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One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic

One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic

Martha Banta
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15022-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxx)

    If the surge in the use of the wordcrisisin titles coming out of the trade and academic presses can be taken as valid evidence of the current mind-set, then many aspects of our lives are under duress, even those that attend to the arts and literature—activities falling under the rubric of the humanities. But in times marked by physical annihilation, economic collapse, and social injustices, the humanities seem petty players. Even their relation to what constitutes verifiable truth and reality is suspect. The situation is stronger for those who, when they cry “crisis,” can call up statistical...

  5. PART ONE. An American Aesthetic and Its Travails

      (pp. 1-7)

      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...

      (pp. 7-11)

      Try with your mind’s ear to hear the tone of Veblen’s voice as he lays down the requirements for effective scientific analysis, which, in turn, defines the best way to live according to “modern,” post-Darwinian principles. In the largest sense, this usually means learning what to reject, the point that later followers of Veblen took to heart. “Modern man rejects the priest, the moralist, or the lawyer as his final arbiter.” Indeed, “Whatever is not of [science] or consonant with its ‘opaque creations’ stands outside modernity.”21

      In the 1820s, long before latter-day Veblenians articulated this daunting denunciation, Friedrich Hegel delivered...

      (pp. 11-14)

      In his preface toArt in America: A Critical and Historical Study, published in 1880, S. G. W. Benjamin takes care to review “the various phases of American art” so that he might “trace its progress from one step to another.” Benjamin continually refers to his belief that any nation’s art is “the result of centuries of growth” and that only “maturity and repose offer the occasion for [its] development.” As the United States entered its “third phase,” “repose” was in short supply and “maturity” not yet gained. By 1880 the “maturity” necessary for “repose” was hardly the temper of...

      (pp. 14-21)

      The writing of an American art history was a new form of knowledge gathering in the 1880s. Yet unaware of the theory Stein had still to advance, authors had to be frank about the country’s status as “the youngest of the great nations,” in that it had acquired independence from British political rule only a century earlier. It was not yet independent in the cultural sense, as its art was “little more than a reflection” of the old nations across the Atlantic. Commentators were fated to be on the defensive. Many tried to mask their painful sense of inferiority by...

      (pp. 21-24)

      America’s art students and art lovers had to bear an even weightier burden. Was the legacy left by Europe’s art ancestors to be emulated, rejected, or adapted (and why should they care)? European artists also had to battle against the pressure of centuries of past glories, but the situation was far edgier for the Americans who went abroad after the Civil War to absorb ideas for the creation of a new art for the new country, only to find themselves overwhelmed by old traditions. In 1867 theNationtried to get at the core of the problem. “What Is Art...

      (pp. 24-27)

      Proto-Veblens like Thomas Eakins believed that the artist’s eye must not be deadened by contact with sterile artifacts; it must be educated by examples drawn directly from living nature, albeit through the application of methods of scientific precision, which had replaced moony raptures. Plaster casts imported from Europe had been both an aid and a curse to students in earlier times. Serving as substitutes for originals either unavailable or too costly to purchase, glossy white copies of copies had been the only way most Americans could see (or think they saw) the inspiring brilliance of ancient Greek and Renaissance sculpture.71...

      (pp. 28-30)

      The motto assigned to Titian was “Natura Potentior Ars” (Art is more powerful than Nature), but Kant, Goethe, and Hegel (the Germans most favored by the antebellumCrayon) tried tomediate(the key term) between art and nature by playing strict attention both to nature’s laws and the laws dictated by God and revealed in art.78TheCrayonprinted its pre-Darwinian, pre-Veblenian creed on the back cover, testifying to its dedication to the study of Art’s Beauty, man’s Divine origin, and Nature’s laws. But this commitment led to the danger to which Americans of Crayonite disposition were particularly susceptible: devotion...

      (pp. 30-36)

      The old Delaware County Courthouse in Muncie, Indiana, had a clocktower with four faces, marking the points of the compass. When Congress established daylight savings time, the nation’s citizenry complied by setting timepieces ahead one hour each spring and back each fall. Not so in the Muncie area. One set of the courthouse clocks matched the newly imposed federal mandate; the other stayed with the old time. Farmers of the surrounding rural area who came into town on weekends to do business clearly distinguished between the clock faces that told “government time” and those that proclaimed “God’s time.” (Cows know...

