Monday, November 01, 2010

Art and democracy -- a reprise (november 2010)

We've seen this painting here before, William Merritt Chase's Ringtoss (1896). Well, no, we haven't. But it is certainly evocative of Charles Singer Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit that I commented on earlier this year. The resemblance may not be accidental; Chase may have been influenced by the Sargent painting, which was made about four years earlier. (Click to enlarge.)

Right now I want to contrast the Chase painting with John George Brown's The Card Trick, from about the same era. The two paintings were part of an exhibition last year at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, called American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915.

They could not be further apart in style and subject.

There can be no question about which painting I like best. Ringtoss works in a number of ways. The composition is riveting. The contrast of the crisp peg and quoits in the foreground with the more impressionistic young ladies sends the eye spiraling through the air along with the quoits. The coloring is exquisite. The black toe touching the chalk line on the hardwood floor draws the viewer inexorably into the scene.

The Card Trick is pure kitsch, although impressive in its photorealism.

In Ringtoss we see the rather aristocratic daughters of the aristocratic painter, trying to entertain themselves in their splendid isolation. In The Card Trick we have four street urchins -- bootblacks -- engaging in streetwise smarts.

Drawing room elitism versus curbside democracy. Nineteenth-century European class-consciousness versus the American melting pot.

In an essay on culture in poetry, former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky draws our attention to some observations of Alexis de Tocqueville earlier in the 19th century. "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests -- in one word, so anti-poetic -- as the life of man in the United States," wrote the aristocratic Frenchman in Democracy in America. The arts in Europe drew upon a rich classical tradition, legends of gods and heroes, larger-than-life themes that lifted men up and out of the ordinary. What, Tocqueville wondered, would inspire poetry "when skepticism had depopulated heaven, and the progress of equality had reduced each individual to smaller and better-known proportions"?

Was Tocqueville's initial diagnosis correct? Is art in a democracy doomed to kitsch? The Card Trick has a democratic sweetness about it, and Brown's paintings of street urchins were popular with the masses, but by the general consensus of critics they never rose to high art. Are the critics snobs, cultural aristocrats? Or, to succeed, do artists necessarily have to remove themselves from the hoi polloi, not necessarily into a Sargent-Chase upper-class drawing room, but at least into a bohemian aloofness?

In spite of his doubts, Tocqueville held out hope for the arts in America: "Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed with legends or the memorials of old traditions…All these resources fail him; but Man remains, and the poet needs no more…[Man himself], with his passions, his doubts, his rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become the chief, if not the sole, theme of poetry among these [democratic] nations."

Art in a democracy, and especially in America, I would suggest, derives its unique energy from a negotiation between high academic art and street kitsch, finding a home somewhere between William Merritt Chase and John George Brown -- that is to say, somewhere between Chase's matchless aristocratic taste and Brown's redeeming eye for "rare prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness" -- a political negotiation that gave us such quintessentially American artists as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth.