Does art reflect society or society reflect art?

McSorley's Bar, 1912, by John Sloan. McSorley's is the oldest Irish tavern in New York City. It only admitted women after being forced to do so in 1970. I got into my last-ever bar fight there, with an undergrad from NYU who imagined I’d slighted his girlfriend. “I can take him,” I insisted to my husband. “Who expects a roundhouse from a blue-haired church lady?”
Yesterday a reader asked, “Does art reflect society or society reflect art?” It seems to me that art is primarily a reflection of the aspirations and values of the society that created it. That is not to downplay the importance of social justice in art, and it doesn’t mean that artists can’t change people’s minds. Think of the tremendous courage it took for Émile Zola to publish J'accuse, and the influence it has down to this day. But even that was responsive to a reality: the injustice of institutional anti-Semitism.

By the turn of the 19th century, America had recovered a bit from its earlier unbridled optimism. This could be seen in its literature, with writers like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, and Frank Norris describing the dark side of the American experience. The painterly equivalent was called the Ashcan School.

Steaming Streets, 1908, by George Bellows. The Ashcan painters did not gloss over the filth and danger of our cities.
The Ashcan painters opposed both American Impressionism and the highly polished work of painters like John Singer Sargent. They were darker, rougher, and harsher. They were not just interested in light and air; they also wanted to paint the grime, the frozen manure and the poverty that were also part of our urban reality.

From the standpoint of trendiness, their moment was short-lived. The Cubists, Fauvists and Expressionists took over the avant garde high ground with the Armory Show of 1913, and suddenly the Ashcan painters were lumped in with all those boring old realists from the 19th century.

Eviction (Lower East Side), 1904, by Everett Shinn (gouache). Shinn had watched the eviction of an old musician from his apartment, which inspired this picture of misery and despair.    

That should not minimize their artistic and social importance. Painters like Robert Henri, George Bellows, George Luks, John Sloan, and William Glackens cast a long shadow. They were the first painters to admit that America was not Elysium, and the flaws they painted have only gotten more noticeable with time. 

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

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