the arts in America have been based on some variant of John Fiske's theory of "the transit of civilization." Culture, the theory goes, is brought here from Europe by "car- riers"-artists, writers, and musicians who migrate to this country from the Old World or natives who return after studying abroad. Thus American culture is regarded as an extension of western European culture, subject only to cer- tain influences often thought of as more or less regrettable -inherent in the American environment. The principal cramping or limiting influences to which culture has been subjected in America, according to this theory, have been the lack of leisure among a people en- gaged in conquering the wilderness, the gross materialism fostered by the frontier and by industrial capitalism, and the reputed anti-aesthetic bias of our Puritan intellectual inheritance. What is more, all three of these influences have been pictured as interacting with one another in a diabolic circle: Puritanism encouraging (if it did not actually breed) materialism, the frontier strengthening both, and everything conspiring to make leisure impossible.

Yet if we accept the view that American art is an integral part of a western European tradition which, in spite of national variants, is essentially a unity, we inevitably encounter a problem. On the one hand we find that although all the trends and movements and fashions of European art may be traced in work done by Americans, there is nevertheless a quality in the total sum of our painting, our architecture, our music, or our literature which is distinct from the comparative unity of tradition among the arts in the various countries of Europe. As Henry James noted, without enthusiasm, in the book which sums up the impressions he received during a visit to the United States after living abroad for almost a quarter of a century, the way things were done in America was "more different from all other native ways, taking country with country, than any of these latter are different from each other."

On the other hand, however, it is frequently said that in spite of this distinctively American element the arts have been inadequately representative of our national character. In one way or another almost everyone, native or foreign, who has commented on our artistic history has borne witness to the disparity between our achievements in the arts and in the realms of politics, economics, and social organization. That is what Jay B. Hubbell meant when he said that our literature "has always been less American than our history"-an observation that might be applied with equal force to any of our fine arts. For, as Stuart Sherman once summed the matter up, the national genius has never expressed itself "as adequately, as nobly, in music, painting, and literature, as it has, on the whole, in the great political crises." And thus the theory of a transplanted culture leads us at last to the paradoxical conclusion that though art in America is American it is singularly less so than the acts and institutions which embody our history. Fruitful as the study of the interrelationship between American and European art can be, therefore, it clearly must abandon the theory that one is merely a maimed offshoot of the other. There is obviously something left out of our concept of the arts if they are unrepresentative of the civilization which produced them; for it is in the arts that a civilization most compactly and fully expresses itself.

This book attempts to show that what has been left out is a tradition which was developed by people "who didn't know anything about art" but who had to deal with the materials of a new and unprecedented environment-a tradition which not only modified ,and obstructed the traditions carried over from western Europe but which contributed directly, as we shall see, to the evolution of new forms of artistic expression.

Men everywhere and at all times instinctively seek to arrange the elements of their environment in patterns of sounds, shapes, colors, and ideas which are aesthetically satisfying, and it is this instinct which underlies the creation of techniques and forms in which the creative imagination of the artist finds expression. In a given culture, such as that of western Europe, certain of these techniques and forms are more relevant than others to the life of the people, and from time to time these become institutionalized as schools of painting and sculpture, orders or styles of architecture, and types of music and literature. As long, therefore, as we are discussing a single, comparatively unified culture like that of western Europe from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, it is the tradition composed of these dominant techniques and forms which we have in mind when we talk about the arts. But in another culture, in a different kind of civilization, quite different forms and techniques might be in the ascendancy, and some of the arts which were most highly developed in western Europe might be relatively unimportant. The criteria of historical and critical judgments appropriate to the products of the western European tradition would not be adequate to the understanding or appreciation of an art produced in a different tradition. The capacity to enjoy and understand the music of Beethoven or Mozart, for example, is rooted in attitudes and sensibilities which provide little or no basis for an understanding or appreciation of the music of southern Asia.

So much is pretty obvious. Yet for a hundred and fifty years the historians and critics of American culture have, in effect, been applying the established western European criteria of value to the products of a civilization which has had less and less in common with that which produced the forms and techniques from which those criteria were deduced. To the cultural achievements, and specifically to the arts, of a civilization whose dynamics originate in technology and science, they have sought to apply the standards which were appropriate to those of civilizations founded upon agriculture or handicraft commerce.

