Unreal Nature

August 15, 2017

Thrown Together

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… There has never been a place in our present industrial system for the artist, except as a flatterer of the rich and idle, or as a mere servant of business enterprise.

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

… If one conscientiously examines all the statements made subsequently by the major artists of the forties and fifties, the obvious value the W.P.A. had for them was that of artistic community. They often point out that the artist, like everyone else, was starving and the Project was a meal-ticket; that for the first time in their lives they could devote all their time to their work; that it coincided with their interest in a reformed society. But the most compelling force that emerges is their sense of having found each other.

[line break added] From the days of the Project onward, there would be the median between artist and society that had long sustained the European artist: an artistic milieu. How important this was can be judged by the defensive statements of the few artists who either didn’t qualify because of income, or preferred to remain independent. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi felt bitterly isolated when he was excluded, and Barnett Newman claimed: ‘I paid a severe price for not being on the project with the other guys; in their eyes I wasn’t a painter; I didn’t have the label.’

… Throughout the brief life of the federal art projects there were threats from the political right. Sensing that the increasing hostility in Congress could boil over with very unpleasant consequences, Roosevelt apparently decided not to make a stand for the arts’ projects when the controversies grew fiercer in 1936. Lewis Mumford took up the standard and wrote an impassioned letter which was published on December 30, 1936, in The New Republic. Mumford lectured the President on the social importance of the arts, of which he implied Roosevelt was unaware.

[line break added] He pointed out that the dispersion of works of art throughout the country had brought new meaning into the lives of ordinary citizens: ‘Industry does not supply these needs; it never has and, since the motive of profit is lacking, it never will. Private philanthropy is too puny to endow them. Nothing short of the collective resources of our country as a whole has proved competent to bring the fine arts into the lives of everyday Americans.’ Then, pointing to the economic dilemmas that undoubtedly motivated Roosevelt’s moves against the funding of the projects, Mumford presented what was certainly the prevalent liberal attitude:

To dismiss the workers on the arts project and dismantle the projects themselves, will not ‘release’ a large body of people for commercial or industrial employment. There has never been a place in our present industrial system for the artist, except as a flatterer of the rich and idle, or as a mere servant of business enterprise. … Now that the community itself has devised appropriate ways for patronizing and encouraging the arts and giving them a permanent public home, it is time that art be taken for what it is — a realm like education which requires active and constant public support.

Even if the painters and sculptors on the projects in New York squabbled among themselves, fought for better wages, and engaged in considerable picketing activity, they were, when threatened by the philistines, a united front, wholeheartedly defending the principle of federal aid to artists and all its wholesome, cultural byproducts. The pressure from the Right, in fact, probably had a salutary effect in metropolitan circles. The burgeoning community of artists was thrown together for self-defense, if for nothing else.

… The continuity of the artistic life, which many experienced for the first time on the project, proved to be the catalyst that was to change the diffident American painter into a professional who would finally see himself as an equal in the world of modern art.

My most recent previous post from Ashton’s book is here.

-Julie

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