Arts in America


THERE is deep significance in the present earnestness of our diverse approaches to the problem of the fine arts in America. Whether we are concerned primarily with the relationship of American art to the European tradition, or with the rôle of art in everyday life or in education, or with the place of art in planned or laissez-faire economics, we are all seeking that organic core of our civilization the vision of which will dispel a paralyzing sense of uncertainty.

From the beginning Americans have been haunted by a vague consciousness that their art was inadequate. It flowed notoriously thin in the channels through which the vital streams of our life have rushed. It seemed insufficiently representative of the national character. Sometimes our concern proclaimed itself in blustering demands that our art cut loose from all European influence. In another form it was expressed in Jay B. Hubbell’s statement that ’our literature has always been less American than our history ‘ — an observation which could justly be applied to all our fine arts.

In the study of the history of these arts, two basic methods of approach have been employed, neither of which proved entirely satisfactory. Sometimes the critic has traced the work of American architects, poets, or painters as it has appeared at various stages of our history, placing it in relationship with whatever influences seem to him to have been significant: social, intellectual, or political; sectional, national, or international. At other times he has discussed American artists as part of a Western European tradition which has national variants but is essentially a unity. In whatever way the authors regard the results of their investigations, one thing becomes perfectly clear to the objective reader: that, though all the trends and movements and fashions of European art may be traced in work done by Americans, the bulk of our art is distinct from the comparative unity of tradition among the other nations in the Western European family.

Thus, by whichever of the accepted methods we approach the history of our arts, we arrive explicitly or implicitly at the conclusion that art in America is American; yet it remains singularly less so than the acts and institutions which are the monuments of our history. That our art is influenced by European traditions, and that it is inadequately representative of our life, appear as two different yet inseparable segments of the problem. Recognition of this duality suggests the need for a fresh method of approach.


The framework of the method, stripped of all elaborations, postulates two streams of art in our history, flowing in separate channels till they merge as a single stream of American art. Such a presentation has only a formal validity, for the two streams were never altogether distinct, as we shall see. But in view of their origins and import they must be presented separately.

The history of the first of these traces what Suzanne La Follette calls ‘the development in America of the transplanted arts of Europe.’ It is to this history that our ablest critics have devoted themselves, and it is to the combined results of their scholarship and critical insights that we owe our awareness of the American mutations of the Western European tradition.

The other stream is that of a folk art created under conditions that had never before existed. Its history deals with the efforts of common people to create satisfying patterns of the elements in their environment. Unlike the folk art we are familiar with, such as that of the Kentucky mountaineer or the Southern Negro, this is the art of sovereign, even if uncultivated, people, not of groups cut off from the main currents of contemporary life. The patterns they created were not inspired by ancient peasant or racial traditions, but were conditioned by the driving energies of an unprecedented social structure. These were the folk arts of the first people in history, who, disinherited of all reminders of a great cultural tradition, found themselves living under democratic institutions in an expanding machine economy. It is this unique factor of a modern people’s art that we must include in our concept of arts in America. And it is wherever this stream joins the other that we shall find the artistic achievements which are the triumphs of our national genius.

The data of a folk art are hard to come by. No one bothered to note the patterns of colors, lines, sounds, and ideas which the common people produced. They were not designed to be kept in frames on the wall, or cherished in albums, or treasured upon shelves behind glass doors; these patterns formed bridges, houses, barns, machines, tools, ships, wagons, books, and periodicals for use in the routine of daily life. It was into the design of useful things that these people inevitably turned the universal creative instinct. The repressed artistic urge found release in uncounted rudimentary and personal expressions.

One day a child in a frontier village school drew a picture of a lace veil on her slate. The teacher gave her a public scolding which convinced her that she had terribly sinned. Looking back to that time from the closing years of a long life, she said: ‘But though I was not encouraged to be an artist, I’ve always tried to make anything I had to make as beautiful as I could make it. My pats of butter I made in pretty shapes. I’ve always liked to sew and embroider. . . . Women made their own designs for cloth as well as for dresses in those days. If a woman had taste she had a chance to show it in her weaving.’ The WPA Index of American Design is making available a wealth of material of the kind thus recorded in Grandmother Brown’s Hundred Years. However, in its purest form the stream of art we are considering is illustrated in technological design. Here craft tradition had least influence, and the characteristic impulses of the new civilization displayed their full energy in patterns available to all the people, cultivated and uncultivated alike.

When the attention of Europeans was first drawn to American tools and machines, at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, observers were astonished by their simplicity and technical correctness. At the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 they found them, as the leader of the German delegation expressed it, of ‘such variety and beauty as cannot but excite admiration and astonishment. A constraint runs through all of them. They are designed so well for the purposes they serve that they seem to anticipate our very needs.’ Constraint, simplicity, fitness for use, and an organic sense of structure these matter-of-fact qualities are the characteristics of this tradition of design.

The great Corliss Engine in the Centennial’s Machinery Hall was the contemporary masterpiece of the tradition. ‘In structures of this kind,’ said the Scientific American’s critic, who knew the best European machines, ‘ there is almost always seen more or less of a straining after architectural and other ornamental effects. We very often find an engine-frame made up of elaborate Corinthian or Gothic columns and arches . . . as well as graceful curves in struts and braces which every engineering consideration would decide should be straight lines.’ So he was afraid that the Corliss Engine would seem lacking in beauty to those who did not appreciate how completely, and severely, practical fitness had been adhered to. But to anyone who reads the mass of contemporary comment on the exhibition it is obvious that lie need not have worried. Everyone said all the fine things that were expected of him about the pictures and statues in Memorial Hall, but in the presence of the Corliss Engine people were exalted. It stood there, not an idealization, but a fact. Yet it was more than merely the motive power for the miles of shafting which belted their energy to machines throughout the building. ‘Josiah Allen’s wife,’ the popular humorist-philosopher of Samantha at the Centerinial, spoke for thousands of Americans when she said that ‘ that great “Careless Enjun” alone was enough to run anybody’s idees up into majestic heights and run ‘em round and round into lofty circles and spears of thought they hadn’t never thought of runnin’ into before.’

It was this, and other American machines at the Centennial, of which the London Times correspondent wrote: ‘The American invents as the Greek sculptured and the Italian painted; it is genius.’ ‘Surely here,’ observed the Atlantic Monthly’s critic, ‘ and not in literature, science, or art, is the true evidence of man’s creative power; here is Prometheus Unbound.’

Not often were the elements of this modern folk art welded into patterns which were æsthetic masterpieces. One could scarcely expect the millennium in the crude, amorphous life of nineteenthcentury America. There is plenty of evidence that life was barren and bleak almost past bearing in the regions beyond the influence of an older culture. But whatever was built or made in this folk way was almost necessarily characterized by constraint and simplicity; and, as skills and knowledge developed, the fitness for use became more certain and the organic sense of structure more sure. There was no place for diffuseness, there were no resources to spare for the ornate, and it was merely sound sense to design a thing as economically as one could. A combination of simplicity, lightness, and strength of construction came to be distinctive of American, as opposed to European, designs, whether for carriages, wagons, ships, furniture, or bridges. When American and European engineers submitted competing designs for an iron bridge to be built in Canada in the seventies, the American plans called for a half to a quarter the weight of materials required by their competitors.

It was this tradition in which were developed, and kept universally available, certain elements of design which had enormous influence in the hands of men of skill and vision. This stream of art in America had no knack for borrowed veneers of traditional prettiness, and only rarely did it succeed in creating beauty of its own. But the patterns at least reflected reality, however ugly that reality often was; and at their best, as in the Corliss Engine or the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi, they achieved enduring grandeur.


Having distinguished two streams of art, the one flowing into our national life from the cultural traditions of Western Europe and the other gathering its waters from scattered oases in a desert of raw civilization, we may identify the one as the tradition of cultivated taste, the other as the vernacular. The two streams mingle from the beginning, and one must recognize that it is in their interpenetration and in their alternate ascendancy in the work of different men and different periods that the true history of American art consists.

