Rearview: Dore Ashton, “Response to Crisis in American Art” (1969)
In the wing mirror on the passenger side of a vehicle, objects are closer than they appear.
The texts republished in the Rearview series are those that we wish to draw attention to because they reveal certain “blind spots“ in contemporary art criticism. These “found“ documents (indeed, quasi-artifacts) are prefaced by one of our writers.
The American art historian and critic Dore Ashton, who recently died at the age of 88, began her lifelong career as an art writer in the years after World War II. From 1955, as the New York Times associate art critic, she made her mark as a proponent of Abstract Expressionism and an opponent of mediocrity in any form. Her unashamedly left-leaning politics and modernist stance garnered both allies and enemies—most notably the senior art critic of the Times, John Canaday, who fired her in 1960.
Reflecting a more enlightened editorial policy, the first 1969 issue of Art in America positions Ashton as the lead contributor while Canaday’s successor, the equally conservative Hilton Kramer, appears a good deal later in the magazine. His review is preceded by Charlotte Willard’s “Violence and Art,” which asks whether “art in the seventies [can] help channel aggression into achievement instead of destruction,” and Jane Holtz Kay’s “regional case study” of urban Bostonian, and in this case predominantly black, artists who have “committed much of their (…) creative effort to community causes” (“Artists as Social Reformers”). Together with Ashton’s “Response to Crisis in American Art,” these three powerful texts—notably all by women—paint a picture of “crisis, violence, and reform“ enlightened only by the redemptive potential offered by art/ists.
Ashton sets the scene by tracing a trajectory of artistic responses to sociopolitical crisis and arguing that, in a lineage descending from Ralph Waldo Emerson, American artists have favored a position of detachment and interior reflection, or at best reportage, over outright criticism. Avoiding the “burden of protest” in their work, they were ultimately impelled into the “peculiar phenomenon of American social realism, accented with critical intentions,” by the impact of the Depression. Her reflection on the intervening 40 years takes stock of the twentieth century’s escalating violence and conflict—World War II, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War—and singles out Ed Kienholz, Allan Kaprow, the Living Theater, Robert Rauschenberg, and James Rosenquist for their various approaches to uniting protest and art. To her closing plea that artists make art “commensurate with [the] agony” of their times, we might today add the request that they also voice our collective outrage and do so as explicitly and loudly as they can.
Dore Ashton, “Response to Crisis in American Art”
When Ralph Waldo Emerson got angry enough he would step forward to condemn the defects of his society. The brewing crisis over slavery brought him to the platform on two occasions with sharp indictments. In 1844, commenting on the emancipation in the British West Indies, he warned Americans to assess their own “very cheap and intelligible” culture and to realize that “There are many styles of civilization and not one only. Ours is full of barbarities.”
Exactly ten years later, he delivered a speech in New York denouncing the Fugitive Slave Law (1850). With his rare ability to locate the peculiarities of our culture, and using himself as an example, he pointed out a tendency toward detachment that has remained a constant in American art and letters. He began by admitting that he was most reluctant to speak on public questions and asserted his right as an intellectual to remain hors concours, saying moodily, “I have my own spirits in prison—spirits in deeper prisons whom no man visits if I do not.”
Nevertheless, driven by his concern for the well-being of students and scholars (“it is only when the public event affects them that it very seriously touches me”), he forced himself to come forward, and spelled out his criticism in ruthlessly direct terms. The acceptance of the law, he said, showed that “our prosperity had hurt us, and that we could not be shocked by crime… that while we reckoned ourselves a highly cultivated nation, our bellies had run away with our brains.”
Emerson’s reluctance to turn his eyes away from his own inner spirits—altered only when events filled him with crucial alarm—more or less typifies the attitudes of artists in the nineteenth century in the United States, and carries over to a large degree in the twentieth century.
While Eugene Delacroix, Théodore Géricault, and others were critically remarking social and political crises in Europe, American painters were carefully averting their eyes. There was a genre tradition, a tradition in which the workaday life of America was affectionately recorded, but there was little that could match even Emerson’s occasional protest.
The horrible events of the Civil War, for instance, brought a peculiar American love for documentation to the fore. The young art of photography was enlisted in the person of Mathew Brady. And a gifted illustrator, Winslow Homer, was dispatched to the front. A record—dispassionate, sympathetic but not directly critical—was established. The crisis was duly remarked, but not underscored.
