Unreal Nature

August 1, 2017

His Place

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… his ‘place,’ so cherished for its anarchic vitality during the preceding years, turn[ed] overnight into a quiet warren of dying spirits.

This is from The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning by Dore Ashton (1972):

… Even in the twenties, the little towns throughout America usually had at least one piano teacher and often a circle of literary ladies subscribing to newly organized book clubs, but art was taught very rarely in the local high school, and if there were art classes, they were horribly debased. Mechanical drawing, even in the universities, was the nearest approach to art, and it was taught for obvious utilitarian reasons. These extreme conditions sent the determinedly artistic youth fleeing to the few large cities in America where there were usually a few art schools and some pretensions to visual culture.

[line break added] Most often, the would-be artist tried to get to New York, where a school such as the Art Students’ League, with its open system allowing the student to choose his instructor, promised a grand initiation to sophisticated life. But even New York had its artistic limitations in terms of an audience. Murdock Pemberton, recalling his years in the twenties as arty critic for The New Yorker, sarcastically outlined the taste of the time: ‘Of course there was a national fondness for art expressed in the annual feed and coalyard calendar and the Maxfield Parrish boy on the swing.’

… Whatever artistic milieu that did exist … was in New York, and it was closely quartered with the literary bohemia that flourished in Greenwich Village.

… When Arshile Gorky was twenty-one, he left New England for New York where he quickly established himself in a studio on Sullivan Street near Washington Square, right in the heart of the Village. His imposing presence seemed not to have been noted by the literati, though he was often in the little tea shops and cafés frequented by the writers. Yet he, Stuart Davis, John Graham, Frederick J. Kiesler, and a score of others in the artistic vanguard were well aware of the literary and philosophical heroes of the day (Nietzsche, Spengler, Wells, Havelock Ellis, Freud, Schnitzler, Chekhov, Strindberg, Toller, Hauptmann, Dreiser, et al.).

… The Depression brought the artists into an entirely new context with their society. Some even regarded the Depression, which was bitterly described by many as ‘the great leveler,’ as the long-hoped-for cataclysm out of which a humanistic America might arise. From all accounts of the painters and sculptors who were young during the early years of the Depression, the sight of the breadlines and the general despair that settled soon after the crash was deeply traumatic.

[line break added] An artist in New York would have seen his ‘place,’ so cherished for its anarchic vitality during the preceding years, turn overnight into a quiet warren of dying spirits. The physical pangs of hunger were not nearly so great as the psychological shock that hurtled even the most thoughtful Americans into unprecedented confusion. Nothing, not even the vast literature of disillusion that characterized twentieth-century America, could have prepared artists for the reality of universal despair.

[line break added] This tremendous upheaval, bringing changes ranging from the most trivial details of life, such as what to eat for breakfast on a drasitc budget, to the problem of what to do without paint and canvas, and how to preserve one’s individualism in the midst of mass prostration, drove out all thoughts of continuity and structure.

My previous post from Ashton’s book is here.

-Julie

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