Throughout our literature the qualities of mass-produced, reportorial journalism have been at war with those of belles-lettres, often in the work of a single person. Even Poe, who shares richly in the tradition of European letters, was in some measure moulded by his experience with a branch of popular journalism; scarcely anyone avoided it entirely. All those writers the sum total of whose achievements seem especially representative of our national life — Emerson, Whitman, Mark Twain, Sandburg — have roots in the vernacular tradition of either oral or written journalism. Even more important than that, no American author has escaped the consciousness of conflict between those qualities which defined the European tradition of art and those of the emergent native tradition. In its most elementary form the conflict is expressed in Catherine Maria Sedgwick’s (1836) naïvely sincere question: ‘If the poet and painter cannot bring down their arts to the level of the poor, are there none to be God’s interpreters to them?’ The answer came from Emerson less than a decade later: ‘Now men do not see nature to be beautiful, and they go to make a statue which shall be. They abhor men as tasteless, dull, and inconvertible, and console themselves with color bags and blocks of marble. They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic. ... It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts.’

It was this lean Yankee mystic who first glimpsed in the barbarism and materialism of the times another carnival of the same gods whose picture we so much admire in Homer; railroads, commerce, the galvanic battery, the chemist’s retort, newspapers, and the democratic caucus ‘are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi, and are as swiftly passing away.’ Whitman cleared the issue, turning as completely as he could from what he called ‘the choicer classes, the college-bred, the état-major’ and looking to ‘the bulky democratic torso of the United States even for æsthetic and moral attributes of serious account.’ His ‘Song of the Broad-Axe’ and ‘Song of the Exposition’ were imaginative projections of this insight.


The art of building both here and abroad suffered profoundly, during the nineteenth century, from what Talbot Hamlin calls ‘the disastrous separation between engineering and architecture.’ Academic architecture, caught in the flood of classic, Gothic, and Renaissance revivals which culminated in eclecticism, became more and more archæologically-minded; it was ornament, not construction, that it adopted as its province.

One of the streams of American art, the tradition of cultivated taste, flowed in the channel of academic architecture. It was this tradition that produced some of the most attractive buildings of the century; but, as Hamlin points out, the work of men like Upjohn, Renwick, and Lafever, by its very success in such examples as Trinity and Grace churches in Manhattan and Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, did much to establish in America the dichotomy between architecture and engineering. It was, he feels, in its simpler, less ostentatious monuments that the best American Gothic appeared: in ‘the little churches in which wood was allowed frankly to be itself,’ and in the ‘carpenter-Gothic of the picturesque high-gabled cottages.’

The other, the vernacular stream of utilitarian building is dramatically expressed in the anonymous development of a revolutionary method of construction that still goes by the derisive name with which conservative builders dubbed it. A contemporary described balloonframe construction as characterized by ‘light, sticks, uninjured by cutting mortices or tenons, a close basket-like manner of construction, short bearings, a continuous support for each piece of timber from foundation to rafter, and embracing and taking advantage of the practical fact that the tensile and compressible strength of pine lumber is equal to onefifth of that of wrought iron.’ It was Sigfried Giedion, in his Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1939, who first emphasized the importance of balloon framing as a step in the industrializing of building. In the present context it is significant that the earliest-known building in balloon frame was one of those ‘little churches in which wood was allowed frankly to be itself,’ St. Mary ‘s Catholic Church in Chicago, erected in 1833. G. E. Woodward, like other contemporary observers, understood the qualities of this new method. ‘Its simple, effective and economical manner of construction,’ he wrote, ‘has very materially aided the rapid settlement of the West, and placed the art of building, to a great extent, within the control of the pioneer.’ He saw that it was a revolutionary development ‘which plainly and boldly acknowledges its origin in necessity.’ Here again are the qualities of our technologicaldemocratic folk art: simplicity, lightness, strength of construction, and maximum availability.