The years following the Civil War were not tranquil, despite the prosperity of the numerous Horatio Alger businessmen who came to dominate what Mumford called the Brown Decades. There were savage strikes of underpaid workers, depressions, a memorable march of unemployed on Washington, race riots and frequent skirmishes between police and civilians. Almost nothing of this unsettling period appears in American painting and sculpture. On the contrary, the artists seemed to strain mightily away from the unpleasantness of their society, and concentrated on trivial and sentimental themes.
The nineteenth-century American artist was on the whole a cheery sort. If he was adventurous, he became a reporter—which is not the same as being a critic. When the mass media got a strong hold on the public, numerous aspiring artists were enlisted, among them the lusty young men who were to band together in the first years of the twentieth century in what was derisively called the Ashcan School and, less pejoratively, The Eight.
They started as illustrators. They were against sentimental bourgeois art, and against the namby-pamby results of a poorly grounded art-for-art’s-sake point of view. They threw themselves into their illustrating task with gusto. Everett Shinn, for instance, described how he was sent to cover a train wreck and rushed to meet his deadline: “I was lying on my stomach on the baggage room floor, but when the train started, I couldn’t even hold the Pen. The reporter sat down across my back to hold me steady and he would hold my hand whenever I dipped into the bottle…”
George Luks was sent out to cover the 1895 Cuban war, but in the general lighthearted spirit that prevailed spent his time in Havana making up a series of colorful adventures for his gullible viewers back home. At the same time Luks was gaining notoriety for his popular comic strip, based on the equally unlikely adventures of the Yellow Kid.
In 1898, William Glackens, with cries of “Remember the Maine” ringing in his ears, set out for Cuba to cover the Spanish-American war with great seriousness. But his work remained the work of an uninvolved reporter.
When these artists banded together in New York to present their paintings, their illustrators’ experience was telling.
They rendered the life of the city, and noted, noncommittally, the problems of the city, but they succeeded only rarely in surmounting their background as newspaper stiffs. Their contempt for art-for-art’s-sake led them to a rather insipid realism that survives in varied forms to this day in America.
Conflict did arise, however, in those foreboding years before World War I. Young Stuart Davis, for instance, schooled by the Ashcan masters, began his career illustrating for the radical political journal The Masses. It wasn’t long before an ideological battle got under way, with Max Eastman, John Reed and Art Young insisting that only an art of ideas had a place in the magazine. Sloan, Coleman and Davis stood firm for what they considered “pure” art, namely, a kind of genre scene that needed no captions. Davis quit the magazine in this dispute and was ever after suspicious of an “art of ideas.”
Other more sophisticated artists rejected the illustrator’s tradition scornfully and rallied around Alfred Stieglitz, eyeing the European avant-garde with favor. The crisis, political and social, boiling up in the years before World War I brought out in them an apocalyptic mood of depression, in which Emerson’s belief in the value of each man’s hidden introspection reasserted itself. The lead article by Marius de Zayas in the July 1912 issue of Stieglitz’s Camera Work summarized the mood of the avant-garde. Called “The Sun Has Set,” the article begins with an oft-repeated sentence in twentieth-century criticism: “Art is dead.” De Zayas’ pessimistic view of the world is summarized in his last paragraph, in which he characterizes his epoch as “chaotic, neurotic, inconsequent and out of equilibrium.”
This conclusion reflected fairly well the general feeling of the literati and the avant-garde artists on the eve of the war. Their turn toward Dada, in the persons of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Francis Picabia, during the war period came in direct response to the neurotic and chaotic in their society. They dealt only obliquely with public issues, preferring to indict society, and American society in particular, with cutting sarcasm, elite jokes and irritating absurdities. It is significant that in the issues of Camera Work during the war period, there is no direct allusion to the war at all. Except for the brief period in which Marsden Hartley commented on German militarism in his symbolic abstractions, there was little in American visual art that could be said to relate directly to the international crisis.
As the wild 1920s swept on toward the Crash, few visual artists were able to cope with the confusions and hysteria so aptly recorded by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The illustrators continued to illustrate, and the avant-garde fell away or removed itself to Paris. Toward the end of the 1920s, the radical magazine The New Masses, widely read by artists, was already suggesting that peace was threatened and that all was not well. This magazine represented the best outlet for political and social satirists of quality, and it was here that both William Gropper and Otto Soglow developed their styles. Their powerful indictments of the military industrialists and of American isolationism probably cleared the way for the later social commentaries during the Depression.
