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One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic

One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic

by Martha Banta

Martha Banta reaches across several disciplines to investigate America's early quest to shape an aesthetic equal to the nation's belief in its cultural worth. Marked by an unusually wide-ranging sweep, the book focuses on three major "testing grounds" where nineteenth-century Americans responded to Ralph Waldo Emerson's call to embrace "everything" in order to


Martha Banta reaches across several disciplines to investigate America's early quest to shape an aesthetic equal to the nation's belief in its cultural worth. Marked by an unusually wide-ranging sweep, the book focuses on three major "testing grounds" where nineteenth-century Americans responded to Ralph Waldo Emerson's call to embrace "everything" in order to uncover the theoretical principles underlying "the idea of creation."  The interactions of those who rose to this urgent challenge—artists, architects, writers, politicians, and the technocrats of scientific inquiry—brought about an engrossing tangle of achievements and failures.


The first section of the book traces efforts to advance the status of the arts in the face of the aspersion that America lacked an Art Soul as deep as Europe's. Following that is a hard look at heated political debates over how to embellish the architecture of Washington, D.C., with the icons of cherished republican ideals. The concluding section probes novels in which artists' lives are portrayed and aesthetic principles tested.


Editorial Reviews

Alexander Nemerov

“Martha Banta’s book aims big. It investigates various American attitudes toward a unified theory of art, featuring strong readings of literature, architecture, and art history. It is a tour de force of learning.”—Alexander Nemerov, Yale University

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Yale University Press
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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One True Theory & the Quest for an American Aesthetic

By Martha Banta
Yale University Press
Copyright © 2007 Martha Banta
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12297-8

Chapter One
An American Aesthetic and Its Travails

[There are] two kinds of perception: one external or scientific; the other vital or artistic, not inconsistent, but, by no means, involving one another. -William Stillman, "Perception," Crayon (August 1855)

[W]hile the two [modern scholarship and modern science] make up the modern scheme of learning, yet there is no need for confounding the one with the other, nor can the one do the work of the other. -Thorstein Veblen, "The Place of Science in Modern Civilization" (1906)

[T]he question of art begins where the question of fact ends. -Roger Fry, "The Art of Florence" (1919)


Could a feasible American aesthetic be accomplished during the nineteenth century by means of the systematization of theories and practices and the creation of institutions as venues wherein these theories and practices could advance purposeful work? In terms of the titles James Jackson Jarves gave his publications in 1864 and 1869, did the Art Idea have a chance to survive in the face of the nation's history of cultural deficits, and would aspiring art critics, instructors, practitioners, and collectors bring Art Thoughts into play at a time when industry and technology defined the meaning of value? Queries such as these led toward "the question": What relation had the formulation of a legitimate American aesthetic to the principles of scientific methodology set down by Thorstein Veblen at the close of the century, or, rather, might it at least meet the demands imposed by what I here call "Veblenism"?

Veblen and like-minded advocates of the principles of scientific inquiry growing in power by the century's end were skeptical of granting concessions to those labeled as aesthetes, even as that breed tried to downplay the divine in order to embrace the merits of a more realistic rendering of physical existence and the joys of modern science. Devotees of the arts and of literature simply could not be trusted. Just being what they were, belletristic individuals on the margins of the working world of technology, meant they had little to contribute under the stringent conditions of an ever-changing society.

I rank Thorstein Veblen as one of our most brilliant analysts of systems making. Still, I approach Veblen's legacy from a slightly different angle than that held by the economists and sociologists who have followed in his wake. I ask how useful are the rules he laid down in his examination of evolving social/economic institutions in tracking worthwhile developments in the discipline of art criticism: in particular, in the efforts taking place on the nineteenth-century American art scene to assign value to acts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, to the arts of the critical review, and to the institutions and institutionalized practices committed to the elevation of public interest in the arts.

These, therefore, are my immediate questions: Do Veblen's principles work when applied to the general case (however varied its particulars) of nineteenth-century American aesthetics? How well does "Veblenism" fare within the situation in which Americans found themselves in the years between the 1850s and the early 1900s? I use the term Veblenism in recognition of the specifics of Veblen's position, which are separate from the more generalized manner by which his views might be applicable to areas to which he did not directly turn his attention. This dual usage is hardly unfamiliar. The writings of Charles Darwin focus on particular sets of evidence for particular purposes, while "Darwinism" spreads its influence over extended regions that may have slight relation to Darwin's concerns. I do not want to risk introducing distortions to Veblen's position such as those Herbert Spencer imposed upon Darwin's writings in creating that placebo "social Darwinism," picked up all too readily by American business and industry. I think rather of Darwin's statement about the effect that Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population had upon his own endeavors: "I had at last got a theory by which to work"-the theory Darwin needed to pull together the observations he made on the species populating the outermost territories of the Pacific. In order to bring some systematic order to these explorations into the theories propounded for the Art Idea, I pursue my own "theory." As I place Veblen's writings next to the texts culled from the nether regions of America's nineteenth-century art world and from the arts and crafts of the early and late Italian Renaissance, I find Veblen's imprint glossing that material, just as these texts gloss the influence Veblenism has had over relations (soothing or abrasive) between the sciences and humanistic studies of our own times.

