The March of Time

Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage (1907).Photo: courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

The American Century is best approached not as a traditional exhibition of art but as a PBS documentary or a World’s Fair pavilion. The five floors of the Whitney Museum of American Art twinkle and buzz with a fast-moving, spiffy presentation of the nation’s social and cultural preoccupations during the first half of the twentieth century. (The second part of the show, covering 1950 to 2000, is scheduled to open in September.) Giant reproductions of iconic photographs, like that of the Marines raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima, enliven the jazzily designed galleries. Wonderful bits borrowed from movies both famous and obscure – ranging from Modern Times and The Gay Divorcée to The Plow That Broke the Plains and clips of teenagers dancing – play continuously on screens in the gallery walls. Visitors can pick up a charmingly clunky “period” telephone receiver to listen to Woody Guthrie sing “This Land Is Your Land” or read a wall panel as concise as a sound bite on, say, “Immigration and New Populations” or “Streamlined Design.” The works are marched through time in an orderly but colorful parade, often accompanied by the sound of music in the background, in order to provide an illustrated synopsis of American cultural history.

The exhibition has the virtues of a good documentary. The curators, led by Barbara Haskell, have put on display dozens of fascinating and lesser-known curiosities in addition to many celebrated American images. You can pore over advertising for long-ago musical events – such as a picture of W. C. Handy holding his fiddle for his rendering of “The Memphis Blues” (1912) – and enjoy Life and Vogue covers from the twenties. The section on the Jazz Age contains a sensational clip from Black and Tan, a 1929 movie of Duke Ellington’s combo playing and dancers dancing. Interesting paintings by lesser-known artists – such as John Covert and Henry Ossawa Tanner – are on view. All told, “The American Century” contains a staggering 700 works.

The educational air of the show is entertaining, sweet, nostalgic, and evocative. The historical imagination of both young and old visitors should quicken to the spectacle, and the danger of boredom is small; so much ground is covered that even the Great Depression passes quickly. A show of this range can create an intoxicating sense of mastery, fostering the illusion that one can drink in the essence of a century during an afternoon. Time collapses into itself – creating a peculiarly modern perspective, a kind of syncopated vision in which the varied styles and themes of the century blur and flicker together like the frames of an old newsreel.

The show, in short, deserves to draw big crowds. But if you care about either art or history in a serious way, you must also recognize what the exhibition is not. The director of the Whitney, Maxwell Anderson – in a forgivable piece of institutional tub-thumping – calls the show “the definitive evaluation of American art of the twentieth century.” It is nothing of the kind. Big does not mean definitive. (If a definitive reading ever becomes possible, moreover, America will no longer be America.) Intellectually, the show is simply a diagrammatic survey of the conventional themes in the textbooks. The catalogue – edited by Haskell and including essays by many different critics – offers a deeper response to American culture, but given the scale of the subject and the writers’ variety of outlooks, it also serves as an introductory textbook. “The American Century” is, if anything, more revealing about the present than about the past. It captures the way America at the millennium wants to think about itself.

The mood is celebratory. The title of the exhibit comes from an editorial by Henry Luce, the founder of Time-Life; early in the forties, Luce began to promote the idea that America had a special role to play in the twentieth century. His phrase The American Century captured not only the pride in power taken by a country emerging from an isolationist past but, later, its determination to fight the Cold War and save the world from Communism. The show itself practically busts its buttons with “Look at me” national pride. Its chords are dramatic, big, declarative. No interest is taken in the murky complexities of history and art. The clash of sensibility or argument never has a hurtful edge; if some artists retreated toward nature while others celebrated the machine, well, together they were just part of the ever-changing American Dream. Even the crises of the Depression and World War II seem smoothed out by the show’s parade through time. As I looked at a collage of Hollywood World War II footage that is full of exploding bombs, Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” drifted over from the next room.

The national pride seriously distorts the presentation of American art. One implication of “The American Century” is that the nation’s art – in addition to its economic and military might – dominated the century. In fact, for all its fascinations, the achievement of American art through World War II is very small when compared with that of Europe. Nothing about this level of achievement is suggested to visitors. Moreover, the Whitney – founded to support American art at a time when collectors paid attention only to Europe – slights the European influence on American art to an astonishing degree. Many ambitious American artists of the period wanted to escape the provincial spirit of America by looking for inspiration to European art. But nothing is made of the Armory Show of 1913, which exhibited some works of European modernists – a seminal moment in the American imagination. The art of the thirties is presented as if it were entirely homegrown, without any mention of Picasso, Miró, or Mondrian, whom the strongest Americans (some were themselves recent immigrants from Europe) worshiped. No mention is made of the European-émigré artists who came to New York during World War II and provided an essential catalyst for the creation of Abstract Expressionism.

For many people, the years 1945 to 1950 are easily the most significant of the century for American art – the time when all the major Abstract Expressionists matured as artists and the United States found a significant new voice in painting and sculpture. Yet “The American Century” ends with a small, even pathetic accounting of these extraordinary years; the works on display, with a couple of exceptions, are second-rate and don’t remotely do Pollock, for one, justice. The scale of the accomplishment – literal and metaphysical – is not conveyed. Why? The answer must be that the organizers are saving Abstract Expressionism to begin the next show (1950-2000) with a bang. If they were primarily interested in the life of art, however, they would have either closed the first part of the exhibit with World War II or, if continuing on to 1950, ended with a grand statement of the style. Their main interest, though, is not actually art itself but using art to create chapters in a history book.

The critics of the fifties, who actually grew up during the first half of the twentieth century, would have torn into this show like tigers. I can imagine Clement Greenberg’s sharp contempt for this exhibit’s refusal to make bold discriminations about the relative value of different works of art; Harold Rosenberg’s disgust that the existential challenge to an oppressively materialistic century was not powerfully asserted; Dwight Macdonald’s smirk at the bread and circuses provided for middlebrow taste. Their snobbery was not appealing – nor was their failure to find the humor in things – but their passion for art as a great and difficult enterprise had extraordinary vitality. For such critics, the art on display here still had the force of flesh and blood. It was living and controversial – something that one fought over and gave one’s life to. By contrast, the passion for art doesn’t count for much in the first part of “The American Century,” which is a telling comment about our own culture’s historicizing taste and lack of conviction. Art here is an occasion for nostalgia, education, and entertainment. Viewers are not challenged to make choices or to spend time in the contemplation of great achievements. Art has retired into history, becoming just another image to illustrate important sociopolitical issues. The show is full of life, but in a way that reminds me of the music and dancing at a New Orleans funeral. The twentieth century is almost dead and buried.

The March of Time