But it was not until the grayness of the Depression settled heavily on the spirits of artists that the peculiar phenomenon of American social realism, accented with critical intentions, took a strong hold on American art. It was during the Depression that the idea of an American art became an obsession with countless artists. Regionalism, one of its by-products, was widely applauded, especially the expressionistic reportage of the romantic Thomas Hart Benton.
The crisis of the Depression was so intensely dramatic that even the young artists who had resolutely schooled themselves in European avant-garde idioms, and to whom a regional, provincial American art seemed ludicrous, could not avoid temporarily committing themselves to direct response. During the 1930s, several forces were at work, stirring the social conscience of the artist. Certainly a major and unprecedented area was opened when the government became the employer of thousands of artists in every field. Aside from representing the first emphatic recognition of the importance of the artist in American society, the various programs established between 1933 and 1943 delivered some 1,500 murals for public buildings in towns that had never seen a live work of art, some 50,000 paintings and watercolors allocated to schools, libraries and hospitals and some 45,000 sculptures distributed in public places.
Given this huge impetus toward an art for the masses, few artists could resist the enthusiasm it sponsored. Many of the best painters, for instance, went to Mexico to study the murals by the Mexican revolutionaries. Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco were shuttling back and forth to the United States, where they worked on commissions and invited numerous young American painters to assist them. Through their radical expressionism and their historical point of view, the Mexicans strongly affected Americans who wished to inject into their own work a consciousness of crisis.
Artists were further fired by the possibility of social action; for a short time, two politically oriented groups, the American Artists Congress and the American Artists Union, were compelling forces. As Stuart Davis recalls, “In 1934, I became socially conscious as everyone else was doing in those days… This meant meetings, articles, picket lines, internal squabbles… Lots of work was done but little painting.”
The diversion of collective action did not, however, seduce everyone completely. One part of the soul of the easel painters who were later to become famous seemed to resist. One can feel the force of the aristocratic resistance working at the time in the annoyance Ben Shahn shows in describing his early essays in social comment, first a series on the Dreyfus case and then the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case. “I felt and perhaps hoped a little that such simplicity would prove irritating to the artistic eliteguard who had already, even at the end of the twenties, begun to hold forth ‘disengagement’ as the first law of creation.”
Those who felt instinctively that literary or illustrational allusions hampered their development were faced with singular conflicts. Pablo Picasso came to their rescue. When he painted Guernica, which was quickly reproduced in America, Picasso indicated a means that was not alien to the disengaged formal tradition of modern art, and that yet expressed the deep revulsion he felt about the Spanish Civil War. While such artists as Jack Levine and Ben Shahn could work in a manner that spelled out their social concerns either in stylized terms or in almost caricatural satire, others gratefully accepted the options suggested by Picasso. Among the young who looked carefully and learned from him were Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, all artists who, like Emerson, preferred to meditate in the deeper prisons of their imaginations, but who were inevitably touched by the crises of their time.
They were also assisted by the principles of the dominant movement in Europe, surrealism. While the surrealists were on the whole intensely political, they did not advocate the intrusion of social messages in art. Their commitment to revolution was on an exalted plane. The petty social commentary implicit in so much American art had no place in surrealism, which sought a fundamental psychological revolution above all. The surrealists’ publications, eagerly scanned in the United States, focused on primitive art, mythology, dream symbolism. Their acute awareness of impending disaster in the mid-1930s was channeled into wild, introspective works aimed at unsettling the mental habits of the bourgeoisie, whom they held responsible for the disasters of their time.
The fall of France, as several writers have stressed, was an important moment in the lives of many of the most gifted American artists. It broke the spell of literary attachments, drove them back into themselves and cut off the lifeline to the European avant-garde.
World War II was a disaster so great in the minds of many artists that literal messages could not possibly be adequate.
An artist such as Philip Guston struggled to deal with pertinent themes while yet avoiding the traps of topicality. His 1941 painting Martial Memory catches up the preoccupation of the 1930s with desolate urban life, but phrases it in a distanced, grand style that relates as much to the Renaissance as to the 1940s. His student Stephen Greene sought a few years later to express his revulsion through a biblical symbolism. His allusions to such unspeakable atrocities as gas ovens are oblique and far from the raw expressionistic realism that dominated the 1930s.
