Earlier this summer I picked up a stack of “The Arts” magazines at Wexford General Store, an antique mall on Old Route 19, north of Pittsburgh. I thought I was going for a quick diversion, and ended up in the 1920s New York art world. How wonderful antique shopping can be! I had not been familiar with the magazine and don’t know when it stopped being published. The dates I have go into the 1930s.
One item of immediate interest was the fact that Charles Sheeler took many photographs for the publication. The particular issue I am looking at now from July, 1923 has photographs of works by Constantin Brancusi by Charles Sheeler.
Sheeler’s beautiful photographs are accompanied by an article by “M. M.” about Brancusi in which the author contends that for Brancusi art doesn’t exist by itself, rather being an instrument for the propagation of the religious idea. I had admired works by Brancusi before, but never thought much about them. When reading the article in The Arts, I was immediately struck by a parallel between something as abstract as a Brancusi and painters of the Husdon River School, which flourished with the idea that god is perfect, and he having created nature, it is also perfect.
Brancusi did not seek to imitate of course, rather to “give the sensation of reality without reproducing or imitating.” The author continues “art must enter the spirit of nature and create, as does nature, beings with forms and lives of their own.” Although it may not be in the spirit of the intent, it would seem to me that sentence could translate into “art must become god, or at least commit a god-like act within nature.”
While appearing very modern, the work of Brancusi doesn’t step far from an old paradigm, just replaces Christianity or Transcendentalism with Taoism. Any appreciation for modern art does not, in the opinion of the article’s author, spread to the bulk of it in the 1920s. “Nothing has done more to harm modern art… than the avalanche of pseudo-artists who, having nothing to say, have wanted to speak a language of which they knew nothing,” he or she writes. “Let us not mistake modern art with modern artists, let us not mistake reality with appearances.”
It’s clearly the quality of art that the magazine emphasizes and it’s noticed elsewhere including in an article by Charles Downing Lay about the framing and hanging of oil paintings. After a series of guidelines for hanging paintings, including lining up the horizon lines in paintings hung side-by-side, not using wires to suspend paintings from rails, not using artificial picture lights and removing glass because of the reflections. After these “tips,” the author provides some insight into his art idea—it’s important to keep exploring art and little need to confine oneself to a period or style. “It is the quality of the picture, not the style of the time, which makes a picture valuable, and high quality is not confined to any age.”
“If we cannot buy pictures and outgrow them and pass on to something better it must be that the pictures mean little to us, and that our hearts are in the safe deposit box with the securities.” It would seem even the hanging of pictures calls upon a religious experience of sorts, not unlike Brancusi or the Hudson River painters. “Spiritually they minister to our highest desires for order, in a too disordered world, and for harmony in a life which is sometimes out of tune, and for balance when the blindfolded lady of the scales seems indeed blind to injustice and cruelty. Their influence for happiness cannot be denied no matter how little our spiritual growth has progressed.”