These balloon-frame buildings, conceived by an uncultivated taste, were often appallingly unattractive. The architect Calvert Vaux, partner of Frederick Law Olmsted in the creation of New York’s Central Park, and author of buildings and books which deserve far more attention than they have received, complained in mid-century that ‘square boxes, small and large, are springing up in every direction, constructed without any attempt at proportion, or the slightest apparent desire to make them agreeable objects in the landscape. . . . Each of these bare, bald white cubes tells its monotonous story of a youth passed with little or no cultivation of the higher natural perceptions.’ Vaux came to America with the best available English training in architecture, and devoted his life to the realization in this country of his ideals of his art. More nearly than many of his contemporaries he grasped the nature of the problem. Republicanism, he argued, ‘tacitly, but none the less practically, demanded of art to thrive in the open air, in all weathers, for the benefit of all, if it was worth anything, and if not, to perish as a troublesome and useless encumbrance’; furthermore, though the spirit of republicanism assimilates all immigrants into distinctly American political unity, it will not be until that spirit permeates all aspects of our life that we may expect ‘a power of fusion in manners and arts equal . . . to the one now almost omnipotent in politics.’

In 1898, when the Viennese architect Adolf Loos formulated the theory that the degree of beauty of an object corresponds with ‘the degree to which it attains utility and harmony of all parts in relation to each other,’ a revitalizing vision of architecture was suggested to a profession which was wallowing in eclecticism. Fifty years earlier, a crotchety farmer in western New York State, who had no training in the profession of architecture, took it upon himself to instruct his neighbors in the art of building. ‘No style of architecture, or finish,’ said he, ‘can be really bad, where utility is duly consulted, and carried out, even in the humblest way of cheapness, or rusticity.’ Provided there is harmony among them, even the meanest structures derive dignity from the very ‘character of utility or necessity which they maintain.’ The plans he offers for farm buildings all have their origin in the life to be lived, or the jobs to be done, within them. Being devoid of all formal training, he had to rely on a Buffalo architect for the illustrations for his book (L. F. Allen, Rural Architecture, 1851), The renderings are dressed up in applied ornament, to which he reacts irritably. Nowhere could the conflict between the academic and vernacular traditions find sharper expression. Diamond-paned windows in a poultry house he attributes to the draftsman’s taste for the picturesque, further remarking that ‘if we were building the house on our own account, there should be no such nonsense about it.’

There is a close relation between the light, strong simplicity of vernacular construction in architecture and the use of iron as developed by American bridge builders. At the time of the Philadelphia Centennial a comparison of European and American practice revealed marked differences. When iron as a material was first employed in European bridges, it was heaped into cast-iron arches, reminiscent of the heavy forms of mortar and stone; only gradually were its inherent qualities taken advantage of. In America requirements of speed and cheapness, as in our early railroad bridges, had forced the use of wood rather than stone. When, therefore, the use of iron was introduced, our bridge designers copied the proportions already established as most economical in wooden trusses; they adapted the old methods of wood-frame construction, using tenons and sliding joints for compressive members, pins and eyebars for those in tension. The George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge are contemporary developments of a characteristic economy of materials and fitness to purpose.

It is not surprising that it was from the Eads Bridge and the cantilever bridge over the Kentucky River that Louis Sullivan caught his vision of the power of the ‘creative dreamer; he who possessed the power of vision needed to harness imagination, to harness the intellect, to make science do his will, to make the emotions serve him.’ That vision he fused into a faith. ‘With me,’ he wrote to Claude Bragdon, ‘architecture is not an art but a religion, and that religion but part of the greater religion of Democracy.’ Here was the same vision with which Whitman had welcomed ‘the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.’


In literature and in architecture, the two arts in which Americans have most widely participated, our artistic history is revealed as the interpenetration, and alternating ascendancy, of a cultivated and a vernacular tradition. What has haunted us as a conflict of American versus European art, or as a somehow discreditable paucity of artistic achievement, was in reality a phenomenon unique in the world’s history: a people’s art, democratically patterning a technological environment, converging with the great tradition of world art.

The more the cultivated tradition turned in upon itself, marrying itself to its own past, the more anaemic and impotent it became. On the other hand, the freedom of the vernacular from the domination of the older tradition was at once its weakness and its strength. It is owing to that undisciplined freedom that spiritual starvation blighted large areas of our national life; yet it is that same freedom which has permitted the emergence of an indigenous, organic discipline of form. It is a reverence for the actual, a power to transform crude reality into a symbol of human dignity, which animates the true fine arts of America.