The civilization which took form in the United States during the first century after the Declaration of Independence was, more than that of any European nation, the unalloyed product of those forces which throughout the world were creating what Charles Beard calls "technological civilization": that is, a civilization founded on powerdriven machinery which indefinitely multiplies the capacity for producing goods, and upheld and served by science in all its branches. At most this civilization is two hundred years old, and there has never before been any order comparable to it.

Many people, including a good many historians, like to think of the United States as having been a nation of farmers and handicrafters, relatively untouched by the socalled Industrial Revolution, during a great part of its formative period. And it is, of course, true that until about the time of the Civil War the nation's economy was predominantly based upon agriculture. But it is easy to overestimate the agrarian aspects of our early history, and it is well to be reminded that in significant respects our civi- lization has from the beginning been dependent upon technology

The least mechanized of all aspects of our society-the lives of men and women on the advancing frontier-depended upon the machine- made rifles and revolvers which enabled the pioneers to kill game and outfight the Indians, upon the steamboats and railroads which opened up new country for settlement, and upon the telegraph which made rapid intercommunication possible. It was technological civilization which made it possible for our people to conquer the wilderness and which ultimately built all our continental diversities into what the Civil War made clear was an indisseverable union. And as this civilization spread westward across the New World it was free, in a way that it could not have been free in any European country, to develop with relatively little interference from the habits of mind and social conventions which had been developed in earlier civilizations, and which, like the artistic monuments they had created, persisted in Europe.

It is this fact which gives special significance to the study of American arts. As this book tries to make clear, it is not primarily because they are American that they are worth our notice. Their importance lies in the fact that because they are American, and because America is-for a number of fortuitous reasons-the only major world power to have taken form as a cultural unit in the period when technological civilization was spreading throughout the world- because of both these facts the arts in America reveal, more clearly on the whole than the arts of any other people, the nature and the meaning of modern civilization.

In other words, as the subtitle of this book is intended to suggest, we shall be concerned in the following pages with what has happened and is happening to the arts in modern civilization. We shall note the effects of democracy and technology upon the older arts inherited from the past, and we shall observe the development of new art forms growing directly out of the new civilization's interests and techniques.

Both democracy and technology have, of course, been at work in Europe and Asia and the other Americas, as well as here-though not always collaborating with one another. What we call modern civilization is on the way to being global in a sense that no earlier civilization ever was. But it is, I think, fair to say that in America, and specifically in the United States, democracy and technology-the chief shaping forces of modern civilization-have for good or ill had the longest relatively uninhibited domination. As a matter of fact, with the Declaration of Independence there had been an abrupt and rapid orientation of the American environment away from the cultural heritage of Europe. As democratic political ideals evolved in practice and as technological civilization developed, the social environment became increasingly unlike that which had produced the western European patterns. The need for appropriate new patterns became increasingly acute.

Many Americans were aware of the need for new forms -for what they called a national literature, or art, or architecture. At first they tended to think in such nationalistic terms for the obvious reason that nationalism stood foremost in the consciousness of a people who had just fought a war for political independence. The answer to our needs seemed to many to be simply that we produce American versions of Shakespeare and paint pictures the way the European masters did-but of American subjects. Many of our early writers, on the other hand, began with a youthful determination to "forget Europe wholly," as James Russell Lowell urged in A Fable for Critics, and to write of native matters only, shaping their literature to the scale of the vast new continent, just as many painters like Bierstadt tried to develop an appropriate American art by simply increasing the size of their canvases. But they soon discovered that they could not forget Europe, and most of them found that they really didn't want to. The comfortable thing to do, then, was to relax into something ap proximating Longfellow's ultimate assumption that since Americans were really only "English under another sky" our literature needn't be expected to differ much from theirs. Of course, he added, the English stock in America was being mixed with other nationalities, and our English thoughts and feelings would therefore be tempered by German "tenderness," Spanish "passion," and French "vivacity." But he obviously assumed that we would remain essentially English, and that all that the writer and artist need do was carry on the old traditions. After all, he concluded, "all literature, as well as all art, is the result of culture and intellectual refinement."

