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Sarah Burns' Inventing the Modern Artist: Art & Culture in the Gilded Age

In Inventing the Modern Artist: Art & Culture in the Gilded Age, Sarah Burns utilizes images of specific works of art as visual evidence for her sociological claims discussed in chapter two: “The Artist in the Age of Surfaces.” She divides the chapter into several parts, each one establishing the same running themes in the post-Academy art market: “the culture of display” and “the taint of trade.” Burns agrees with B.O. Flower’s (editor of magazine Arena in 1905), assessment that the modern art market, post decline of the Academy, became a “material culture of display” and that art practice became a modernity inextricably linked to commercialism with “second-rate production.”[1] Burns evaluation and apparent disappointment of modern commercialism within the art market is explored both in writing and visually to provide a wholly researched argument. She begins the chapter by discussing perhaps the sleaziest, most obvious element of the modern art market via use of “dealers’ tricks” and moves to the more obscure: the artist concealing his superficiality in his forcefully unadorned studio. Indeed, an image is attached to every claim made.

In part one of “The Artist in the Age of Surfaces,” Burns writes, “Indeed, an essential component of the new professionals’ equipment was an arsenal of retailing skills and strategies not unlike those being developed to market vast quantities of merchandise in America’s emergent consumer culture.”[2] Establishing the “taint of trade” as a running theme, Burns argues that due to the newfound system of dealership initiated by post-Academy modernity, artists and dealers would adorn the most commonplace image with frames and glass to create the illusion of grandeur and worth. Reminiscences of the Academy, Where the Frames Are So Much Better Than the Pictures, 1892, a cartoon from Life, is an example of “dealers’ tricks,” where “delicately ornamented frames [surround] these ignoble scenes.”[3] This specific work of art as a cartoon is a satire of the perpetual selling of commonplace images, only purchased and valued for their expensive frames, which gave an illusion of worth; removing the frame would expose its dull nature, and therefore would be exempt from being bought, sold, or commodified. Burns carefully chose this image to emphasize America’s consumer culture, in which a buyer would purchase a work for the sole purpose of spending on the superficial, paying no attention to meaning or true value. This, Burns calls the “manufacturing of desire,” a notion also exemplified in Arthur T. Jameson’s Valuable Presents from Gentlemen, a cartoon from Life, 1894, which calls to mind the newfound “recognition that ambience (literally: surroundings) – including frames and other accessories for effective display – had become a vital element in the manufacture of desire.” In this cartoon, the woman depicted accepts a painting from the man but insists she return the frame, for her mother does not let her accept valuable presents from gentlemen. Again, we see the painting alone has no value, it is merely an object encased in something “valuable,” as it has monetary worth. Valuable Presents from Gentleman exacerbates the notion of commodification of art in a most disparaging light. This work truly makes Burns’ point.

The notion of “skillful deployment of ambiance”[4] as in the adornment/framing of basic art is echoed in the form of the lavishly decorated artist studios, an “important tool for artists struggling for commercial success while seeming not to.”[5] The art atmosphere of the artists’ studio is discussed in Marketing Ambience: Studios and the Culture of Display, part two of “The Artist in the Age of Surfaces.” To fully demonstrate the studio as an embodiment of the modern culture of display, Burns carefully employs two images, one now old-fashioned plain studio and one highly decorated. The Studio of J.G. Brown, a photograph from Elisabeth Bisland, “The Studios of New York,” The Cosmopolitan 7, 1889, depicts an unadorned studio that consists only of the artist, his tools, and his subject - a highly blatant contrast to Studio of Mr. W.M. Chase, illustration from John Moran, “Studio-Life in New York,” Art Journal 5, 1879. This illustration portrays this newly adopted phenomenon of studios “thick with art atmosphere.” Young artists quickly embraced the trend; consequently, “by the end of the century’s end such interior decoration … had become inseparable from the image of the flourishing, cosmopolitan painter in urban America.”[6] John Moran’s illustration epitomizes the opulently decorated studio by depicting a chaotic collection of seemingly expensive ornamental stuff bought from world travels. Another artwork that depicts the artist as a skillful ambiance creator, is Studio of Mr. Humphrey Moore, illustration from John Moran, “Studio-Life in New York,” Art Journal 5, 1879. This illustration depicts a “show studio” where an artist would surround himself with “rare bric a brac and artful effects of interior decoration.”[7] Painters created these atmospheres to make visitors want to buy “expensive objects with high exchange value and no material use whatsoever.” The studio was now a product of the artist as showman, no longer was it a workshop but a “seductive wonderland of sights, sounds, smells, and textures.”[8] Studio of Mr. Humphrey Moore consists of guns, swords, foreign objects like maracas, and other expensive trinkets. Burns compares the artist’s studio to the department store as an “accumulation of glamorized exotica.” Once immersed in a sea of romantic objects, the buyer will purchase a piece of art because of studio’s atmosphere, which has enhanced the bought object.

To further this notion, Burns discusses The Aesthetic Commodity, part five of “The Artist in the Age of Surfaces.” William Merritt Chase’s In The Studio, c. 1880 characterizes the archetypal aesthetic commodity: “the luxuriously coated surface, the precious object celebrating the joys of seeing a material world full of delicately lovely things.”[9] Like the illustration of his own studio from John Moran, which also displayed a massive collection of ornate objects, it is evident that William Merritt Chase valued pristine and organized tactile surfaces in his own work such as In The Studio. The work is done with technical aplomb, but it misses the mark in generating meaning beyond the aesthetic surface. It shows what Chase valued: abundance, stylishness, and physicality. Burns looks to James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Silver, 1871, in contrast with Chase’s In The Studio. In Whistler’s work we see an absence of physicality, a divorce from the world of commodity, and an inability to define figure and form. Whistler was able to create paintings infused with meaning beyond the veneer, while managing to “position [himself] as [a merchant] of a near-nothingness that stood for something higher.”[10]

In the final part of the chapter, entitled Cultivating Detachment, Burns claims that although Whistler and the like divorced themselves from the ornate art market culture and aesthetic, their stark simplicity was all part of a cultivated persona. The “construction of an image” can be best understood in viewing Group photograph in Robert Henri’s studio, 1717 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, c. 1895.  The photograph, employed by Burns as a visual cue of her sociological argument, displays a plain and stark studio with low ceilings and unadorned furniture. Burns writes, “Henri’s studio functioned as an eloquent sign that the artist rejected materialism, proving thereby his integrity, his depth, and his independence. It was a display that pretended not to be one, just as the opulent studio was a salesroom in disguise. In either case, the environment constructed an illusion, a fiction of appearances.”[11]

Burns argues that artists who embrace opulence and commodity and those who forcefully reject it, both are designing an ambiance in which they choose to function. It is hard to determine which of these artists were genuine in their beliefs. Burns asserts that all artists are creatures of commerce and definitively choose an atmosphere to be surrounded by based on market trends. In analyzing only the formal qualities of the artworks to support her argument and by using extreme examples, Burns emphasizes the notion of embracing the superficial during America’s emergent consumer culture. Indeed, these works can be further examined and meaning may be extrapolated, however, for the purpose of Burns’ argument, the formal elements will suffice.

[1] Sarah Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 1996). 46.

[2] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 46.

[3] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 47.

[4] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 49.

[5] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 49.

[6] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 50.

[7] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 53.

[8] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 52.

[9] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 68.

[10] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 73.

[11] Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America, 76.

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