Unreal Nature

May 26, 2015

To Be Open-Minded

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… criticism begrudged them their independence …

This is from Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry by James M. Dennis (1998):

… All three artists, as panel painters, muralists, and printmakers, shared the democratic urge within Modernism to eliminate the traditional divisions between elite and popular subject matter, the high and the low. They engaged in a form of aesthetic populism called Regionalism. At the same time they were opposed to the closed, deterministic world of nineteenth-century positivism and embraced change and chance, a world of discovery where pluralism counteracted categorization. This was invariably lost on art critics who refused in a modern sense to be open-minded. They insisted on categorizing the three according to what they expected them to produce within a narrowly defined movement.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] They thereby failed to evaluate them for what they individually pursued up and down the ladder of style and subject matter. By maintaining their independence, the “triumvirate” of Regionalism often proved themselves modernists, in line with the definition of modern offered by the culturally grounded sociologist Daniel Bell: “What defines the modern is a sense of openness to change, of detachment from place and time, of social and geographical mobility, and a readiness, if not eagerness, to welcome the new, even at the expense of tradition and the past.”

… Modernism comprises four elements. While they do not materialize in the same way in all three artists, these are the qualities to look for in the complex intersections of their work during the decade or so with which we are concerned: formal order and aesthetic independence, mimetic reflections of social modernization, critical negations of modernization, and the use of myth as a device for ordering the furor or American history.

Benton_hailstorm
Thomas Hart Benton, The Hailstorm

[ … ]

… In his catalogue introduction to the Museum of Modern Art exhibition of cubist and abstract art in the spring of 1936, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was more ambivalent about the elimination of external references in what he termed “pure abstractions” as opposed to “near abstractions.” Somewhat apologetically he wrote: “Such an attitude, of course, involves a great impoverishment of painting, an elimination of a wide range of values, such as the connotations of subject matter, sentimental, documentary, political, sexual, religious; the pleasures of easy recognition; and the enjoyment of technical dexterity in the imitation of material forms and surfaces. But in his art the abstract artist prefers impoverishment to adulteration.”

Judging Wood, Benton, and Curry according to narrow, single-theme expectations, a majority of their critics (admirers as well as detractors) neglected or censured their “near abstractions” of caricatured figures and exaggerated settings in favor of accurately detailed description. Moreover, without thoroughly investigating and recognizing the variety of subjects broached by the three, ranging from personal fantasies to cultural myths, much criticism begrudged them their independence, a core characteristic of Modernism. It was decreed that the leading Regionalists should produce designated Regionalist themes in a direct-realist manner.

-Julie

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