Critical Dogma and Two Seattle Museums

In the June/July issue of Art in America, Irving Sandler contributes a strong article arguing against a revisionist understanding of the Abstract Expressionist movement being largely motivated by the Cold War ( “Abstract Expressionism and the Cold War” 65-74). Some of the article’s most poignant arguments emerge when Sandler discusses the apprehension, and often antipathy, American institutions felt towards this movement of work often too distinct from what they had seen previously to fully comprehend.

I was very excited when the 7th Edition of Janson’s History of Art was published a few years ago ( I would link to the New York Times article announcing a few divergences found in the 7th Edition but author Randy Kennedy describes the book as a “doorstopper” and makes the absence of Louis Le Nain out to be scandalous simply because his work is in the Louvre, the museum that displays 35,000 works of art in its galleries). Like most, I agree that it is important to reconsider academic disciplines in light of new understandings and think that the existence of this book in a series of traditional art history books is valuable, even if I don’t support every omission and every addition.

Janson’s History of Art, Seventh Edition, image from Pearson Education.

In contrast, I cannot support “revisionist art history” when the revisions are made on faulty arguments, as is the argument Sandler so effectively advocates against in Art in America. When considering the idea that Abstract Expressionism was a form of American propaganda in light of how long it took for Abstract Expressionism to even be recognized in the United States and abroad is quite difficult to support with facts, as Sandler demonstrates. I.A. Richards’s term “critical dogma” from essay Practical Criticism comes to mind when considering the revisionist argument:

“Most critical dogmas…have almost exactly the intellectual standing and the serviceableness of primitive ‘superstitions.’ They rest upon our desire for explanation, our other desires, our respect for tradition, and to a slight degree upon faulty induction. (Practical Criticism 299-300)

Interestingly, this notion of critical dogma applies to both the revisionist view of Abstract Expressionism and those who outright rejected Abstract Expressionists during the 1940s and early 1950s. Now considering those who were against the movement at the time of its prominence, Sandler explains,

“Attacks by the likes of [Congressman] Dondero led to federal censorship of works that were unconventional and/or by alleged subversives. This began in 1946 when the State Department organized a show titled ‘Advancing American Art,’ which consisted of 79 works of modern art…In the middle of a well-received tour, canvases in the show were attacked in Congress as Communistic and made by Communists…In 1948 the paintings from the ill-fated show were ignominiously auctioned off as war surplus for $5,444…Guilbaut mentioned ‘Advancing American Art’ only twice, for a total of 10 lines, and concluded incongruously that ‘despite disappointments connected with this show’–the disappointments not specified–it ‘demonstrated that the American government was willing to involve itself with the international art scene.’”

This instance of critical dogma has a significant history with two Seattle institutions that began in divergent ways but now bring challenging contemporary exhibitions to Seattle: the Frye and the Henry Art Gallery. The Frye almost immediately came to mind when Sandler began his discussion of the rejection of Abstract Expressionism because of they way their collection of “representational art” began. The term “representational art” has myriad meanings and references in an age of photography, film and video, as evidenced by the term’s recent removal from the Frye’s mission statement. However, when Walser Greathouse became the director of the Frye in 1952 and had to interpret the Fryes’ preferences and intentions for the museum, representational art was, in part, defined as reaction against abstract art, implying a certain level of identifiable subject matter. For a period of time, the Frye could have been described as a museum of the non-abstract art that was more acceptable as “art” in mainstream America during the 1940s and 50s.

Returning to Sandler’s inclusion of the Advancing American Art exhibition in his argument, it was the eventual auction of those “controversial” Modern works that also contribute to the Henry’s history with “the art of our time” (their current mission). As Hankblog notes, the museum acquired works by then-contemporary American painters such as Stuart Davis and Robert Motherwell for $269 total (you can see an image of the Davis on Artguide Northwest) through the sale of works from Advancing American Art.

Now, the Henry is completely dedicated to contemporary art, and the Frye has moved towards a contemporary focus as well, with their new(ish) mission:

“The Frye Art Museum is dedicated to artistic inquiry, a rich visitor experience, and civic responsibility. A primary catalyst for our engagement with contemporary art and artists is the Founding Collection of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century art by Munich-based artists.” (“About the Frye, www.fryeart.org)

Although Sandler’s article begins on the premise of negating someone else’s argument, the need for doing so is made clear through its relevancy; I look forward to engaging with the full book Rethinking Abstract Expressionism.

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