History Lessens

From "The American Century" at the Whitney, Andy Warhol's Elvis I and II (1964).Photo: courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

At the outset of the twentieth century, during the massive Paris Exposition of 1900, the United States made a determined effort to present a fresh, distinctively American face to the world. The nation was becoming a great power; it longed to distinguish itself from European culture and chafed at being treated as provincial. And so the organizers of the so-called American School at the Universal Exposition selected art that would celebrate the New rather than the Old World; a turn-of-the-century woman depicted in an American painting appeared to critics of the time as a vision of wholesomeness when compared with the decadent, corset-popping femme fatale in many European works. In Paris 1900: The American School at the Universal Exposition, a show evoking the Exposition that Diane P. Fischer has organized for the Montclair Art Museum, almost every painting is presented as an illustration of some admired social value in the America of 1900.

The establishment of the Whitney Museum of American Art 30 years later continued what the Exposition began. The United States was a great nation; ergo, it had to support, advance, and nurture the creation of great indigenous art. After World War II, with most of the world prostrate, American art finally did assume center stage. And for the past 50 years, it has really never let the world forget it. The concluding part of The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-2000, which has just opened at the Whitney and covers 1950 to 2000, is nothing less than the culmination of a century of suspender-snapping cultural nationalism. According to Lisa Phillips, who organized the show, the years from 1950 to 2000 were “when American art really came into its own – when America led the cultural world.” Bully for us.

At both ends of the century, scale puts the point on the exclamation. Although the Montclair exhibit includes only about 80 objects and paintings – many of which were at the Exposition – the curators use photographs and wall panels to emphasize the vast size of the original show. More than 50 million people attended it; America contributed 256 works of art. At the Whitney, part one filled the museum last spring. So does part two today. Together, the two shows will have packed in 1,200 works of painting, sculpture, photography, video, film, dance, and various cultural artifacts. Like the Exposition in Paris, “The American Century” emphasizes art’s response to social issues, exploring what it calls “the evolution of American identity.” Sprinkled among the rooms of part two are various “cultural sites” that provide a social context or mirror for the works of art. One such site is called “The Cold War”; you can watch a clip of the McCarthy hearings on a fifties-style TV. Another evokes the protest movements of the sixties; you can listen to music from Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul & Mary. All the familiar movements in art have their patch of ground: Here is a room of Abstract Expressionist painting, there one of color-field painting. And Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual Art with their main permutations. The genealogy of postmodernism – many works in this style never found an -ism – follows the same quick, social plan.

Of course, the twentieth century didn’t turn out the way the organizers of the American School at the Exposition thought it should. A young, wholesome, virile, idealistic nation? If those early art patriots had known that in 1999, an American woman named Kiki Smith would exhibit a work of art in a national museum called Tale, in which a naked woman rests on all fours with an enormous turd-tail stretched out behind her, they would have suddenly discerned an abiding innocence and sterling virtue in European decadence. But the organizers of these shows at opposite ends of the century nonetheless share a fundamental approach, one that I dislike very much. In 2000 as in 1900, art matters because it illustrates social themes, often of the most banal kind.

Despite their glitter and size, shows with this singular focus diminish art. It is worth noting how they do so. “The American Century” is not wrong to suggest that art reflects aspects of American identity. What, after all, could be more obvious? The show resembles an American-civilization textbook for freshmen or one of those earnest “on the one hand … on the other” documentaries on public television that examine the fractious character of American society. What’s troubling is the rigid exclusion of other ways of viewing art – an unwillingness to teach the public how to respond to art in a more varied way. Books are a much better form, in any case, for examining the social implications of art. An exhibition inevitably oversimplifies, providing only the lightest gloss on the complex social context.

From a walk-through of “The American Century,” you would never know that European ideas were essential to the formation of art on this side of the Atlantic. You would never grasp the remarkable power that Jackson Pollock has had upon the imagination during the past 50 years. You would not know that hundreds of serious artists have chosen not to participate in the conventional parade of AbEx-Pop-Minimal-Conceptual-Postmodern. You would never suppose that art could give pleasure. Most important of all, you would not be encouraged to cultivate that slow, complex, inward-coiling experience – when eye and mind seem to converge in a conversation without words – that is one of the serious rewards of art. A great painting should slow you down. This exhibit never stops pushing you along.

In “The American Century,” the perspective is aerial. You seem to look at art from above, your eye sweeping unimpeded across time and style. (It can be quite a trip – to use the fine old sixties slang – to pass in a moment from the noisy pizzazz of Pop to the austere silence of Minimalism.) And yet from above, everything also appears clean, bland, and smoothed out. The show may discuss “conflict,” but its perspective doesn’t convey it. It softens all tough quarrels and blunts every serious edge. Points of view that are truly contradictory – that represent profoundly different apprehensions of human experience – flow together as easily as one page follows another in a flipped-through magazine. Nothing is left to fester in the imagination. You are never far from a wall panel that explains what the art means. Even the messiest work seems well behaved. No style lasts much longer than a sound bite, and besides, there is always something new beckoning in the corner of your eye or some snatch of song to distract you. Quality never becomes an issue to struggle over. In this show, each historically sanctioned style is as good as the next. For example, it seems likely – but is certainly arguable – that American art begins to decline in the seventies. But there is no struggle to refine understanding, no encouragement for a viewer to develop his or her powers of discrimination. It’s all equally part of history.

It would have been difficult, of course, for the Whitney to approach the twentieth century in any other way. It is, after all, a museum of American art; that is what distinguishes it from other museums of modern art. And it’s understandably hard not to at least try to be comprehensive. The show certainly has many fine bits. There are some great works on display, and the curators here and there make unexpected choices and juxtapositions, in addition to presenting the usual greatest hits. It is interesting to see such artists as Grace Hartigan and Jay DeFeo represented, for example; an Alice Neel portrait of Andy Warhol looks surprisingly comfortable beside some Robert Mapplethorpe photographs. That said, such details are overwhelmed by the shiny production values embodied in this show. Something very odd has happened to the American museum world during the past twenty years. The values of art, entertainment, and the seminar room have mingled, creating an academy of the avant-garde that plays to the crowd.

On the wall labels of the Exposition show in Montclair, the curators often patronize the American culture of 1900. To them it seems blinkered that Americans should have idealized the United States, emphasizing a pristine landscape or an idealized version of women. That condescension is a privilege of time. When 2099 decides to look back at 2000, it will certainly tut-tut over the values that underlie “The American Century.” No doubt 2099 will have a social vision of its own with which to imprison art.

History Lessens