Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy

Curated by Barbara Dayer Gallati and Linda S. Ferber

THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
NOVEMBER 11, 2011 – SEPTEMBER 9, 2012

The concept of “taste” looms uncomfortably over the practice of art criticism, a constant reminder of the fundamental difficulty in assessing aesthetic quality in objective terms. So much in fact that most contemporary art critics choose to bypass the issue altogether, usually by taking their own taste for granted and building up from there. Leave it to the art historians to remind us that our taste for American art, which often seems as falsely eternal as American prosperity itself, was not preordained, but rather, made.

Making American Taste installation shot. Photo credit: Glenn Castellano / New-York Historical Society.

Co-curators Barbara Dayer Gallati and Linda S. Ferber hunted down the sources of American taste in an exhibition aptly titled Making American Taste: Narrative Art For a New Democracy at the newly renovated New-York Historical Society. The show mines the museum’s robust collection of American art treasures to tell the story of this nation’s conflicted adolescence as a producer and consumer of visual culture.

The exhibition spans the early Republic through the Gilded Age, and reveals America’s many social anxieties and aspirations that fed as many types, tropes, and aspects of visual art. The curators dealt with the inherent lack of continuity by dividing the show into five subsections: Transplanting the Grand Manner, Translating Literary Taste into Visual Experience, Catering to Average Taste, Taste and History Painting,and Beauty and Spiritualized Taste. These categories also provide the girding for Gallati’s ambitious and enthralling essay, “Taste, Art, and Cultural Power in Nineteenth Century America.” Another profound essay by Ferber, “Nature’s Nation” complements the exhibition. In contrast to the inspired catalogue—though I feel unusually hesitant to make any qualitative judgments in this case—much of the work in the show looks amateurish compared to its European counterparts. But that’s the point, and one that is made clear in the essays and accompanying images, which are as instrumental to Making American Taste as the paintings on the wall.

Gallati inventories 19th century America’s cultural growing pains, from its anti-intellectual streak, to its ambivalent relationship with European tradition, to its unique outlook on land and landscape, and finally, to its unusual attraction to narrative art. As a result, less sophisticated paintings such as William Sidney Mount’s “Farmers Bargaining” and Asher Durand’s “The Pedlar,” seem more like awkward teenagers searching painfully for identity than mediocre adults. These and other paintings reveal America’s deep Protestant connection to work and commerce, and yet, a secret hunger for the ornament and traditions of the Old World. The moments in the show that aspire to loftier ideals of European academicism, like Benjamin West’s “Aeneus and Creusa,” fall a bit short of the best; however, we know that this teenager eventually matures, making the juvenile moments seem charming rather than repellent. The maudlin and derivative “A Sybil” by Daniel Huntington might be America’s tortured poet phase, Gilbert Gaul’s “Charging the Battery” its Goth period.

Gallati offers two epigraphs in her essay; one, dialogue from the film An Education and the other, a quote from the British academic painter Joshua Reynolds.

Jenny: I’m still trying to work out what makes good things good. It’s hard isn’t it?

Danny: The thing is, Jenny, you know, without necessarily being able to explain why. You see, you have taste. That’s not half the battle, that’s the whole war.

—An Education

A relish for the higher excellencies of art is an acquired taste, which no man ever possessed without long cultivation, and great labour and attention.

—Joshua Reynolds

The contradiction within these two well-chosen sentiments haunts all aesthetic judgment, art or otherwise. With the scholarly evenhandedness one should expect, the exhibition and catalogue avoid editorializing about which side is metaphysically accurate; that is, whether taste is innate or acquired. However, the text makes a fairly clear case that the collective taste of a nation is made, shaped, and constantly evolving. Modernism, the movement that followed the time period covered in Making American Taste, was especially plagued by these issues, especially in America with its eclectic socio-political stew of Calvinism, populism, and elitism. Gallati chips away at the intellectual foundation of taste and builds it back up by looking at specific episodes in 19th century American art. Though her research is focused and specific, our contemporary art world, the one that often passes manufactured content for taste, is implicated by extension.

Karl Marx famously said, “Art hides its ideological assumptions in the blithe folds of aesthetic superiority,” suggesting that taste is a form of psychological control. Others, from Immanuel Kant to Clement Greenberg, would adamantly disagree. And most of the rest of the world chooses to live in between these extremes, dealing with granular bits of the unwieldy issue on an à la carte basis. This myopia allows artificial tastemakers, like us critics and curators, to interfere without enough resistance.

For all the less mature moments in the show, I feel I may have overstated the case about quality to make a larger point about the nature of America’s visual adolescence. It should be mentioned that the exhibition also includes a number of successes. John Vanderlyn’s “Ariadne Alseep on the Island of Naxos” is an elegant and confident painting, and Thomas Cole’s brooding “Landscape” is a welcome departure from what most will be accustomed to seeing of his work. There’s something bizarre and Bruegelesquely wonderful about Louis Lang’s large canvas, “Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M., from the Seat of the War,” and I was glad to finally see Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life at the South” in person. It lived up to expectations shaped from viewing textbook plates over the years. Then again, on what basis can one make such declarative and subjective claims? Perhaps Johnson’s painting is as lacking as William Sidney Mount’s. Or perhaps both are triumphs—after considering the show’s thesis for a while, one wonders. And the incredulity is welcome. Maybe judgment is inherently fraught; relative by nature, inherently uncertain, and possibly, just a matter of taste.

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Shane McAdams