An Artist In America


Your contract in 1935 to paint the Missouri mural coincided with your moving to Kansas City to join the faculty of the art institute there. Since you had been turned down by the institute in 1912, was this sort of a triumphant homecoming?

No. I’ve never told the real reason. I was up in Kansas City on a Christmas buying trip in 1Q12, and I ran into a fellow I’d known back in Chicago. He had been a teacher in Chicago when I was a student there. Well, he said that the art institute in Kansas City needed a man who had just returned from Paris—only it turned out that they were all homosexuals in the place, and I didn’t get along.

This was in Kansas City in 1912?

At that time Kansas City was a vaudeville and carnival exchange center, and it was a place where the chorus boys would be stranded for weeks at a time. And somehow or other, Kansas City had become a quite developed homosexual center in 1Q12, and it had reached into the art institute. Now listen, I’d been through Paris, and I’d never seen anything like that. It shocked the hell out of me. They had a party for me, and they all came in women’s underwear and all that stuff. This was something I was absolutely innocent about, and I couldn’t stay there.

Before you left New York in /535, didn’t you sound off about the “precious fairies” who dominated the art world and who, you complained, were inhibiting the development of a truly American art form?

I said that, and for a while I was persona non grata in every art museum in the country because of that statement. I’m trying to just soft-pedal that now, because they’ve sort of come around to me, in spite ofthat. They have to, in a way. But what I said then is, if anything, even stronger today. These homosexuals are quite influential in this particular game I’m in. In fact, they control it. You get a reputation as an artist with their permission.

Do you think it’s a question of temperament, of injecting effeminate attitudes toward art ?

It’s not necessarily effeminate, it’s precious. It’s the Oscar Wilde attitude toward art that they bring. And that’s something I don’t like. You see, they are nearly all highly in favor of the more abstract movements, where they can seem to belong to an elite group. As a matter of fact, the success of the various abstract movements in the United States has largely depended upon the promotion of these homosexuals. Let me put it this way. In every field there’s always some son of a bitch who “knows” what nobody else knows, and he don’t know it, but he rests his fame on it. You have the same thing in the art world. If you get something that no one else can understand and you understand it or can convince others that you understand it, that puts you in a superior position.

A nd you still feel that this “precious” influence hurts American art?

I’m quite sure it does. You see, when only women and homosexuals are interested in the arts, it shows that the arts don’t have much of a place in the culture. Their influence has the effect of withdrawing art from its public function. They want it to be their own precious domain.

That’s really the essence of your central premise, isn’t it, that art must have a social function?

Some kind. It’s healthy. It’s always had through history, and when it doesn’t have now, you feel that there is degeneration. Maybe its social function is played out. Maybe this is the end. I don’t know. There seems to be more public attention to art now in this country than ever before, but it still doesn’t seem to perform any function or communicate much. Today we do have the cowboy-andIndian art in the West, which has attracted a great following, and the advertising arts. But advertising degrades art, and the western stuff is so obviously a romantic resuscitation that it isn’t contemporary at all. This western art never gives you the sense of any kind of change. There are no more Indians riding around on lonely peaks anymore, and if there are, they’ve got a can of beer in their hand instead of a spear.

Didn’t you try your hand at advertising art in the late 1930’s?

At that time I was very optimistic about a possible marriage between commerce and art, but I found out after a few months that it was impossible. The advertising people were too damned sensitive about the subject matter, although they continued to use some of the paintings I made for the American Tobacco Company for quite a while. Lewenthal got me into that.

Reeves Lewenthal, was he the man who started the Associated American Artists?