Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 31, 2008
J. M. Mancini Pre-Modernism: Art-World Change and American Culture from the Civil War to the Armory Show Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 256 pp.; 75 b/w ills. $45.00 (9780691118130)
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“Pre-modernism” as a term may not become standard usage; its multiple meanings quickly become unmanageable: a phase that comes before modernism temporally, predating its practices and assumptions; modernism avant la lettre, suggesting a longer historical genesis; and modernism not as something historically specific but instead a matter of certain structural relations between artists, critics, discourses, and audiences. “Pre-modernism” also raises a number of questions. Does modernism refer to a style—a specific artistic language? Or to a set of ideological assumptions about the relationship of the aesthetic to the social and cultural realms? Or to a particular critical tradition that privileges the autonomous status of the work of art?

Joanne Mancini’s use of the term in Pre-Modernism: Art-World Change and American Culture from the Civil War to the Armory Show engages all these possible meanings to target well-worn narratives still central to how we tell the story of American art from 1890 to 1920. According to received wisdom, the art world of the late nineteenth century was defined by a repressive gentility, and modernism was a heroic and embattled project of aesthetic and political renewal. Mancini argues instead that the art world of the late nineteenth century actually established the institution-building, publishing and promotion, broad public commitment, and education that promised a central position for the arts in national life, activities ultimately undercut by the rise of an elitist and arcane modernism fit only for initiates. Such efforts, Mancini argues, served a deep commitment to art as a broadly social resource. This commitment persisted into the twentieth century, while finding itself increasingly contested by the rise of a doctrinal modernism centered on the autonomous work of art. Modernism—which Mancini links teleologically to the figure of Clement Greenberg—was undergirded by a clerisy of critics who in seeking to control and authorize the production of knowledge followed other rapidly professionalizing groups in these decades.

The Gilded Age generation occupying the first three chapters of Mancini’s book is “pre-modernist” in two senses. Focusing on the careers of Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer and Clarence Cook, Mancini argues that the increasingly rarefied tenor of their art criticism anticipated the emergence of modernist criticism as the handmaiden of ever more aesthetically demanding forms of art making. At the same time, the institution-building practices of these same years—pioneered by Louis Prang, Sylvester Rosa Koehler, and others—actually persisted into the twentieth century, co-existing alongside efforts to sequester art for an anointed few (Alfred Stieglitz is a key figure here). But Mancini’s argument takes one more turn by demonstrating that the very infrastructure of museums, associations, and broad public acceptance for art first established during the Gilded Age—often by men associated with stylistically very conservative art—would support modernism itself in the opening decades of the new century, despite its elitist protestations. This is only one of several ironic twists to Mancini’s story.

As a historian, Mancini is concerned with the transition from an older mode of cultural production—based in the faith that culture and society could be aligned, and that art education and visual sensitivity was one plank in a program of cultural nationalism—to one associated with an exclusionary modernism. There are clear heroes and clear villains here; those who block the open exchange between art and its publics fall into the latter. Yet her story is not one of decisive shifts. Her reexamination of the watershed years between the Gilded Age and the modernism of the first two decades of the twentieth century reveals just how much of the dynamic modernization of institutional and urban life in the late nineteenth century carried over into the twentieth, as well as exposes how messy were the boundaries between high and low (much valuable work has already been done on this by Michele Bogart and others [Michele Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995]). If the art worlds of the late nineteenth century were more “modern” in their organizational and dynamic structure than we have heretofore recognized, the reverse is also true: Mancini recounts several modernist careers that emerged in close quarters with the “old guard.” In both directions, she productively complicates the neat distinctions between the modern and the pre-modern, the new guard and the old. And by showing to what extent the formal underpinnings of modernism were laid in such mass-reproduced, vernacular, and popular media as educational manuals, commercial design, and lithography, Mancini further blurs the ever more unstable boundary between fine and applied arts, high and low, the aesthetic and the commercial.

Mancini offers a much expanded understanding of how styles such as Japonisme were conveyed, not only by advanced art, but by graphic illustration, art periodicals, and popular genres such as greeting cards. Americanists have yet to fully recognize the large part played by such modest media—along with the decorative and “industrial” arts—in habituating audiences to modernist form (as far back as Owen Jones’s 1854 Grammar of Ornament). World’s Fairs played a critical role in this regard as well, as did the growth of an international art press; all should receive their due in any analysis of the imbricated worlds of commerce and art. The argument that modernist attitudes toward formal abstraction have their roots in the late nineteenth century is itself not new: recent studies of Arthur Wesley Dow have restored him to his rightful position as a major institutional figure in the dissemination of Japoniste and other non-Western design principles. Scholars such as Kathleen Pyne, Jonathan Crary1, and others have argued that American (and European) culture was “modern” before it was modernist; that the fin-de-siècle and earlier produced art that explored the boundaries between inner and outer worlds, located perception firmly in the body, and challenged older established aesthetic languages. Mancini argues for the “modernity” of late nineteenth century art according to different, if equally valid, criteria: the manner in which the art world mirrored the corporate world in its trend toward vertical (and horizontal) integration, the use of marketing and rhetoric, and the organizational savvy of those like Prang and Koehler, who understood that the high tide of art consumption lifted all boats alike.

