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Peeks and Piques!
Looking at Roses Through World-Colored Glasses
ART TIMES April 2007

AT A RECENT lecture I gave at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, on William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and the Art Students League of New York, I elaborated somewhat on the contention that had erupted between the two artists and which was the subject of their present exhibition: “Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri.” In brief, I touched on Chase’s “old world” style as opposed to Henri’s “common man” image (the ultimate kernel of difference that lurked behind their controversy). As we all know, Henri ushered in what had become known as “The Ashcan School” of painting, theoretically a more down-to-earth, “nitty-gritty” kind of aesthetic vision that flew in the face of Chase’s traditional “pretty art” (a phrase of George Luks, one of Henri’s coterie that also included John Sloan and Everett Shinn — two more advocates of what they liked to call “art for life’s sake”). In later years, Sloan, Shinn — and, yes, even Henri — distanced themselves from such appellations as “The Ashcan School” of painters, each in their own way appalled at what their move from “pretty art” spawned as younger artists strayed farther and farther from anything that smacked of “beauty.” Art became a veritable grab-bag of the seamier side of life, all ushering in the spate of social and political posturing that frenetically posed as art for the “caring” classes. Whatever your particular brand of politics, I have little sympathy for the move to make art serve as a handmaiden for the rectification of our many social ills. Racial tensions, economic inequities, gender bias, political party differences, wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, plagues — or the latest scandal du jour — are both daily and endlessly trumpeted in the media. Why must we also include it in our art? Do we really get the message any clearer by having it shoved into our faces in galleries and museums? Who can possibly believe that we do not hear and see it ad nauseam on the television, the radio, the internet, or on whatever new electronic toy now on the market? “Human life,” Gustave Flaubert once wrote in a letter to Bosquet in July 1864, “is a sad show, undoubtedly: ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end, for people of feeling, than to conjure away the burden and bitterness.” Are we so different that we do not deserve the same consideration today? Why cannot we expect art, music, dance, film, or literature to add to our lives — to, in the words of Bernard Berenson, be “life enhancing” — rather than to compound our daily dose of negativity? Where is it written that our sensibilities — our souls (to use an old-fashioned word) — must be sullied by the seamier side of life along with our intellects? We know the world is a vale of tears. Must art pile it on in yet heavier doses? We know how stupid we can be. Must the artist follow suit? There was a time when the world thought that the artist was chosen — that he or she was “called” to the profession — that he or she was “inspired” (literally, in the Renaissance mind, “breathed into” by some Divine Source) — that the artist was on a mission not to tell us what we have but what we might have if we’d only get our act together and see beyond the obvious. In brief, art was supposed to transcend life, not imitate it. Crap is obvious — and I for one am wearied by its presence. I want my head out of the ashcans, out of the dumpsters, out of the landfills of the “nitty-gritty” world. Show me — please — the light at the end of the tunnel. Show me yet once again how beauty — how “pretty art” — can nourish my inner being. Don’t show me what is — show be what can be, and how I might get there — even if only in my mind — as I lose myself in a painting, a musical score, a poem.