Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2000
Wanda Corn The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 470 pp.; 140 color ills.; 181 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0520210492)
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In a 1905 history, Samuel Isham argued that American art was “in no way native to America but is European painting imported, or rather transplanted, to America . . . . There is no local tradition or influence.” (Corn, 318) Countering this Eurocentric view (one still occasionally heard among those who dismiss American art before Abstract Expressionism), is an equally persistent belief in cultural exceptionalism. From the beginnings of cultural nationalism in the early nineteenth century, many have labored to construct a homegrown tradition, expressing the peculiar qualities of the nation’s visual arts. Symptomatic of this effort was John McCoubrey, whose American Tradition in Painting (1963) played down the formative dialogue with European arts in order to argue for a distinct native aesthetic tying together the span of American art production, from the colonial period to Abstract Expressionism.

The Great American Thing offers a gratifying resolution to such polarized accounts, pulled between cosmopolitan and native influences. Wanda Corn’s long-awaited new book is a weighty volume, in more senses than one. Beautifully produced by the University of California Press, its physical heft, visual elegance, and extraordinarily fine illustrations are matched by a text that is genial in tone and a joy to read. Corn’s narrative of American modernism during its formative decades is magisterial, a compelling conceptual synthesis undergirded by close-grained case studies that reveal the specific workings of her general thesis. Anyone who has taught intensively in this period of American art is indebted to Corn’s scholarship on American modernism, particularly her essays on Gerald Murphy and Americanisme, and on Charles Demuth. Her book locates these arguments within a broader context, where they unfold within a dialectic of “transatlantic” versus native approaches to the challenge of forging a new, modern, and American art.

This difference identifies the major parties involved in defining the new art: “The Transatlantics” (Duchamp, Murphy, and Stella) and “The Rooted,” (O’Keeffe and Sheeler), a two-part division neatly complicated by the pivotal figure of Demuth. In Corn’s telling, his homosexuality merely intensified the conflicted position of American modernists more generally: having “discovered” America through the eyes of their European colleagues, how then to make peace with a culture from which many of them felt profoundly disaffected, and one whose values seemed inimical to art-making? His career offered one solution in the synthesis of transatlantic irony and the search for roots.

Corn’s own scholarly project Americanizes modernism in this country by revealing the extent to which artists like O’Keeffe and Sheeler both reinterpreted earlier images and constructed a useable past out of this heritage. Yet, she also demonstrates the debt of American modernists to Europeans. European visitors have long been among the first to identify the peculiar and strange features of life on the new continent: first, its grand natural arena, and later, its headlong exuberant embrace of modern media, machines, consumer products (they had a notorious infatuation with American plumbing), mass transit, and popular art forms. This European invention/discovery of American modernity is indeed a leitmotif of Corn’s book, summed up in 1924 by the French Surrealist Louis Aragon when he commented that America—"the country of skyscrapers and cowboys, railroad accidents and cocktail shakers"—had been invented by the French. A central theme of Corn’s book is that, working in tandem, European and American artists undertook the challenge of transmuting New World modernity into modernist expression.

Americanisme was the historically-specific vision of this new culture that evolved simultaneously in Europe and America, fed and sustained by the transatlantic exchanges between artists from the second through the fourth decades of the century. Such a situation however, produced its own problems. A structuring metaphor for Corn, as for the critics and artists she analyzes, is the ocean liner. The glamorous symbol of a streamlined modernity, it also expressed the dilemma of the American artist: whether to accept the challenge of making art in a culturally shallow civilization, or to risk the opposing dangers of deracination. Representing at once freedom and exile, the ocean liner also carried the promise of a fruitful marriage of European modernism and American modernity, whose issue would be a truly new native art. American modernism emerges from this telling as neither native product nor provincial version of European art but the result of an evolving discourse between the two cultures. Janus-faced, it looked both to the syncopated rhythms of the modern city and to the sonorous swelling rhetoric of soil, nature, and place for inspiration.

Corn’s emphasis refines that of earlier scholars like Hugh Kenner and Malcolm Bradbury, in their explorations of “homemade” and “nonhomemade” modernism; however she expands the concept of the “homemade” to include not merely those “in the American grain” who looked to their own backyards, but also those transatlantics like Duchamp, Murphy, and Stella whose art was driven by an ambivalent but powerful fascination with American modernity. Despite their very different orientations, the sense that America was different distinguished both the “transatlantiques” and the “rooted” and gave to American modernism an indelible place-specific character.