Economics and mathematical sciences have importance to our understanding of certain aspects of the plastic arts. Statistical studies by John Michael Montias that articulate the economic base of fifteenth-century Delft, together with Philip Steadman's analysis of experiments in optics and geometric measurements under way at that time, clearly add to our grasp of the aesthetic milieu inhabited by Johannes Vermeer, his fellow painters, and their patrons. It would be nice if it went without saying that Western art is indebted to contributions made by professionals from related scientific disciplines, whether they pertain to the mastering of vanishing-point perspectives in paintings by Gentile Bellini and Piero della Francesca, the architectural projects of Bernini, or the optical experiments associated with French impressionism. But it seems that such points remain to be made, certainly when placing them within the Veblenian context.

As a sociologist and economist Veblen limited his observations on art's artifacts to the conspicuously consumed decorative fripperies that adorned the rooms and the bodies of members of the leisure class of his generation. He touched only briefly on the ironies of the relation of art to labor lodged at the heart of the Ruskinian arts and crafts movement. But how I wish he had turned his piercing gaze upon the numinous figures by Thomas Dewing lavished on piano tops and library screens, the opulent furniture designed by Christian and Albert Herter, the intricately woven tapestries by Candace Wheeler, the stunning stained-glass windows of John La Farge, the unique confections of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the sculpted fireplace mantels designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the murals commissioned of Edwin Howland Blashfield that flowed across the walls of New York's drawing rooms-decorative fripperies all, but worthy of consideration as concerted moves in the making of an accomplished, albeit self-contained, aesthetic.

What Veblen chose not to analyze left unnoticed the Old Master paintings that came into the hands of J. P. Morgan and Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the arts of Asia and of James McNeill Whistler that Charles Freer brought together to adorn his home-highly polished pieces of workmanship that cannot be, should not be, too facilely swept under the generalizing terms "conspicuous consumption" and "futile effort," which diminish their aesthetic or social value. Was Veblen's failure to consider the aesthetics of his America a casual oversight or was it the result of a deep hole in his thinking? He was a superlative critic of the 1890s but unable or unwilling to meet the all-inclusive tasks demanded of "THE CRITIC"-he who in the mind of William Stillman in 1855 "must be naturalist, philosopher, painter, sculptor, and poet."

Thorstein Veblen is primarily associated with the disciplines of sociology and economics, yet perceptive readers recognize the wide range of related interests that stimulated his pronouncements within those disciplines. I myself liken the experience of reading Veblen to that of the scene from Darwin's 1859 conclusion to The Origin of the Species. "It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us."

Veblen richly contributes to the legacy of aspirants to the discovery of methods that would make it possible to systematize everything-the impossible desire to achieve Unity to be found in Einstein, yes, and Henry Adams, of course, who suffered mightily because Multiplicity defies Unity, but most famously stated in the introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature of 1836: "All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature.... Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena. Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable; as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex."

For a single intellect to attempt to touch down upon the diverse elements embedded in society's "entangled bank" is to invite failure, but when, in his struggle to devise valid systems of evaluation, Veblen made mistakes, he still pointed the way toward seeing the useful mistakes society makes for itself. This is certainly the case in the material upon which I shall draw (from the Crayon and other American periodicals) when tracing what America's would-be art critics had to say about their role, the social and economic status of the nation's would-be artists, and the relation of critics and artists to attitudes held toward art's efficiency or wastefulness by that citizen Veblen designated as the hapless "normal man." Do not commit critical suicide by taking an Emersonian leap into the delusion you can "explain all phenomena," yet try not to limit your efforts so severely that crucial matters are overlooked. To systematize is a way "for reducing things to intelligent orders" by means of the "reflective judgment" that turns our knowledge over to a process that operates "under more general laws than any given by experience." "All that is required is that the things be thought as falling under a system of law according to which they adapt themselves to the laws of our understanding-that they are such in the manner of their being as they would be if they were made with a view to the exigencies of our capacity of knowing."

It was precisely the concern over "knowing" and "system" that so angered John Ruskin in the section on "The Fall" in The Stones of Venice, published in 1853 and picked up in the issues of November 1855 by the Crayon. In his diatribe, Ruskin singled out the decay (moral and aesthetic) introduced by "the Roman Renaissance" into Venice by "the Pride of Science" and "the Pride of System." The very elements Veblenism later encouraged led to "the most exquisite absurdity of the whole Renaissance system," which burdened "the artist with every species of knowledge that is of no use to him," imposed "fruitless experiments; fruitless, because undirected by experience and uncommunicated in their results," "corrupted the sources of knowledge," and encouraged "the tendency to formulization and system which, under the name of philosophy, encumbered the minds of the Renaissance schoolmen."

