ART AND THE BOURGEOIS IN AMERICA
Curator of Art, sfmuseum.org
It has been the great lament of the nations left-wing academics
for decades that despite some brilliant advocates such as Eugene Debs and later
Norman Thomas Americans including late arriving peasants from Eastern Europe
have shunned both Communism and the marginally more acceptable, Socialism, when
the fire breathing orator pleads for unity to destroy the upper classes the by
and large reaction was to shrug and go back to work with the hope and reasonable
expectation that they or their children will join these upper classes. The
freedom from the old world rigid caste system meant violent revolution and mob
action were not sensible answers.
In the 19th century, the bourgeois (middle class) grew rapidly creating a huge
market for the “good things” of the material world.
The upper classes on the East Coast emulated European nobility. This growing
middle class in turn emulated their homegrown aristocrats. The homes grew
larger, free public schools brought both literacy and “refined taste.”
Into these larger homes there grew the desire for decorative furniture and fine
art. Machine production introduced into furniture making meant highly decorative
but inexpensive pieces could be produced. There was no way that these homes
could have an original Rembrandt or Rafael but an answer was found in fine
etchings and lithographs of the masters’ work. Encased in elegant frames these
reproductions served the need very well.
By mid-century an interesting institution grew up to satisfy the needs of the
middle class and upward mobile working classes. This was called the Cosmopolitan
Art Association of New York.
It grew rapidly and by 1856 started an art and literature quarterly. It was
priced at a dollar per year. The first issue was over 100,000 copies. It set out
to speak to the “non elitist Americans”. In it were articles on current trends
and creations in the fine arts.
Two interesting features were included in each issue. The first was the
inclusion of one or two steel engravings on quality paper. These were easily
detached, framed and hung in the home. Secondly, a yearly drawing was held in
which valuable painting and sculptures were awarded to the lucky subscriber.
Hiram Powers “The Greek Slave” was the initial prize. The fact that it was a
very nubile nude did not deter interest in the award. Nudity except in fine art
was of course a sure no no in Victorian England and America.
The 19th century was to prove a golden age for the middle class both in growth
and quality of life. Victorian moral values while ridiculed today set standards
of behavior that affected all classes. The family structure was strong as well
as belief in religious values, education and America’s destiny. The argument
could be made that the last vestiges of these values were contained in the World
War II generation. Molded by depression and the horrors of a desperate war
against very real evil the greatest generation seems to have some validity.
The Cosmopolitan Art Association eventually went out of business. It did,
however, indoctrinate thousands into the world of beauty and good taste.
San Francisco with its influx of money and people during the second half of the
century was a major participant in this democratizing of the arts. Dating back
to 1856 the local publication “The Wasp” reported on the local scene gave
increasing attention to the fine arts. Good quality reproductions were included
and with the improvement in technology color reproduction of such leasing local
art as William Keith and C. D. Robinson were included.
To illustrate the breadth of interest the fine arts locally when Keith died in
1911 a retrospective at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park drew a reported
The abandonment of the features of 19th century art that drew the middle class
became a major factor in the 20th century. Beauty, harmonious techniques,
sentimentality and realistic depictions were all to one degree or another
discarded in favor of an undisciplined self-expression that demanded change and
newness for its own sake. Trends such as Dada and the beast give some idea of
the direction or better lack of direction taken. The highly experimental work
perhaps opens the door for innovation; however, the ugly and bad art became more
the rule than the exception. The public clings to impressionism for its realism
beauty even if the works are essentially pointless as to any inner meaning.
The huge success of Georgia O’Keefe reflects that people will respond to new
innovative art that also includes obvious talent and beauty.