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“American Art Really Exists”
said a New York newspaper when the Metropolitan opened its American Wing in 1924. This spring, a new, grander American Wing once again displays the collection that Lewis Mumford found “not merely an exhibition of art,” but “a pageant of American history.”
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
However, the objects shown in the Wing were, beyond all these considerations, exemplars of early American decorative art, worthy of their new station in this country’s most prominent museum. This point was not overlooked by one of the New York dailies which saluted the occasion with large, boldface headlines announcing that “American Art Really Exists.” That naive statement did not include the fact that almost from the day it first opened its doors in 1870, the museum had been acquiring American art, and that by this time had a respectable collection of paintings and sculptures—gathered without a great deal of encouragement from its first two directors. Both were foreigners, Italian and English, and, it seems, considered American art in general as provincial and relatively unimportant derivatives of the high styles created abroad. They more or less studiously avoided buying American art in favor of the proven Old Masters of Europe, a policy in which many munificent donors concurred. Even as late as 1929 when, as noted, some daring critics were conceding that American art worthy of attention really did exist, the museum was diffident about such matters. That year Gertrude Whitney was prepared to give her collection to the museum—then probably the largest collection of American art anywhere—with an endowment to cover the costs of housing it; but the director at that time simply refused to consider the proposal.
Today, especially in view of the wide-ranging and brilliant spectacle the American Wing is now presenting, that rejection seems incomprehensible. However, it was based upon deep-rooted attitudes that played an important role in the cultural development of this country. From the earliest days of the Republic, many thoughtful Americans had been plagued by worries that the culture of their native land might never match the standards set by the older countries of Europe. At the start, Noah Webster admonished his countrymen to forget any such comparisons. It was, he wrote, “dishonorable to waste life in mimicking the follies of other nations, and basking in the sunshine of foreign glory.” He called for a brand new start toward a purely American way of life. America, he insisted, must be “as famous for arts as for arms .”
However, then and throughout long years afterward, there were others, artists among them, who lamented that in the harsh cultural climate of the New World, art could not flourish. In 1868, returning to the United States after a long sojourn in Europe, the fastidious Henry Adams was both repelled and fascinated by the crudeness of American life. Some years later, from his retreat in England, Henry James counseled his readers that in the “cruel air” of America, true art must wither. (Although he conceded elsewhere that to be an American was an excellent preparation for culture.) Even Winslow Homer’s paintings seemed to James “damnably ugly.”
Early in the present century, when he was considerably older and more disillusioned than ever, Adams wrote James that he thought their whole generation of Americans—including artists, poets, historians, philosophers, and all the rest of the brilliant minds of the day—were in the end nothing more than “Improvised Europeans.” To Adams it was all somewhat academic, for long ago he had concluded that with the advances of science he foresaw, sooner or later the human race would “commit suicide by blowing up the world.
America must be “as famous for arts as for arms’
In 1939, just before the explosion of World War II, when that prophecy almost came true, an exhibition of American art was staged at New York’s World Fair, and the old lament was reiterated. After visiting that display, a reviewer for Art News concluded that it would be “impossible for a foreign visitor to emerge (from the exhibition) without an impression of the general dreariness of American life as seen through the eyes of its artistic interpreters. There is nothing monumental… nothing impassioned, and nothing subjective. There is little that is original.…”
The United States, of course, survived the global tragedy that opened in the late summer of that year—intact and with a new role to play in the world at large. Just as New York became the permanent headquarters of the United Nations in the immediate postwar years, this country, and New York in particular, became an international art capital. According to some qualified critics, the art being produced in America had come to be considered the standard by which developments in other countries of the Western World were measured.