    • RAW, RIPE, ROT
      (pp. 36-41)

      Diverse language systems aid the intellectual endeavors in which we participate. The language of numbers gives us mathematical formula, charts, and graphs that transmit information to particular areas of science. The language of images, such as the icons that sort out data on computer screens, is as useful for relaying information as the religious icons once used to guide illiterate worshipers or the advertising logos that coax voracious consumer appetites. But scholars in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences continue to make use of word systems. Thorstein Veblen was no stranger to the belief that words are...

      (pp. 41-47)

      Not only thewordsdescriptive of cultural needs and social systems were changing. The nature ofthingsseemed altered as well. The late-nineteenth-century world scheme had already undergone a striking series of successive responses to what science and technology (not God) “hath wrought” once German philosophy was replaced by German methodology (mathematics, philology, archaeology).114

      Veblen often stated that change does not necessarily signal progress. He had doubts there could ever be productive resolutions to the problems introduced by change, particularly when changes were random, partial, patched together. There were too many backtrackings, overlaps, and vestigial tails to allow a smooth...

      (pp. 47-50)

      Samuel L. Clemens, the “Mark Twain” whom William Dean Howells later named the Lincoln of American letters, was the subject of an essay by Howells in the September 1882 issue ofCentury. Howells noted that Hannibal, Missouri, placed Twain where “the two embattled forces of civilization and barbarism were encamped … as they are at all times and everywhere.” Embattled forces created the “big blooming buzzing confusion” of the world’s “much-at-onceness” with which William James contended in 1911. Thorstein Veblen had also been set down midst “all the buzzing, booming confusion of American life,” but David Riesman found him wanting,...

      (pp. 50-54)

      The influence of technology (made “modern” in America throughout the 1820s and 1830s by the railroad, the telegraph, and the steamboat) continued to concern those (whether pre-or-post-Darwinians) whose natural affinities were in areas not commonly associated with the physical or theoretical sciences. These were, nevertheless, Americans who wished to participate in, or at least to understand, what was taking place. The Adams family, exemplified by John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Adams, gives us a narrative that did not have a “good ending” in the sense that William James defined this hoped-for conclusion in his essay “The Hidden Self,”...

      (pp. 54-57)

      What of William Stillman? Did he ever move from an initial position where he was, at best, pre-Darwin, pre-Veblen, and a pale Veblenian, to a more advanced position that sets the standard for what it takes to be an acting Veblenian? Stillman’s voice has agitated us throughout this section with its earnest desire to place Nature, God, Art,andScience at the service of Beauty. He was present in the 1850s as coeditor and chief essayist for theCrayonand reappeared a generation later as contributor toScribner’sandCentury, but did he ever give himself over to the processes...

  6. PART TWO. Capitol of Best Intentions

      (pp. 58-64)

      The creation from scratch of Washington, D.C. furnishes an excellent test case for assessing the aesthetic choices and cultural principals set in motion once the Continental Congress designated the site along Tiber Creek as the future seat of the nation’s “real” and “ideal” being.¹ Concerns covered in Part One ofOne True Theory and the Quest for an American Aestheticcome into even sharper focus when applied to the intentions that guided the planning, building, and decoration of the new nation’s capital and its signature edifice, the U.S. Capitol. Once the need was voiced for efforts as forceful as those...

      (pp. 64-66)

      It seems so easily brought about: this decision where to locate the “deliberately created” capital of the new nation. All it took, according to the pleasant little tale still being told years after the event, was for Thomas Jefferson to meet with Alexander Hamilton over dinner the weekend of June 19–20, 1790. As the result of “the clever bargain of two scheming politicians,” southern debts incurred during the Revolution were settled, the South received the right to choose where the city would be built, and “the wiles of the Philadelphians” who wished to remain the government’s city were defeated....

      (pp. 66-70)

      The “Southern Factor” is placed at the center of Constance McLaughlin Green’sWashington: Village and Capital, 1800–1878. A key point is the seriousness of the debate over what the word “central” meant at the time of the original debates over the capital’s location, with implications that reverberated throughout the nineteenth century. When “central” was defined geographically, pressure was put upon a location halfway between southern Georgia and northern New Hampshire. If “central” indicated the center of the nation’s population, support was given to placing the city well north of Virginia (even if slaves were counted into the figure). However,...

      (pp. 70-75)

      Approval in 1790 for the creation of the American capital came at the time when the great city-states of Rome, Florence, and Venice were in decline. Even before the first stones were laid in the undeveloped tract along the Potomac, Philip Freneau voiced the view that set the newly created myth-history of the capital’s origin next to the myth-history of Rome. “They have erected a city, which like Rome in her glory, may be called the strength of nations, the delight of the universe, the birthplace of sages, and, if not the abode of gods, yet truly the nurse of...

