Unreal Nature

September 12, 2017

Uncertain and Afraid

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade …

Continuing through The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning by Dore Ashton (1972):

… Except for Gorky, who loved every word of surrealist doctrine to the extent that he paraphrased Eluard in his love letters, most American painters were ambivalent about surrealism. The old suspicion of intellectuals and of elegance helped them to resist complete obeisance to the surrealist point of view. They were very like the Brazilian students Claude Lévi-Strauss described in Tristes Tropiques, who ‘regarded the University as a tempting, but also a poisonous fruit. These young people had seen nothing of the world. … Yet we bore in our hands the apples of knowledge; and therefore our students wooed and rebuffed us, by turns.’

… For those painters who were to develop the new painting in the nineteen-forties, the last years of the Depression and the early days of World War II had been filled with confusion. The surrealist attitude represented a single facet of a complex vision they had received, suddenly and without much preparation, only a few years before. If they had been students during the twenties, their direct knowledge of modern art was unbelievably limited. If they had been young during the early years of the Depression, they needed time to assimilate the sudden revelations of the famous exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.

[ … ]

… Where a literary artist fell prey to the deepest doubt, as for instance Auden, whose poem ‘September 1, 1939’ so eloquently expressed his despair as a writer (though he no longer thinks so), the visual artists were preparing for a great adventure into the realm of imagination. Auden’s poem sets the New York scene in a gloomy perspective:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …

Auden’s final plea for ‘an affirming flame’ has a disconsolate ring. A painter, similarly depressed by ‘negation and despair,’ seemed better able to generate the affirming flame in his work as the world moved into the war. His restlessness and despair, springing not only from what he knew to be a spiritual rout in the outside world, but also from his own conflicts within his art, seemed to provide the impetus toward a new creative endeavor.

Many of the familiar institutions of that ‘dishonest decade’ were collapsing. The W.P.A. was, for all practical purposes, in its death throes by 1939, although a few artists remained on the rolls until the definitive demise in 1941. The artists’ organizations were weakening. Only the American Abstract Artists seemed able to thrive, partly because of their internationalist operations (such as their helping European artists leave Europe in time) which gave them a raison d’être.

[line break added] New recognition of the arts was making itself felt in such stupendous undertakings as the 1939 World’s Fair, in which a great many American artists who had worked on the project found commissions and were exhibited with enthusiasm — among them Gorky and de Kooning and Guston. Plans announced in 1938 called for twenty-three buildings with 105 murals and 102 sculptures, which in itself indicated the considerable change in attitude toward American art and artists.

Meanwhile, the artists themselves were accumulating more and more direct experience with their European counterparts. The huge Picasso exhibition in 1939 at the Museum of Modern Art was an unparalleled success, drawing thousands of visitors daily, among them practically every artist in New York.

… The art education of painters was very nearly complete by 1940 when the final act of the drama of the nineteen-thirties brought them release from the dilemma — defined in View — between the masses and the unconscious. The fall of Paris, as Harold Rosenberg poignantly wrote in 1940, shut down the laboratory of the twentieth century. For the American painter, not only was the laboratory whose products they had so avidly studied closed, but also many of its leading workers appeared in New York. It was the end of one kind of isolation and the beginning of another.

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

-Julie

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