Other artists met the crisis of World War II by putting themselves into service. Some made posters for the Office of War Information. Others went out as artists on battle assignments. And others, such as Arshile Gorky, attempted to find an honorable means of being of use without sullying their positions as artists. Gorky attempted to set up a class in the art of camouflage. In his opening announcement, he wrote: “An epidemic of destruction sweeps the world today. The mind of civilized man is set to stop it. What the enemy would destroy, however, he must first see.”
Gorky went on to describe how, in the twentieth century, the modern artist had made great explorations of the visible world, unveiling the secrets of line, form and color. “It is these elements that make an object visible and which are for the artist the vocabulary of his language. This course is dedicated to that artist, contemporary in his understanding of forces in the modern world, who would use this knowledge in a function of increasing importance. Such an artist will gain a knowledge that will deepen and enrich his understanding of art as well as making him an important contributor to civilian and military defense.”
Gorky’s attempt to reconcile his two strong selves—the responsible citizen and the artist who must visit his own deep prisons to assure his integrity—was not successful. No amount of hopeful mixing of purposes would help; his art could not serve publicity.
American artists, at that crucial point when America was drawn into a global war, were no longer capable of the cheerful sentimentalism that accompanied disaster before the Depression. They could not sink back, as Santayana had suggested in 1918, into complacency. “The American,” he wrote, “has never yet had to race the truths of Job. Great crises, like the Civil War, he has known how to surmount victoriously, and when he has surmounted the present crisis victoriously also, it is possible that he may relapse as he did in the other case, into an apparently complete absorption in material enterprise and prosperity.”
The artists who were to be called Abstract Expressionists, or the New York School, were prepared to face the truths of Job. They worked out of a keen awareness of crisis. Like the surrealists whom they admired, they regarded the holocaust as a tragedy that could not be expressed in the literal manner of the illustrator.
Certainly it was out of their deep sense of malaise and a new kind of engagement that they sought to express the profound sources of human behavior symbolically. “If our titles recall the known myths of antiquity, we have used them again because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas,” wrote Mark Rothko in 1943. “They are the symbols of man’s primitive fears and motivations, no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never in substance… Those who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art.”
The violence in the world found expression in the mythical paintings of Pollock, partially inspired by Picasso’s violent response to the monster Franco, and in the choice of symbols made by other painters still seeking to respond with moral integrity to the unspeakable events that pressed in on them. When Motherwell began his series on Spain, he sought to bring to the canvas the great sense of grief that all feeling and thinking people shared when Fascism emerged the victor. That Pollock, De Kooning, Gorky, Motherwell, Still and others were abstract artists did not change the climate of moral responsibility and often of despair from which they worked.
Their emphasis on the moral grounds from which they worked held many artists enthralled for some fifteen years. But there were others who found the philosophic utterance of the Abstract Expressionists tedious, and affectedly lofty.
As the 1950s drew to a close, a new restlessness spawned new interests. The Beat Generation appeared with explosive disdain for the fatness of Americans, for the society which could tolerate McCarthyism, the war in Korea and the Cold War.
Parallel with the rise of beat literature was the rise of newly interpreted Dada and surrealist principles. Robert Rauschenberg began scandalizing his viewers first with totally blank canvases and later with assembled works in which popular images, newspaper photographs, actual objects and expressionist painting were freely mixed. There was a general blurring of lines among the arts, and the new generation, possibly out of a sense of crisis, felt free to use whatever came to hand to express its vision of contemporary art.
There was much talk of “art and life” and the mixing of the two, and a general debunking of the high tone of pure art. “Life,” as it emerged in the work of Rauschenberg, was documented without undue comment. Political figures, atom bombs, food markets and other contemporary facts were spread, montage fashion, throughout his work with the reportorial indifference that had once characterized The Eight. Nevertheless, Rauschenberg and others who came to be called pop artists could not help but respond to the threatening form about them; they became, almost against their will, social critics.
