MODERNISM, the kind you spell with a big M, has long been dying from a certain cerebral fever that infected it as early as 1903. But the vitality that this palsied movement has exhibited, and its splendid resistance to the humors of conservatism, have deceived the doctors of aesthetics and placed the accent of contemporary interest upon the delirious brilliance of its reflexes rather than upon the fundamental soundness of the patient’s health. Those of us who have had any close clinical contact with the hospitals of art have recognized For some time past that sooner or later, when the taste for introspection and self-laceration was abated, the public would discover that the movement was lying comatose in the gutter, and would also realize that the collectors of the post-war years were holding its green snakes and pink elephants at a much higher premium than that usually paid for medical curios.
Modern Art. by Thomas Craven (Simon & Schuster, $3.75), is readable, his main thesis far too near the truth for the layman to discover the falsity of his point of view, and, above all, it sells — for it is not only the most popular book on art since Buskin’s Seven Lamps, but it is without question the most salacious book on the subject ever written. The greater part is devoted to an expose of the private lives of artists in the Latin Quarter, which is colored by a blast of hatred for French women and an illuminating, but scarcely relevant, account of his own prowess. Nowhere is there any thoughtful consideration of the historical or intellectual implications of modern art. Mr. Craven believes that the root of all evil lies deep in the soil of France, and that the maiden blush of the American Muse must be spared the dreadful experiences of his own life.
To blame the French or anybody else for modernism does not, obviously, provide a solution for the problem — a problem which indeed seems to solve itself. For no artistic movement lasts beyond its span of usefulness. It is a product of its time and helps to clarify the ideas that influence it. Far better blame Jean Jacques Rousseau than Picasso it a scapegoat must be found, for it was on the doorstep of the French Academy that his three-headed monster, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, was laid. Prior to the French Revolution, art was a cutand-dried academic performance. The artist knew his place and the spectator kept his. But the artisan and craftsman, emancipated by the philosophy of individualism, emerged into a new world of politics and science. From 1789 to the invention of photography in the ’30s there was a phase of political aesthetic. Jacobin classicism served the Directoire; an Egyptian nostalgia was reflected in the Empire style; and, finally, the Bourbon restoration insisted upon its Capet ian legitimacy through a trumped-up mediawalism. With the invention of photography came the call of science. Already the Barbizon painters, affected by Constable and the Salon of 1824, had adopted a new naturalism. Courbet, the realist, went them one better, and then in the ‘60s, inspired by the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte and the medical investigations of Pasteur, the Impressionists carried their canvases into the open sunlight and investigated the effect of the spectrum on the art of painting. Since that time the artists have not deviated from the pathway of investigation and research. When Les Fauves arrived in Paris three years before his death, in 1906, they found the great reformation of art which they were yearning to bring about already accomplished. The only way that they could attract attention was by turning handsprings.
Fortunately for them, a new introspective psychology was abroad in Germany and in Central Europe. To this was grafted, with the help of a group of non-Aryan art dealers, a taste for archaeology. There followed during the first third of this century a heavily subsidized intelleetualism which not only’ produced the art goods, but ingeniously provided their background. How deeply this movement penetrated the fabric of European life may be seen in the pages of Herbert Read’sArt Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture. Here is a. book that gives the evidence as well as the cause. Mr. Craven is a much more facile and gifted writer. He has missed a unique opportunity to do a great service for the arts. For, while we may agree with him that the École de Paris is now an exploded myth and that American artists must learn to stand on their own feet, we cannot believe that the one was caused by the wholesale degeneracy of the French, or that the other will be accomplished exclusively by Thomas Renton and the other Teddy Roosevelts of American art.