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Robert Butler, Curator of Art,

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 300,000 people.

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.

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