Corn adds several useful terms to the current scholarship, among them the “second Stieglitz circle,” dedicated to an authentically native visual language which Corn elsewhere usefully dubs the “Soil-Spirit” school, growing organically out of the cultural and spiritual “loam” of America. This habit of thought she links to an older Symbolist-Romantic influence that is both European and American in origin. In their eagerness to create an art both modern and American, the second Stieglitz circle (writers, critics, and artists, including Paul Rosenfeld and Waldo Frank, O’Keeffe, Dove, Strand, and Sherwood Anderson, along with the liminal figure of Demuth) turned away from American modernity and back toward native spiritual traditions long located in a redemptive nature. One of the strengths of Corn’s book is thus to give substance to something largely unexplored in the current scholarship: that Stieglitz’s brand of modernism is much indebted to the past, and, in its high-minded commitments, harbors affinities with the art and artists of the “genteel tradition,” against whom it is usually positioned. Corn locates this group as “antimodern” modernists.

The historical force of Corn’s argument is in revealing the considerable investment on both sides of the Atlantic in the idea of America as a culture apart, and new in history. As with other scholars in recent years, her book has its origins in an effort to historicize rather than to essentialize the recurring exceptionalism that has characterized both the producers of culture and those who study them. The roots of such thinking, she argues, can be found in the motivations and practice of the artists themselves. However, Corn also argues that American exceptionalism is more than a historical construction: American modernism is different. The source of this exceptionalism, somewhat paradoxically, is its very transatlantic nature: a powerful impulse toward autonomy that was unavoidably influenced by Europeans’ own love affair with American modernity. Corn thus writes from both inside and outside this tradition of American exceptionalism, a position that distinguishes her from the revisionists of recent years as well as from the partisan cultural politics of the postwar era, some of whom helped shape her scholarship.

The cross-fertilization of European modernism and American modernity had prolific consequences that left their mark, in different ways, upon every phase of American modernism. Corn argues that this cross-fertilization shaped one of the originating moments of the European avant-garde. The conceptual revolution launched by Duchamp’s Fountain was the result of the French artist’s encounter with American-style modernity. Corn makes a claim for the specifically polemical nature of Duchamp’s engagement with the American art scene: his suggestion, couched in irony, that the leading “modern” artists in the U.S.—those around Stieglitz foremost among them—had missed the boat (so to speak) in identifying the source of a new American art. They were, in Duchamp’s satirical view, “Blind Men.” Rejecting the vulgar modernity of the new century and its technophilia and consumer obsessions, Stieglitz had, in the irreverent view of the French transplants to modern America, committed his circle to an obsolete ideal of art as an elite practice dedicated to spiritual refinement. For Duchamp and his pranksters, this was too rarified. Corn’s argument clarifies the extent to which—in refusing to embrace the discourse of Americanisme—the “second circle” of Stieglitz generated an overheated rhetoric of gendered allusions to soil, place, penetration, and anthropomorphized nature that pointed in an entirely different direction from the modernist cacophonies of George Gershwin, George Anteil, Stella, and others, as well as from the detached irony of Duchamp and Picabia.

However Corn’s excellent chapter on Stella’s modernist and transatlantic polyptych New York Interpreted slights the extent to which Stella himself participated in the spiritualized rhetoric of the native modernists. A key influence on Stella was the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose expansive reach embraced the contradictions within modernity itself. This spiritualization of the modern represents something of a third way that both shares a belief in the transformative powers of art of the “Soil-Spirit” school and a commitment to New York as the site of the New World epiphany. Stella’s gendered imagery of New York as “wife, mistress, muse, femme fatale, domineering mother” (138) also reveals the gendered preoccupations that characterized both “the rooted” and “the transatlantiques,” despite the differences between the essentializing investment of the one and the performative antics of the other.

Some will argue with the extent to which Corn has slighted an equally powerful tradition of anti-Americanisme, to coin a phrase. From the late 1920s on a backlash against American-style modernity is evident in such widely varied phenomena as the Frankfurt school of critical theory and the French Academy, with their ongoing resistance to American cultural imperialism, and the resurgence of fundamentalism, with its repudiation of corporate-sponsored consumer culture. And Corn may be accused of a certain residual partisanship in making the case that American modernity informed European modernism in a more than passing way (an argument most direct in reference to Fernand Leger and Murphy). Indeed The Great American Thing reveals a common ground with its subject: the search for a narrative of reconciliation between America and Europe, the polarity that has for so long been central to our cultural history. Her book itself is a tribute to the tradition of Americanisme that is its subject.

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

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