By Mary Lou Beatty
"Art is the oldest thing in human society," the British writer Paul Johnson tells us. "Before we could express complicated things in words, we could do art."
He continues: "That's an important thing--about our self-knowledge as a people, as a race, as a species--to realize that the first real characteristic of civilization was artistic creation. It goes right to the roots of our being rational creatures made in God's image."
Johnson, who is the author of Art: A New History, explores with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole what he sees as a shift in preeminence from Western European art to that of America. "I think art, particularly in the last two or three centuries, has been over-dominated by Western Europe and especially by France. So, in the book I show that in the nineteenth century an enormous amount of superb art was produced in the United States and a considerable amount in Eastern Europe and especially in Russia."
A watercolorist himself, Johnson talks about American painters he considers exceptional--Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, Childe Hassam among them--along with Albert Bierstadt, who, although not a native, became a leading painter of the American landscape. Reflecting on Bierstadt's sense of grandeur, Johnson comments: "The thing which struck me most about everyday life in America was that everything was bigger. To some extent that is true of American art, too."
We examine the changing visual language of art in this issue of Humanities. In Iowa, a new museum opens in September with an exhibition titled "The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935." The show at the Figge offers 130 paintings, photographs, and sculptures from early twentieth-century American artists—modernists such as Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, and John Marin.
"We want to reestablish the early story of modernism and the sense that New York had in the teens and twenties of rivaling Paris," says Stanford professor Wanda Corn. "The history of New York as an art capital starts here." Corn mentions Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer who opened a gallery in New York and introduced Picasso to an American public. "Our story begins when Stieglitz decides that his mission is not to bring European modernism to America, but rather to sponsor and support American artists who can make American art."
Just as the world of art was becoming a nexus between New York and Paris in the twenties, so was the world of literature. A young Ernest Hemingway was in Paris attempting to capture in words the experimentalism of Cézanne, struggling for "one true sentence." There were others—F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos and Ezra Pound. A film looks at Hemingway the word maker set against the celebrity he would become.
"Hemingway set out to create a new form of expression, to describe action and emotion in the simplest and truest terms," says film producer Susan Lacy. "He discarded unnecessary words, stripped away narrative flourishes, and sought to distill the experience of war, loss, and love into a form immediately accessible." We learn as well about two other writers demanding to be heard. One was a woman who made it in the top of the men's world of New York publishing before becoming a novelist—Willa Cather. The other was the man who set out to sing a song of himself and of America--Walt Whitman.