Lowell stuck with the problem more tenaciously than that. "It is all idle to say, that we are Englishmen," he wrote in 1854, because "we only possess their history through our minds, and not by life-long association with a spot and an idea we call England. History without the soil it grew in is more instructive than inspiring." But in everything that concerned art it seemed to Lowell that the Europeans had us at an immense disadvantage, for they were able to absorb cultural influences through their pores, as it were, from the whole atmosphere that surrounded them, while it required "weary years" for Americans to acquire these things from books and art galleries. The only good which might come of all this, he added rather lamely, was that, having been "thrown back wholly on nature," our literature might ultimately have a fresh flavor.

The nearest Lowell ever came to an answer which would prove fruitful to other writers and to himself was in his Bigelow Papers. Defending his use of dialect in these humorous poems and sketches of Yankee character, he declared in the preface to the second series (3.867) that the first postulate of an original literature is that a people should use their language "as if it were a living part of their growth and personality, not as the mere torpid boon of education or inheritance." And in these dialect pieces Lowell did manage to capture some of the life and vigor and originality of native speech. But his formal poetry and essays were not much affected by this excursion into the vernacular; as far as style and manner are concerned, they could as well have been written in Cambridge, England, as in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and one feels that this, after all, was really the goal which Lowell wanted to achieve after the original nationalistic fervor wore off.

The quest for a national tradition in this spurious sense ended inevitably in failure. But all during the early years of the Republic we, and our European critics as well, debated the question of American art as if the problem were one of cultural independence. We argued stoutly that we could achieve it; most of the Europeans who came over here to inspect the strange new Republic argued that we could not. Yet both seemed to feel that beneath the surface manifestations of our society there were the elements of an indigenous culture- something singularly and essentially non-European expressed in our everyday life.

Many of the hundreds of books about America which issued so profusely from the pens of European visitors during the nineteenth century analyzed the non-European quality of our life with surprising keenness. But their authors frequently disliked it. It was alien to them and came as a point-blank challenge to the culture which had shaped their own lives. There were, of course, numbers of visitors who-like Harriet Martineau and Alexander Mackay-liked much of what they found here (and would have liked it wherever they found it); and a good deal of debate was carried on throughout the nineteenth century between our champions and our detractors. But those who had a vested interest in the survival of the ideals and customs of the older culture were frankly apprehensive about the growing influence of American ways. Here too, however, it was in terms of politics that the conflict was expressed. Captain Marryat, the popular English novelist whose Diary in America created a storm of protest among the Americans when it appeared in 1839, frankly announced that it had been his object "to do injury to democracy." And Mrs. Trollope, who emigrated from England to Cincinnati, where she kept a shop in frontier days, professed that her chief purpose in writing the Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) had been to encourage the English people (who had seen enough of technology and tasted enough of democracy to need encouragement in those days of the Reform Bill) "to hold fast by a constitution that insures all the blessings which flow from established habits and solid principles," and to save them from the tumult and degradation incident to "the wild scheme of placing all the power in the hands of the populace."

Both these writers were keen observers of men and affairs, and their books are a vivid record of what they saw and how they felt about it. They saw men living under democratic institutions without the restraints imposed by an established social order, and they detested it. What little they found to praise was mostly confined to the longer-settled regions along the Eastern seaboard, where older English manners and customs had retained the greatest influence and where the "American" phenomena were most effectively diluted.

American people, still acutely aware of the newness of their nation, were eager to read what anyone wrote about them; hundreds of thousands of copies of books similar to Captain Marryat's and Mrs. Trollope's were sold and read in this country. Like other people, Americans don't enjoy being disliked; so the reaction to such attacks was immediate. Those whose cultural environment was least like that of Europe and who had therefore little emotional attachment to the manners and customs which the visitors were defending, turned bitterly against them, scorning their lack of understanding and their injustice, and were confirmed in distrust of the culture which such critics represented It was this attitude, for example, which in 1835 led James Hall, the Cincinnati editor, to praise James K. Paulding on the grounds that his novels were "free from the blight of foreign influence."

Those, on the other hand, who still cherished in their homes furniture brought from the old country, whose education was patterned as closely as possible on that of their English cousins, or whose business or profession kept them in close contact with European society, tended often to react more with shame, or at worst with the anger which springs from shame. To them the long series of European attacks was a stimulus to mend their manners, to ape the ways of the older culture, and to adopt its externals so studiously that in the future they would appear less gross. Here was one of the sources of that development of conflicting traditions within American culture which this book traces.