      (pp. 75-81)

      When the government of the United States moved in 1800 from Philadelphia to the raw area named Washington, D.C., the basic construction plan had been fixed, albeit not without contentions and disruptions. Pierre Charles L’Enfant had envisioned a city open to extensive expansion in the future, expressing his belief in the nation’s ultimate elevated status before the world.46Thoughts of spreading republican glories across the designated ten-mile district were put on hold as visions of grandeur fell before the practical need to erect buildings for immediate occupancy. The rudimentary structures—the White House, the Treasury, and the Capitol—were widely...

      (pp. 81-88)

      Early fumbles in the years between 1800 and 1820 made it impossible for Congress to convert L’Enfant’s initial abstractions into actual buildings reflective of the capital’s position as the seat of the republican faith. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, the Committee on Public Buildings was hampered by uncertainties regarding lines of authority over the army engineers in charge of construction, and by tensions over the granting of congressional funds to augment the building’s structure. The governing bodies were slow to bring about the ideal vision credited to George Washington. Congress was likened to “a cold-hearted protector” that acted like “a...

      (pp. 88-93)

      Resistant as members of Congress might be to shift money away from the needs of the “real” Washington, D.C. in order to create an “ideal” capital, it might be that they were shrewder than they knew. In the minds of many, “the resulting colossal statues were in the conventional classical style as understood and practiced by second-rate Italian sculptors of the period—that is, copied, with some changes, usually for the worse, from the statues of Mars and Minerva at Rome.”88

      Honest attempts were made to rectify the dearth of art in order to provide appropriate symbols for the new...

      (pp. 93-100)

      The assumption that the Romans were expected to understand the true nature of Julius Caesar when looking upon his portrait bust is undercut by Herman Melville’s 1859 lecture “Statues in Rome,” which speaks to the tricky nature of audience response. Although “fancy” would see Julius Caesar’s head as “robust, grand, and noble … elevated and commanding,” a direct view of the actual bust “gives the countenance of a businesslike cast that the present practical age would regard as a good representation of the President of the New York and Erie Railroad, or any other magnificent corporation.”103The “idea” of America’s...

      (pp. 100-108)

      Dissimilarities between cities located on two different continents and founded thousands of years apart by distinctly unlike cultures are obvious, but when it came to American responses to the Italian model, more was involved than the powerful attraction of opposites. Nineteenth-century Italians did not lavish upon Washington, D.C. the often obsessive interest Americans expended upon the Eternal City and the legacy of Italy’s checkered past. Once the revolutionary spirit was set afire during the Risorgimento, however, the followers of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi could take inspiration in the course taken by the American colonies to found a confederation of...

      (pp. 108-115)

      We “read” the art and architecture of Rome as a many-layered record of the city’s long history. Nineteenth-century Americans who rambled over Rome’s crumbling ruins seemed unaware that similar readings could be taken when addressing the overlapping processes out of which their own capital was emerging. Nonetheless, they were choosing the history they wanted and discarding the rest as inappropriate to the idea of Good Rome/Bad Rome needed for their own sense of self-worth. If Washington, D.C. felt the heavy weight of Rome’s influence, Rome had had to bear the burden of what the ancient Greeks had accomplished long before....

      (pp. 115-120)

      Enlightened admiration for the talents of theprotos—the master builders—extends to the city structures of Abyssinia, Egypt, Mycenae, Jerusalem, and Athens. The feats of engineering that reshaped Rome and extended its material plunge into the far reaches of the empire gain high praise. They were necessary if lands plagued by swamps, flooding, and malaria were to be freed for habitation.156With the coming of Christianity, each wave of innovative building styles (Byzantine in the east, Romanesque in the south, Gothic in the north) had a notable impact on the way great cities expressed their will. Still, the anonymity...

      (pp. 120-129)

      Thomas Crawford, Meigs’s own man, died in 1857 in the midst of several projects undertaken for the Capitol. Meigs made every effort to bring his models for the bronze doors of the Senate over from Rome to Washington, D.C., where they were completed and put in place by 1863. Above the Senate’s east portico there is a relatively modest arrangement of reclining marble figures of “Justice” and “History.” The former bears a tablet inscribed “Justice, Law, Order”; the latter holds a scroll incised with the date “History, July 1776.” Crawford’s elaborate marble pediment looks out over the east front of...

      (pp. 129-136)

      Victory was declared in 1865, though it was yet to be seen whether Justice would have any part in the business. The war was over. Certain southern families returned to the city that had reaffirmed itself as the capital of the Union, while many removed themselves to the West or stayed in the South. Washington, D.C. solidified its position as the nation’s center of political power, yet it kept the feel and look of a quiet southern village in the months Congress was not in session. During the brief Reconstruction period, voices were raised in Congress to relocate the capital...

