Monday, March 01, 2004
An Open Letter to Terry Teachout
Terry Teachout lives in Manhattan. He's the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, but for his blog About Last Night he writes about the other arts, too—books, ballet, painting and sculpture, film and TV, whatever happens to catch his eye or ear. He writes "Second City," a column about the arts in New York that appears in the Washington Post on the first Sunday of every month, and his work also appears in the New York Times, National Review, and many other magazines and newspapers.
For U.S. Society & Values, An electronic journal of the Department of State you wrote an article called "The Return of Beauty," in which you said,
What a difference a century makes. In 1903, comparatively few Americans took anything like a passionate interest in the arts. Only two living American novelists, Mark Twain and Henry James, had done major work, and Twain's was long behind him. Our best painters, the American impressionists, hewed to a style frankly derivative of their European models; our art museums were narrowly provincial in scope and ambition. We had no great composers, no great poets or playwrights, no ballet companies, and only a handful of symphony orchestras and opera companies.
Having met you a couple of times in the company of our mutual friends Sim and Whit (the last time at a Last Days of Disco screening), I’m surprised by your endorsement of this Modernist bias towards the early 20th century. You are breezily dismissing one of the greatest artistic periods in American history.
This is standard today. The publisher of an architecture press here in New York recently wrote that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum was one of the three greatest museums of the 20th century. Wright was a great architect, but the Guggenheim isn’t even one of the three best New York museums of the 20th century – would you call it more beautiful than the Metropolitan (the best part built 1902 – 1904), the Morgan (1902 – 1907), or the Frick (1912 – 14)? And that’s without even considering the fact that most artists and curators complain that the ramps, the main idea of the building, don’t work for displaying art.
Perhaps there was no great novel written specifically in the year 1903, and no great dance company – but then what great novel would you point to in 2003? More to the point, 1903 was the heart of the period called the American Renaissance and the peak of the widespread and very popular City Beautiful movement. Without question, it was the greatest time in America for architecture and city-building.
Charles McKim and Stanford White were at their height of the talents and success. Daniel Burnham, after the enormous popular success of the World’s Columbia Exposition, had just finished the McMillan Commission plan for the Washington Mall and the surrounding area and was laying the groundwork for his 1909 Plan of Chicago. It was also a great time for their collaborators – John Singer Sargent, John White Alexander, John LaFarge, Daniel Chester French and Augustus St. Gaudens.
A lot of what makes New York New York comes from that time. In addition to the Metropolitan Museum, there was the Brooklyn Museum (1895 – 1915), Grand Central Terminal (1903 – 1913, Penn Station was 1904 – 1910), the New York Public Library (1897 – 1911) and all the great branch libraries. The Columbia University (1895 – 1902) and City College (1905 – 1907) campuses and all the great New York City schools were built then. Most of the great towers of downtown date from that time, like most of the best apartment houses and houses of the Upper West and East Sides. Most of the great churches, most of the great courthouses, and even some of the best bridges (Williamsburg Bridge, 1903, Manhattan Bridge, 1903 – 1909, Queensboro Bridge, 1909, Hellgate, 1907 – 1914) were built then.
In music and theater, the new Manhattan Opera was built to compete with the Metropolitan Opera. Many of the best old places like Madison Square Garden, the Olympia, Hippodrome (1905) and Century theaters are gone, but we still have the New Amsterdam (1903), the Lyceum (1903) and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (competition 1904). And I haven’t even mentioned all the great old roof gardens that are gone, nor the hotels, clubs and banks that are still with us.
You might say that these were derivative of European models. So what? How does that prevent them from being beautiful? How many equally beautiful buildings have been built in New York since then? And what Modern art was not Western influenced?
If we are to talk about beauty in America, let’s start with the most beautiful American work, independent of polemical premises. On those terms, I don’t think Ghost World and Cremaster qualify.
PS: It’s obvious from all the theaters being built that theater and music were very popular around 1903. And while dance isn’t my field, wasn’t Isadora Duncan, almost 25, well on her way to being the Madonna of her day? In any case, Henry James was only 57 and still had the New York edition ahead of him, certainly a major work, as well as his memoirs and some essays and short stories. Edith Wharton’s best work and Pulitzer Prize were still to come, but she had published some work and was hanging out with James – wouldn’t you have liked to have been there?
Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and The New Republic were all going strong, playing a much more important role in American intellectual life than comparable magazines today.
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Michael Blowhard commented on this at http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/001330.html#001330 and got quite a few interesting comments.
I wish I knew how to make my own "trackback" for references to Veritas et Venustas on other sites.
Posted by: John Massengale at Mar 6, 2004 9:33:20 AM
Regarding Terry Teachout:
Mr. Massengale certainly makes his point, and can persuade without my help; but there is more to say. Mr Teachout has an impressive resume, but, perhaps because he's such a popular and successful journalist, he doesn't seem to know almost anything about the artistic and intellectual history of America, and he makes ludicrous assertations.
Stanford White and Edith Wharton are cited; I would like to remind Mr Teachout, as well as Mr. Massengale, about everyone else. Emerson, Longfellow, Melville and Hawthorne, not to mention Motley, Holmes, Lowell, Parkman, Everett, and Eliot were among the honored dead. Winslow Homer painted a picture or two, as did Mary Cassatt. Walt Whitman and John Greenleaf Whittier cast long, revered shadows. Longfellow, considered the best-loved poet in the world, had been interred in Poet's Corner, in England's Westminster Abbey; an unprecedented honor for an American.
And this is the generation BEFORE the one mentioned by Mr. Teachout. In the generation he speaks of, Henry James who Emerson knew as a child, was discovered as an artist by William Dean Howells, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly and one of America's great novelists. Theodore Drieser had written his most powerful work, as had Jack London and Stephen Crane, who became a great friend of James's in London. This is just what I recall off the top of my head, but by any standard, Mr Teachout displays his ignorance.
He should read "The Flowering of New England", and "New England:Indian Summer" by Van Wyck Brooks. There are few other books as important or neccesary to understanding the artistic and intellectual significance of the 19th century. Modernists who worship the 20th century will be surprised at how modern the 19th really was, from American Art and Literature, to mass transportation, trains,elevated tracks,subways, to newspapers, and mass market magazines,(particularly women's magazines, Godey's,Lady's Home Journal), telephones, sound recording and even motion pictures; it all started then, Mr Teachout; and it flowered then, too. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
Posted by: Stanley White at May 5, 2004 9:18:02 AM
Re: Teachout "makes ludicrous assertations"
After waxing eloquent about why actors are not truly creative artists, Mr. Teachout blogged concerning Marlon Brando, ". . . my guess is that his memory will fade quickly, since so few of his films are worth seeing today."
I emailed Mr. Teachout pointing out that regardless of his personal opinion of Brando's acting ability, historical greatness is determined by the influence of an artist on his medium--and that Brando's influence is undeniable. Those so influenced include Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, James Dean, Al Pacino, plus many important filmmakers; in other words, many important films made after Brando were influenced to some degree by Brando. (There is also his cultural influence through his characterizations, especially the biker, Johnny Strabler, and the Godfather, Don Corleone.)
Mr. Teachout also endorsed the view that "it is hardly possible to be moved by him in On the Waterfront for noticing the vast technical trick he is performing", when in fact Brando is credited by art history with abandoning the use of such technical tricks associated with the stage to one of actually inhabiting a role.
In any case, Mr. Teachout is clearly wrong about the historical influence of Brando. Mr. Teachout did kindly reply to my email, but never responded concerning the substance of my objections to his "ludicrous assertation."
Posted by: Zachriel at Jul 11, 2004 11:02:01 AM
Rhetorical question: what is the connection between New urbanism/classical architecture,Mixed Martial arts(MMA), and things like the Art Renewal Center(ARC)?
The architects are way ahead of the other artists. All stand against medusa and hydra. Perhaps the New Urbanists will not be unwise when they return some ornament, mural, sculpture, and other in situ art. If i may be so bold to say that mural and mosaic are not the work of interior decorators, but of skilled artists. That is, when will they begin to employ these artists in the great work of renewal? When the artists come knocking on the door?
we are painters/designers interested in the comments of new urbanist/classical architects and their supporters.
Posted by: Pictor at Oct 19, 2004 12:33:12 PM