Both types of response to the travelers' criticisms were unfortunate. Both hastened the already widening split between two divergent streams of national life. As we look at various aspects of our civilization we shall discover, over and over again, tragic evidence of how much it cost those who turned their backs on Europe to lose fruitful contact with the essential humanity embodied in the living masterpieces of Western culture; and just as vividly we shall become conscious of the enervation and sterility which resulted from rootless imitation here, as elsewhere, of longestablished but no longer meaningful modes and surfaces. But it may also become clear that what seemed superficially to be a conflict between Europe and America was in reality quite another thing; that it was in essence only a more clear-cut and high-lighted version of a conflict which also existed within European culture itself.

It was easy, indeed almost inevitable, in nineteenthcentury America to assume that art had little relation to the affairs of everyday life. Anyone familiar with American history will recall how remote Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James found themselves from the predominant concerns of their fellow Americans. But one need not assume -as some people do-that the things which interested Poe and James were of more aesthetic importance or of greater human value than those which preoccupied their countrymen. The world from which they were remote was, after all, the world of Abraham Lincoln.

Actually the chasm between art and everyday life may well prove to have been merely one manifestation of the catastrophic split which cut right through the whole of nineteenth-century society, both here and abroad. The conflict between the new science and the traditional religion produced an apparently unbridgeable gap between what man knew and what he believed. The development of industrial capitalism tended to divorce the production and distribution of goods from the political system, thus forcing men as unregulated economic beings to commit barbarous injustices which as political beings they had to cope with in terms of an inadequate traditional system. And finally, the tradition of western European art, like that of the Church, seemed to be seriously at odds with the social forces emerging chaotically from the Industrial Revolution.

So irreconcilable have art and technology seemed that many who believe in the creative discipline of form still cut themselves off deliberately from important areas of contemporary experience. One of the most influential modern critics holds that such willful isolation is imperative for the artist. Scientific knowledge, according to Mr. I. A. Richards, has made it impossible for us to believe countless poetic statements about God, the universe, and human nature. Furthermore, scientific knowledge, he maintains, is not of a kind upon which we can base an organization of the mind as "fine" (to use his own exceedingly vague term) as that which is based on prescientific thought. The solution which he offers-and which some of our most talented artists and writers have tried to accept-is that we must cut poetic and literary statements "free from belief, and yet retain them in this released state as the main instruments by which we order our attitudes to one another and to the world." 1

For all its pseudo-scientific trappings, this is Victorian sentimentality in modern dress. So long as men persist in ordering their attitudes toward life in harmony with concepts which they merely wish were true, they will face life with emotional insecurity and dread. Only when men reckon with one another and the world in terms which take courageous account of what they know can they face life or death without fear.

Such wistful and perilous withdrawal from reality is evidence of a split between art and everyday life which, to many people, has seemed more complete in our generation than in any other in history. Actually that split, as has already been suggested, and as succeeding chapters try to make clear, is illusory. What we really have to reckon with, at home and abroad, is a conflict between two civilizations-one maturing, the other powerless to die. If in the United States for a century and a half the arts have seemed more strikingly unrepresentative of national life than in the countries of Europe, that is because here the art forms inherited from the older culture have had to cope with the new civilization in its most uninhibited aspects. What we have overlooked is the concomitant fact that in the United States-for that same reason-the new civilization has been freest to evolve its own artistic expression.

It is time we considered the frequently crude but vigorous forms in which the untutored creative instinct sought to pattern the new environment. It is in this unpretentious material that we may find the clearest expression of the vital impulses upon which the future of modern civilization depends.


1 One of the bluntest expressions of this point of view, in this instance with Marxist overtones, was contained in Kenneth Burke's demand, in Counter-Statement (1931), "that the aesthetic ally itself with a Program which might be definedroughly as a modernized version of the earlier bourgeoisBohemian conflict." That program, designed to combat the "practical" values which the economic system imposes upon our society, should foster the following qualities: "inefficiency, indolence, dissipation, vacillation, mockery, distrust, `hypochondria', nonconformity, bad sportsmanship. Mr. Burke did not defend these qualities as either admirable or "good" in themselves, but he urged adoption of the total attitude they reflect "because it could never triumph." Return

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