      (pp. 136-140)

      In January 1902 a lavish exhibit went on view in the Corcoran Gallery, attended by President Theodore Roosevelt, members of the Cabinet, Congress, and other officials. Spread out before viewers were the plans for reshaping the Mall and adjoining areas proposed by Daniel H. Burnham, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Charles F. McKim, and Frederic Law Olmsted Jr., prominent members of the newly formed Park Commission. The formation and funding for the Park Commission had been initiated by passage of an amendment of May 29, 1900, known as the McMillan Plan—named for its sponsor, Senator James Mc-Millan, chairman of the Senate Committee...

      (pp. 140-145)

      There was work to be done at home by right-minded whites inside the District of Columbia to uplift the local black community. Yet it was more expedient to shunt the freedmen aside into the history-less void (as had the local arts community) while America’s administrators moved aggressively ahead to meet the nation’s economic and military expectations. The separate social levels at which the capital’s affairs were administered center one of the final sections of W. E. B. DuBois’s novelThe Quest of the Silver Fleece. Having drawn its lead characters (black and white) from the swamps and cotton fields of...

      (pp. 145-160)

      The McMillan Plan brought a sense of material clarity to the capital’s physical layout, although the same disjunctions between ideas and ideals remained. Still pending was the question of what to do with the Mall. L’Enfant had originally envisioned the low and boggy land as a splendid vista extending westward from the Capitol, marked by a broad boulevard worthy of the great European capitals, but his intentions, like other aspects of his initial plans, faded quickly away. Matters looked up when construction on the Smithsonian Castle and the Washington Monument began in the late 1840s. In the 1850s Andrew Jackson...

      (pp. 160-165)

      Upon his arrival in the capital soon after Lincoln’s assassination, S. D. Wyeth, author of the guidebookThe Federal City, sits down by the Capitol topped by Crawford’sFreedom. He sinks into a deep sleep during which he has a dream vision of a giant Eagle, which slays a giant Snake. A few pages further on, intruding upon the guidebook’s pedestrian notations on the Capitol, Wyeth pauses at the sight of the dome: “It hangs there, up in the clouds, a real something of what haunted me, a dreaming schoolboy, as I sat gazing at the pictures of the world’s...

      (pp. 165-176)

      Guided by the conditions by which Italian civic art functioned under the aegis of church and state between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, there was much its artists could do that the artists authorized by the American Congress could not. The Italians could get away with showing pride (often excessive), lack of literalism (since who minded?), grand gestures and bits of whimsy, vibrant swatches of vermillion splashed across scenes of jubilation over violent victories, theterribilitàof Michelangelo’s heroic figures that rejects emotional reticence and crosses acceptable sexual boundaries. They could offer scenes with saints sedately seated at dinner attended...

  7. PART THREE. Aesthetic Lives:: The Literary Approach

      (pp. 177-178)

      The Civil War had come and gone, leaving behind seismic alterations in the economic, legal, and social structures of the battered nation. As for Emerson’s call of 1836, had its force been decimated like the men mown down in Picket’s charge across the wheat fields at Gettysburg? Committed to coming into contact with the source of “the act of creation,” Emerson claimed that his generation had failed to find “the road to truth” that “religious teachers” and “speculative men” once promised to deliver. He placed his trust in the practicality of “the most abstract truth,” which, once discovered, would be...

      (pp. 178-182)

      It is difficult to serve two masters at one and the same time. Nonetheless, math (rational precision) paired with emotion (responses outside reason’s full control) took the lead by 1900. Previous authorities directing the course of aesthetics had been reduced, if not displaced, together with the pantheistic Soul of the American transcendentalists. The One in Charge was now either the agnostic Mind, which methodically responds to the Brain’s direct sensory stimulation, or the agnostic Imagination, which stores up a tangle of vivid impressions within the Consciousness.

      In 1884 Vernon Lee, English novelist and friend of Bernard Berenson, wroteEuphorion, a...

      (pp. 182-184)

      As the anointed Dean of American Letters, William Dean Howells did as well as he could to fill the role once taken by Emerson. In contrast to the manner of Emerson, a former occupant of the pulpit, Howells used his somewhat schoolmasterish way to lay down the issues he expected the bright ones of his age to study before ranking the quality of their performance. By the 1900s Americans within the arts circle no longer felt the fear and trembling that had kept them on the defensive before the wit and wisdom of the Old World. Howells felt free to...