The Crayonites saw much to agreewith in Ruskin's angers, which he expressed with sarcastic brilliance, more heightened than Veblen's would be but hardly unlike the modes of argument in which Veblen was so accomplished. But when Veblen followed his talents as psychologist, anthropologist, and cultural analyst, swerving aside from the fetters, cages, and manacles of "Renaissance" systems making, he came near (as Emerson, although perhaps not Ruskin, would wish him to) to including data about "language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex." It is at those times that he opposes "the classic-academic" mind so stunningly expressed in 1901 by William James. This is the mind, whether "animistic or associationistic," that is devoted to comforting abstractions, with its "fondness for clean pure lines and noble simplicity in its constructions." It is the mind that "explains things by as few principles as possible and is intolerant of either nondescript facts or clumsy formulas" and that insists "facts must lie in a neat assemblage" in full view on a "sort of sunlit terrace." For James and for Veblen at his most daring, eccentric, and powerful, the mind must revert "from classic to gothic," stepping beyond that terrace to "where uncouth forms lurk in the shadows." Veblen was not a William James, much less an Emerson. He chose not to delve into the shadows where, in James's words, the "menagerie and the madhouse, the nursery, the prison, and the hospital, have been made to deliver up their material." But he went far, so as not to be the cheat. This was the happy case when either Veblen or art critics were at the top of their game while engaged with the wily, ever-deceptive data with which the scientific aesthetic must deal.


Emile Zola, His Masterpiece (1886)

Setting: Paris (1860s)

The players: Jory, art critic for "two widely circulated papers," expresses his views. "Although, in his inmost heart he remained a sceptical voluptuary, a worshipper of success at any price, he was acquiring importance, and readers began to look upon his opinions as fiats." Jory and like critics are rebuked by Bongrand, eminent artist of the preceding generation: "[N]owadays the first hobbledehoy who can stick a figure on its legs makes all the trumpets of publicity blare.... A hullabaloo from one end of France to the other, sudden reputations that shoot up of a night, and burst upon one like thunderbolts, amid the gaping of the throng."

Jack London, The Sea-Wolf (1904)

Setting: "The Ghost," a sealing schooner, captained by Wolf Larsen (the present day)

The players: Humphrey Van Weyden, literary critic and man of leisure, has an "analysis of Poe's place in American literature" in the current Atlantic Monthly, with plans to write on "The Necessity for Freedom: A Plea for the Artist." Maud Brewster calls him "the Dean of American Letters the Second," in an obvious reference to William Dean Howells. Wolf Larsen voices his contempt for both Humphrey and Maud since they do no work of a kind he can recognize.

Theodore Dreiser, The "Genius" (1915)

Setting: Chicago (1890s)

The players: In response to an exhibition of Eugene Witla's paintings, critics shape public opinion since the "more eclectically cultured turned to the newspapers to see what the art critics would say of this-how they would label it." "One art publication, connected with and representative of the conservative tendencies of a great publishing house, denied the merit of the collection as a whole, ridiculed the artist's insistence on shabby details as having artistic merit, denied that he could draw accurately, denied that he was a lover of pure beauty, and accused him of having no higher ideal than that of desire to shock the current mass by painting brutal things brutally.... 'If we are to have ash cans and engines and broken-down bus-horses thrust down our throats as art, Heaven preserve us. We had better turn to commonplace photography at once and be done with it.' ... Yet there were others like Luke Severas who went to the other extreme. 'A true sense of the pathetic, a true sense of the dramatic, the ability to endow color-not with its photographical value ... but with its higher spiritual significance; the ability to indict life with its own grossness, to charge it prophetically with its own meanness and cruelty in order that mayhap it may heal itself; the ability to see wherein is beauty-even in shame and pathos and degradation; of such is this man's work.'"

Many tasks are laid upon the critic: he must offer a keen critique of the tired language that encrusts obsolete concepts while resorting to highly polished rhetorical skills that lay out new positions with stunning force to potential skeptics. Veblen's own critics, harsh or otherwise, acknowledge his remarkable ability to demolish outmoded arguments and to introduce seductively phrased new concepts. Fortunately for him, although not for those who felt the sting of his wit, Veblen stepped away from "the sunlit terrace" of the pre-Darwinian "classic-academic" imagination. Veblen had arrogant self-confidence in abundance, as did other social "marginals" such as the proto-Veblens, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Adams, and Gertrude Stein. It was thus that Veblen could impose his demands on all who attempted to analyze social systems by means of the particular scientific methodology he authorized. It was thus that he could face down the fact that then, as now, the hard and applied sciences have as little respect for the disciplines of the social sciences (sociology, economics, political science, psychology) as Veblen showed toward the humanities.


Excerpted from One True Theory & the Quest for an American Aesthetic by Martha Banta Copyright © 2007 by Martha Banta. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Martha Banta is professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She is the author of several major books, including Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History and Taylored Lives: Narrative Productions in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford.

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