The introspective climate in which Jackson Pollock could contemplate Jungian theories of the human condition, and Robert Motherwell could ponder Søren Kierkegaard, did not last into the next generation. The young were disenchanted and could find little solace in philosophy. Ed Kienholz, for instance, began a harsh and protesting art that often verged on scatology, as in his Psycho-Vendetta Case (1960), with its double allusion to Sacco and Vanzetti and the alleged California rapist Caryl Chessman, who, despite many agonized appeals from the world community, was executed by the state.
The emergence of Kienholz, and others like him, harked back to World War II and the upheavals of the 1940s, when these artists were still children. Kienholz’s savage tableaux are bitterly nostalgic, generally hostile to social institutions in the United States and, at the same time, bluff and somewhat detached, with the wry American shrug that laughs it off a little.
A reappearance of the negativism that had kept the Dadas going occurred in the late 1950s when Allan Kaprow and several others created happenings. In general, Kaprow’s position was sharply critical. He insisted that the happening was a response to the corruption of a bourgeois society. He said that its ephemeral form—and the use of perishable materials in general in art—was calculated to prevent the rich from stockpiling art. The open character of the happening, which was soon transformed into collective ritual, at least in Kaprow’s case, was an answer to the closed nature of this society. If he had people licking jam off the hoods of automobiles or perching in trees or unrolling miles of tarpaper, it was as much a response to this unreasonable and violent society as it was a neo-Dada gesture.
At the same time that the happenings, which brought together visual artists and people in other arts, reflected via ritual and infantilism the horrors and violence of the moment, legitimate theater was also moving toward strong social response, particularly in the case of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater.
Ideals established by the German expressionist theater, the revolutionary Russian theater and by Antonin Artaud were reflected in the Living Theater’s unorthodox and disturbing productions.
I believe that the pressure of circumstances had much to do with the emergence of spectacle and the importance of theater in the visual arts. One way of absolving a social conscience is to open one’s art to a broad public, and to advert to specific issues. The happenings of the 1950s, the Living Theater and the happenings of the 1960s are linked with the revolutionary developments in a new, so-called guerrilla theater which reflects the same impatience with conventions and institutions of this society, but with a more defined social purpose that relates to the spirit of the thirties.
The theater of commitment is, as one of its protagonists, Richard Shotter, explains, a theater of action, not art. “Committed theater has a purpose: to confront and change beliefs. To achieve this end, it may use any means available, art included.” He explains that “Guerrilla theater tactics (invasions of public buildings, street events, the assault on the Pentagon, the siege of Whitehall) have evolved as a desperate extension of the futility of words.”
The exasperation this explanation reflects is evident in all the arts, and has emphatically appeared in the visual arts. The 1960s are unprecedented in providing occasions for anger and outrage. A broad resurgence of social criticism is apparent.
The events which have elicited specific responses from visual artists include President Kennedy’s assassination, the war in Vietnam and particularly the use of napalm and “antipersonnel” weapons, the racial rioting in our cities. But a broader protest is apparent—against social inequities of every kind, corruption in the universities and, in general, the materialistic torpor and consumer-oriented character of the society.
It has not been easy for painters and sculptors to assume the burden of protest in their art. Most would prefer Emerson’s deeper prisons to the limitations that direct social commentary imposes. Only when events have made meditation and private evolution all but impossible, when the din of controversy and the shame of war bear in on the artist, is he forced, in spite of himself, to answer. I think it is possible to assume that the new emphasis on mixed media, on “art and life” and on the literary in art is a response to terrible events. If we remember that the photomontage technique was developed by John Heartfield and George Grosz during World War I in order to comment on its butchery, it is not difficult to speculate that the use of silk-screen techniques by Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, of collage by Romare Bearden, Öyvind Fahlström and R.B. Kitaj, of assemblage techniques by Bruce Conner, Ed Kienholz and countless others reflects the need to stretch their artists’ means to cover a profound emotional experience of horrific crisis.
Also, it is quite possible that the renewed interest in poster art, with its devastating legends, is in direct response to the situation, as is the mass movement by young artists into film art. Films are more flexible, more accessible to the message of outrage they want to get across.
Among the very young the impetus of protest can be felt everywhere. Their recourse to Thoreau’s civil disobedience in their actions is often reflected in their art. When they are met with uncomprehending condescension, as they were by President Pusey of Harvard, who in his 1966-67 report referred to “overeager young in evidence on many campuses in recent years who feel they have a special calling to redeem society,” they respond with anger and renewed zeal. Pusey’s reference to “belligerent non-sense” and his assertion that the angry young live in a fantasy world were characteristic, according to the young, of this society that will not face unpleasant facts unless forced to by violence.