Mancini also rekeys an understanding of modernism to account for the central role of modern means and technical procedures—color printing and the rise of mass circulation art publishing—which often played a more important role in the dissemination of a new look than salons and international exhibitions. This is an important corrective. Questioning older models of cultural hierarchy in the later nineteenth century, Mancini instead offers a picture of an art world defined at every level by technological modernization.

From another direction, Mancini exposes spurious claims to modernist autonomy by revealing the ways in which modernist insistence on being unsoiled by the market or by self-promotional strategies was self-deceptive. Pre-Modernism is one phase in a broader demolition—if the word is not too strong—of the foundational narratives of American modernism which has been going on since the early 1990s. Thanks to the work of Elizabeth Milroy and Mary Anne Doezema, no self-respecting student of American art any longer takes at face value the rhetoric of the “new” and the authentic, so strategically staged by the urban realists around the so-called “Ash Can” artists; other scholars, such as Rebecca Zurier, Michael Leja, and Crary2, have taken aesthetic strategies considered by earlier generations to be the peculiar language of art making and grounded them in forms of modern urban visuality, skepticism toward appearances, and habits of attention. If the “visual studies” turn has meant anything to the practice of Americanist art history, it entails a new awareness of how aesthetic practices promiscuously mingle with other kinds of seeing—vernacular, urban, media-inflected, and rationalized. We have also learned to doubt all claims to purity of intent, and to see such claims for what they are: strategic enunciations of a precarious identity.

Yet despite fine-grained research and powerfully marshaled arguments, Mancini’s broader commitment to the arts as a public and national resource raises numerous questions. Her dramatis personae—critics, publishers, educators—operate in a social world organized around those who wish to bolster the professional privileges of critics and artists versus those who see art as primarily educative. Her sympathies are clearly with this latter democratically inclusive group, assigned a disinterested and socially non-specific role. It is only elites—in Mancini’s telling—who have class-specific values, and even here, these remain rather vague. Historians have tended to associate l’art pour l’art and its descendants in twentieth-century high modernism with forms of cultural and social privilege, according to which only those of sufficient refinement (and sufficient distance from the pressing necessities of work) were up to the demands of non-narrative art focused upon its own means. Yet we have no fine art examples in Pre-Modernism; instead, Mancini focuses on objects, texts, and reproductive images. Mancini does not consider the kind of “middlebrow” narrative art that captivated audiences at the World’s Fairs and elsewhere in the decades when l’art pour l’art also took hold. What would a more inclusive aesthetic, as championed by Mancini, look like? Her vision of a participatory artistic culture is defined not in aesthetic terms but in terms of its embrace of a wide public. Within this historical frame, the “participatory ideal” ultimately found itself defeated by the “hegemony of modernism” (131).

Yet we know that the interwar decades, beginning in the 1920s, saw a significant swing back toward accessibility and democratic outreach on the part of the Museum of Modern Art—the premier institution of high modernism—along with an elaborate apparatus of public education and middlebrow uplift, albeit one tied to consumerism. Such episodes do more than simply qualify the story of the triumph of elite or “highbrow” modernism; they present a historically layered account in which modernism itself has a divided heritage as a realm of autonomy, a utopian project, and a rapidly commodified style made accessible to mass audiences. This hints at another narrative running alongside Mancini’s analysis: the historical shift from a participatory to an exclusionary modernism is at least matched by the powerful realignments in the political and social utopianism of modernism brought about by the magnetic force of the market. If this story is more familiar in the European context, it holds true, on a somewhat different register, for the United States as well. After all, Greenberg—Mancini’s bête noir—began his career as a committed Marxist, and ended it as the preeminent theorist for an autonomous art whose value was all-too-quickly measured in dollars and sales.

Mancini’s penchant as a historian leans toward a form of structuralism: it is critical discourse, she argues, that shapes artistic production. One can certainly argue with this, but even then, there is surprisingly little actual analysis of discourse in the book—or of the actual aesthetic practices of the period under consideration. The book’s illustrations, referenced in the text with minimal discussion, tend to be just that—illustrations of points in the argument. Mancini pays little attention to fine-art practices or figures, which take their place uncomplainingly as effects of broader discursive and institutional developments. These consistently trump aesthetics as driving agents of art in relation to the social sphere. But we know that aesthetic form had an important place in discussions of social democracy, in such figures as John Dewey. Mancini’s book thus raises an important question for historians of American art about the “hierarchy of determinations” at work in twentieth-century culture: how much does aesthetic form itself actually matter in shaping the character of cultural life? Is an eclectic but open and accessible art culture—one that includes modernist works alongside other approaches—more important than the particular kind of art one favors, be it vanguardist or retrograde? Is the message more important than the medium?

If Pre-Modernism offers important insights into the origins of the rift between elite art worlds and ordinary publics, it provides limited insights into the relationship of aesthetics to the social sphere. By focusing on critics and publics, Mancini treats works of art themselves as reflections of more primary social processes. This is an important contribution, but the book that draws together the aesthetic, the social, and the institutional remains to be written.

Angela Miller
Professor, Art History and Archaeology Department, Washington University in St. Louis

1 Dow’s most famous and often republished book of art pedagogy was Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, first published in 1905. Kathleen Pyne, Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); and Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

2 Elizabeth Milroy, Painters of a New Century: The Eight and American Art (Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Museum, 1991); Marianne Doezema, George Bellows and Urban America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Rebecca Zurier, Picturing the City: Urban Vision and the Ashcan School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Michael Leja, Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Crary, as above.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.