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11: Exploration and Retrenchment- The Arts in Unsettling Times, 1890-1900

  • Page ID
    169167
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    By THE FINAL DECADE of the nineteenth century, America was enjoying a vast expansion of material comfort, along with unprecedented concentrations of wealth, both personal and corporate. Commerce, industry, and culture were advancing westward, colonizing previously alien regions of the nation. In 1893 American historian Frederic Jackson Turner delivered his essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," in which he pronounced the frontier officially closed. With the conclusion of the Plains Indian Wars and the confinement of the Indians to reservations, the federal government and the military were free to redirect their energies to extending the U.S. sphere of influence in the Pacific and the Caribbean. The nation was assuming a new identity. In commemoration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of the New World, it put its growing imperial confidence on extravagant display at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, as the world was about to enter "the American Century."

    Yet beneath such celebrations of "progress" were depths of experience beyond the reach of both science and older forms of faith. Darwin's Origin of Species, first published in 1859, had proposed the theory that the biological world is governed by a process of natural selection in which plants and animals evolve by random genetic variations. Evolutionary theory contradicted religious dogma and unsettled religious faith. Instead, it inspired a new philosophical skepticism and doubt concerning older forms of intellectual and scientific authority. The process of empirical observation that drove scientific advance was also turned inward, toward the human mind, inspiring a new interest in psychology and perception. Artists and writers in both Europe and the United States began to focus their work upon their own subjective experience, explorations that would prepare the way for modernism. The 1890s witnessed many new and unsettling challenges to customary hierarchies: of male over female, tradition over individuality, fact over imagination. While middle-class women were pressing for legal rights and fuller representation in public life, middle-class men were experiencing a loss of power over their work and identities. Traditions of masculine independence gave way to corporate business life dominated by impersonal bureaucracy. Masculinity-associated with self-discipline-came under further threat from society's growing preoccupation with feminized leisure and consumption. Both older restrictive ideals and more open possibilities were played out in art concerned with masculine and feminine identities.

    Photography began to touch all aspects of life. The documentary power of the camera exposed the poverty and the social inequality previously only dimly recognized. The camera also democratized the power of image-making by giving ordinary Americans a tool with which to record the world around them. Its ability to seize a moment in time revealed an underlying structure of motion that the naked eye was unable to grasp. With its unprecedented ability to reproduce the world, photography prompted artists to shift their concerns away from the imitation of nature and toward new ideas grounded in subjectivity.

    Artists grappled with the problems of finding meaning in this "open" universe beyond religious faith, secure social identities, and belief in a benign nature. Drawn toward the intricate recesses of the mind, some artists explored the complexities of human psychology, charting distances between public and private worlds, and between official and personal versions of truth. Emphasizing individual experience and the open-endedness of meaning, this exploratory impulse ran contrary to the conventional sectors of society that still emphasized history and precedent as a means of shoring up their cultural authority. Exploration and retrenchment mutually defined a culture internally divided. Emerging languages of visual art expressed both the unsettling ambiguities and the ruthless certainties of life at the end of the century.

    Thumbnail: AUGUSTUS SAINT GAUDENS, Memorial to Clover Adams, 1891. Bronze. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.