Attempts to weave social comment into visual art are not made only by the very young. Artists of every generation have, on occasion, attempted protest. Serious artists have tried to reconcile the formal and the reportorial traditions, often with compelling results. As an example of the attitude of such artists, I quote a rather solitary Northwestern artist, Philip McCracken: “In these pieces I am defining as specifically as I can the elements of life and the human condition that I find most perplexing and arbitrary. They are social commentary but only in that they relate to the vast and senseless incongruities found throughout our brief life on earth… In several pieces bullet holes are used as form language expressive of violence—yet in themselves they are beautiful. Like crystal stars, cold and timeless they appear. It is this specific ambivalence which makes them the most useful in a form vocabulary.”
Another significant instance of a mature artist’s confrontation with the all but insuperable problems that commentary poses for the modern artist is Adja Yunkers’s huge (50 x 17 feet) mural, A Human Condition (1966), at Syracuse University. Taking as his text the celebrated line of Tacitus, “They have made a desert and called it Peace,” Yunkers pursued an abstract, symbolic scheme to enunciate his deep feelings of revulsion over the war in Vietnam.
Certain events—the immolation of a Buddhist monk, the napalming of a village and the black overhang of war smoke—became Yunkers’ focus as he worked through a long series of sketches to find synoptic symbols for his feelings. Finally, it is through the foreboding colors, the hint of ancient symbolism in the mandala and the strange conjugation of symbolic forms that the anguish of the artist is conveyed. The specific events are swept up into an abstraction of all human outrage.
Many artists have sought, during the past few years, to make occasional comments, as poets make occasional poems. For some it has been relatively simple to commit their usual style to legible commentary.
George Segal, for instance, produces a generalized statement of the gratuitous cruelty of all war, in his tableau of hanged victims, without doing violence to his style. The same is true of Roy Lichtenstein, whose parodic penchant is suitable for occasional commentary, and Peter Saul, whose comic-strip satires are savagely political. But Mark di Suvero, James Wines and Robert Mallary, all of whom work in abstract sculptural idioms normally, were forced to move into other areas—photomontage for Wines and Mallary, written protests for Di Suvero—to relieve themselves of the anguish the barbarities of the world, and particularly the war in Vietnam, produced in them. The natural tendency toward abstraction which had characterized their work, and the work of such painters as Allan d’Arcangelo, Jack Sonenberg, Jack Youngerman and scores of others who have registered specific protests in their work against the war in Vietnam, gave way under the duress of the occasion.
Others, such as James Rosenquist, have not contended with the problems of form language and abstraction to such a degree, but have nevertheless found modes to combine both protest and art. Rosenquist’s gigantic F-111 (1964-65), recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum, is clearly a commentary on war and an assault on the art-for-art’s-sake philosophy. Rosenquist comments that “the present position of an artist seems to be a person who offers up a gift, an antidote to something, a small relief to a heavy atmosphere… The stance of the artists now, compared with the world and the ideas in society, does not seem to equate; they don’t relate except as an artist offering you something as a small gift. So the idea of this picture was to do an extravagance, something that wouldn’t simply be offered as a relief.”
With his use of the images found in popular media, Rosenquist holds with the idea that recognizable American life must be injected into art. Clearly this is a cliché, but it is one which has powerfully affected certain American artists. Although we have never developed a high tradition of political caricature and satire, we have used the comic strip and other popular imagery to assert messages of anger and discontent. The division of high art and popular art remains, as it did in the days of The Eight, but the line between the two is less and less clearly drawn.
It is certainly true that in the history of art topicality has rarely resulted in the art that is consecrated as high art. The topical artist, moved by events into polemical action, is generally consigned to oblivion. But in the modern tradition there have been two singular exceptions, Goya and Picasso. Those American artists who cannot turn away from the immediate disasters of their time anxiously seek a means of recuperating the high-minded and passionate tone of these great masters who responded to crisis with both topical and universal anger, and who made out of agony an art commensurate with agony.
Dore Ashton’s “Response to Crisis in American Art” was first published in Art in America (Jan-Feb, 1969). The text is reprinted with the kind permission of Art in America.