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American Art and Art in America

ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

The Emergence of an American Art. By Jerome Mellquist. Scribner’s. $3.75. The Art of Walt Disney. By Robert D. Feild, Macmillan. $3.50. American Primitive Painting. By Jean Ljpman. Oxford University Press. $5.00. In tht Nature of Materials. By Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Duell, Sloan, and Pearce. $5.00. On Being an Architect. By William Lescaze. Putnam. $3.00.

Recent books on the Fine Arts indicate that Americans are still trying to discover whether or not they have an art they can call their own. In spite of the fact that they worry more, our painters are coming off a very poor second to our architects.

In painting there is a reaction against the self-imposed provincialism called Regionalism, along with its contention that artistically this country is made up of a ring of forty-five states debauched by European taste, encircling the honest homespun heart of Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. Regardless of the justice or injustice of the accusations, it is distinctly refreshing now to read of three over-publicized painters that John Steuart Curry “draws too badly to justify his pretensions,” that the late Grant Wood was a “stencil maker” whose folksiness was a pose, and that Thomas Benton is the possessor of a “minor decorative talent” which produces murals of a “forced, insecure, and diagrammatic” quality. These quotations are the most engaging passages in a book called “The Emergence of an American Art” by Jerome Mellquist. Mr. Mellquist comments on a very long list of painters, and even devotes a chapter to our most prominent art critics. He includes frequent asides on the artist’s position in society, the function of the dealer, and so on. This is all to the good, and Mr. Mellquist does it well, but his book has a great flaw which is not altogether the fault of its author. Although he finds the “vigorous rhythms of American life” in one painter’s work, and “guts and bowels” in another’s, Mr. Mellquist does not sound really convinced that American painting, as a national expression, is much good. After the chapter called “Culmination,” one is left with a sense of the inadequacy, not of the book, but of American painting.

Miss Gertrude Stein has been heard to say that the only art which America has produced (perhaps she said the only “painting”) is the mobile colored electric sign. The statement is only a reductio ad Steinum of the truth that we have developed indigenous arts which, as a nation, we enjoy spontaneously and without recognition of their art value. It can be argued that the arts should be so enjoyed, of course. The movies are almost such an art, but they are in the curious position of revealing themselves as less important than they had seemed, in proportion as they correct their shortcomings. Since the talkie, and the resultant aborting of their pantomimic art, the movies have confirmed early suspicions that they are an extension rather than a revolution of stage technique.

The present article was first written with a peevish comment that there are too many books on American painting, and no good ones on the movies, the burlesque, or Walt Disney. Immediately there appeared “The Art of Walt Disney,” by Professor Robert D. Feild, now of Newcomb College in New Orleans, who is supposed to have broken with his colleagues at Harvard by insisting that Disney is an important modern artist.

Disney’s development is interesting as an extreme demonstration of ontogeny repeating phylogeny in the stylistic history of a creative artist. Disney has telescoped the whole artistic evolutionary process into a decade. From his best work, the early two-dimensional black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons, to the uneven, elaborated, synthetic, techni-colored, sentimentalized Fantasia, Disney has travelled the whole road from the primitive to the super-mammoth-colossal baroque. He is his own Giotto and his own Bernini, and his art, along with the burlesque, is the most characteristic spontaneous American expression among all our theatrical forms.

Professor Feild’s book, however, is an examination only of the process of making a Disney animated cartoon or feature, and it is marked by a completely uncritical and frequently sentimental admiration for Disney in toto, a kind of personal chauvinism which has contributed much liveliness to the book. It is a good book, and the story of Disney from his beginnings to his present complicated set-up is clear and interesting.

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and company, are American in their honest vulgarity and their bumptious naivete. They are, of course, no more a complete expression of our national character, whatever it is, than another American pictorial art form which is receiving more serious attention than it did not long ago. The American Primitive painting has more significant virtues than a quaintness which creates a sort of nostalgia for our lost national innocence, and these virtues have been revealed, paradoxically, by very unprimi-tive modern abstract painting. In Jean Lipman’s “American Primitive Painting,” a few of the illustrations are only quaint, most of them are enchantingly decorative, and many of them, in addition, do appear to be significant national expressions. These last leave us with none of the feeling of dissatisfaction and inadequacy stirred by the painters of Mr. Mellquist’s “Culmination.” Within their strictly circumscribed limits they are complete, and Mrs. Lipman’s introduction to the excellent book is clear, direct, and irrefutable. But the limits are still strictly circumscribed.

But if American painting simply does not come off, it is another story with our architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright is a genius and there is no point in quibbling about it, no matter how irritating his press statements, and sometimes even his architecture, may be. By this time the bibliography on his work must be as extensive as that on any other architect’s, living or dead, and a new book, with the excellent title “In the Nature of Materials,” is at the top of this list. Henry-Russell Hitchcock has made a scholarly summary of Wright’s work, with more than four hundred illustrations.

The particularly American genius of this architecture is its combination of extremely romantic expression with the utmost shrewdness of perception where the usability of materials and the creation of usable space are concerned. Wright’s failures occur when his romanticism overpowers his good sense, but all his failures together are of no account when opposed to a single one of his successes.

Wright’s early architecture, at that time with very little honor in its own country, was studied by European architects who used it, or reduced it, in developing the modern functional formula and its variations. One of the descendants of this school who uses the formulae with taste and distinction is William Lescaze, who has written an introductory book called “On Being an Architect.” It is a very good primer, particularly for any young person studying architecture, but after the buildings of Wright, all other contemporary productions in the field seem unimaginative.

Both Wright and Lescaze have designed skyscrapers, but in neither of these books is there an appropriate spot for their lengthy consideration. Yet the skyscraper-mass is our most spectacular and certainly our most completely indigenous art form. The skyline of Manhattan is a work of art which is not merely anonymous, but virtually self-created. The skyscraper is the only art form America has produced which has excited everybody from one end of the country to the other, and it is the only one which has been imperiously demanded by our way of life. It has been subjected to our national taste for romantic excess (skyscrapers continued to rise higher and higher after all economic excuse for increased height had disappeared) and it is so well understood that there is no good book on it, even though it is the Parthenon, the Chartres, and the St. Peter’s of this age.


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