Finding the Art in Everything

01 March, 2008

History in Art Nouveau

We just finished the Gilded Age in my AP class, my trip with students to the Morse Museum in Winter Park was particularly meaningful. In class, we talked about the American triumphalism as displayed at the Chicago World's Fair, and the museum has that Louis Comfort Tiffany chapel reconstructed from its first display there. Tiffany is such a great example for this period because, as one historian explains, he "combines decorative genius with scientific experimentation and commercial acumen."

Another reason I call attention to Tiffany is that I really enjoy the rare moments when America gets to participate in the grand tradition of Western art. Even rarer still are times when America's artistic contribution surpasses any European one. And thanks to Sargent, Whistler (my favorite) and Homer, we get that at the turn of the century.

I have been having a discussion regarding classroom content and patriotism with an erudite stranger. I had asked him whether patriotism and personal ideology had any place in the classroom. He replied that teaching patriotism was "better left to Joseph Goebbels and Hugo Chavez." Blind patriotism is no friend of truth and accuracy. But patriotism is only one kind of these ideas with the power to poison. Plenty of 19th century art was wrecked with an over paint of Victorian morality.

In reading about Tiffany, I came across a description of his contemporary, Homer, which really resonated with me. He "was not interested in painting morals, merely recording nature truthfully, though his viewpoint was always personal and could be tendentious." Homer himself said, "When I have selected a thing carefully, I painted it exactly as it appears.*" Here, Homer's naturalistic integrity speaks to more than the painter; it also serves the historian and the history teacher. We need to put aside our bias, employing careful selection and an exacting approach to verisimilitude. And while the product may be marked by a strong, implicit point of view, it is more likely free from the dangerous artificiality begotten by ideological imposition.

I recall my drawing instructor in college requiring us to practice a technique called "contour drawing." We had to draw the outline of our subject without looking at the paper or really picking up our pencil. It was partly to train our hand-eye coordination, but most important, it was to force us to closely examine our subject for what it was and divorce us from our pre-conceived notions of how it is supposed to look. In doing this, it surprised me with how often my suppositions were wrong, which in turn, wrecks the whole artistic attempt. A line can betray a commitment to the supposition instead of the thing itself.

For history to be worth anything, one has to be like Homer and hold versimilitude as the highest ideal. If we don't, any other emergent ideal is rendered defective because of its faulty basis.

*Paul Johnson, Art: A New History

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