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12: The Arts Confront the New Century- Renewal and Continuity, 1900-1920

  • Page ID
    169170
    • 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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    IN 1905, when Henry James returned to New York City after twenty-five years in Europe, he confronted a city that no longer seemed to have any relation to the town of his youth. While the strange languages and new faces of the city's immigrant hordes both fascinated and appalled him, James was even more amazed by the transformation of the city's scale. New York had become a "pin-cushion" of skyscrapers, a city of 'bigness and bravery and insolence, ... of everything that rushed and shrieked ... . " For James, the new city assaulted the sensibilities, leaving no room for "detachment, dignity, meaning."1 New York City had become the epicenter of modernization.

    Yet even though the United States was at the forefront of modernization, nevertheless American arts remained tethered to Europe, and lacked a modernism of their own. The next two decades, however, saw the emergence of an American-born art that responded to the modern city, and to life energies liberated from middle-class convention. This art embraced the creative potential unleashed by modernization in the belief that the vision of the individual had the power to shape modern social reality. Artists and photographers felt challenged to develop new modes of expression, new theories of creativity, and new aesthetic forms that would guide the nation's cultural life amidst tumultuous change. While this new art combined both Native and European influences, its intentions remained focused on the peculiar conditions and needs of American culture in the new century. This process of self-discovery was encouraged by a new generation of critics who shaped an influential discourse of cultural nationalism.

    During the years from 1900 to 1920, artists reacted to urban and social change by both engagement and withdrawal-using various means to produce an American art that was strikingly different from the art of preceding decades. Two leading figures-Robert Henri, who led a group of urban realist artists, and Alfred Stieglitz, who supported artists associated with the first phase of American abstraction-emphasized the role of personal expression in the emergence of a new art. Breaking with the genteel tradition, they insisted that art should engage life, although they each defined "life" in different ways. For both men, the organizing power of art resided in the masculine personality, driven by a desire to assert creative control over the restless energies of the new century.

    Despite an insistence on personal vision, this phase of modern American art-both figurative and abstract- was the result of multiple encounters. Of primary importance was the renewal of indigenous democratic traditions of thought. Inspired by the example of the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-92) in particular, urban realist painters of the early twentieth century sought an art that embodied democracy, and they found new energy and inspiration in the everyday landscapes of the street and the immigrant districts of lower Manhattan. Meanwhile, early modernist abstraction in the United Stares learned from native voices such as Arthur Dow, who introduced Japanese principles of composition into American art pedagogy. Abstract artists also looked to theories of organic growth extending from nineteenth-century American and European nature philosophies, such as vitalism, which posited that life energies give structure to the random flux of reality, and underlie all forms of creativity. This vitalist outlook found meaning in the biological rhythms, abstracted forms, and temporal unfolding of nature, and it could also be used to understand the very urban energies that Henry James had found so disturbing. Such intellectual tendencies, linked to the past yet responsive to new philosophical influences from beyond the American tradition, restored a measure of "dignity and meaning" to the new century. All these native currents shared a vision of art as a form of personal expression and liberation that opened the way for political and social transformation.

    Thumbnail: GEORGIA O' KEEFFE, Red and Orange Streak, 1919. Oil on canvas, 27 x 23 in (68.5 x 58.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.