      (pp. 184-186)

      While immersed in his angrily anti-Veblenian mode, John Ruskin deplored those who chose to attire themselves in the Pride of Knowledge. Although they believed themselves the masters of their fate, in actuality they were encased within a system of mechanistic knowledge that held them within an all-restrictive chainmail garment. Scientific thought was the danger that led toward the death that came through yielding to the temptation to believe that one could know all one needed to know to obtain and to keep power. Through these distinctions, Ruskin separated the Gothic romantic from Roman realism. They not only could never be...

      (pp. 186-190)

      It is a pleasure to catch Pierre Sandoz, Zola’s alter ego inHis Masterpiece, stating a position that stands only slightly a kilter to James’s prefatory remarks toThe American.22Sandoz believes that there is all that we do not know but it is still what we ought to know. The humbleness of Sandoz’s insistence stands opposed to the arrogance James finds in H. G. Wells in a biting indictment that was one of the reasons the two men’s former friendship cooled considerably. “[W]hat are we to say of Mr. Wells, who, a novelist very much as Lord Bacon was...

      (pp. 190-196)

      In full candor several of the novels-in-residence soon to be put on show are unintentionally risible to one degree or another. This admitted, all claim their rightful place in the space they are accorded. They expose what happens when an author chooses to write as an artist about characters engaged in the aesthetic life. They are, as it were, the means to test an author’s favorite theories when put into practice—theories absorbed by plots that elaborate on the stakes involved once one takes up the theme of artists’ lives in the years spanning the close of the Civil War...

      (pp. 196-202)

      A common thread runs through the following novels as they take up the task of defining the artist’s life. The nature of the artworks produced (or not) by the protagonists is obviously an intrinsic part of the story, as well as the judgment given by the artist’s companions and the general public. But the novels also act as the medium that discloses what an artist looks like and the ways by which he costumes his habitat to fit his notion of what the artistic life requires. Indeed, certain novels present an aesthetic incarnate—individuals who demonstrate that “being” Art may...

      (pp. 202-206)

      The novels under review surround their artists with crucial relationships: patrons, comrades, and lovers. For artists who view themselves as outsiders to the larger social scene, a sense of stability is gained through participation in miniature societies made up of likeminded companions. This participation reinforces the wish to be capable of doing without anything or anyone that exists beyond their work—that is, themselves. Rowland Mallet becomes troubled over signs of his young protégé’s intense self-absorption, living out an aesthetic that would have displeased Greenough since it contained no sense of the “whole.” Because of Roderick’s “never thinking of others...

      (pp. 206-212)

      The would-be genius could give careful attention to looking like an artist and surrounding himself with the trappings of the artist’s studio, but might these activities contribute to the fine arts of procrastination rather than the production of fine art? Without production there is no success. To say this is not to slip into overheated arguments as to the extent to which the late-nineteenth-century art world had become captive to the powers of capitalism and the new technologies of work production. It is indeed useful to apply the strategies of Taylorism, to read deeply in Weber’s theories of the Work...

      (pp. 212-216)

      What life force drives these novels, which span the years between the 1870s and the first decade of the twentieth century—the force that inspires their artists to pursue acts of creation even if it leads them toward ruin? It is the muse of Beauty, incarnate as person or place. Yet there is little resemblance between the resident muses in these novels and the glowing tributes earlier paid by theCrayon. Nature was Stillman’s muse, the means by which Truth, Goodness, and Beauty come into being once the Actual moves into the realm of the Ideal. The links of the...

      (pp. 216-220)

      Of this lot of fictional narratives devoted to questions of Art and Life as embodied literally in the figure of the muse, Emile Zola’sHis Masterpiecefurnishes the most terrifying tale of all in that it brings issues raised by the other narratives to a head. His novel confirms the fact that these authors’ literary imaginations were not preoccupied by an aesthetics governed solely by national or nationalistic motives.Beautyis their theme, as well asdeath. The beauty of the muses at their center has no need to gain approval in the terms laid down in congressional hearings or...

      (pp. 220-228)

      In 1905 Albert Einstein was about to reveal the laws of relativity, which upended commonplace notions of time and space. In 1902 and 1903 Henry James’sThe Wings of the DoveandThe Golden Bowlwere published. In these novels James interweaves “effable” scenes (visible on the page through detailed descriptions) with intimations of the “ineffable” (that which lies hidden within the consciousness that creates the tale)—“ineffable” in the way that James, happy agnostic that he was, inserts a powerful sense of the transcendent that lies outside the control of conventional framing devices.

      In the practice of their arts,...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 229-301)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 302-306)