Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America.


SARAH BURNS Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 392 pp.; 130 b/w ills.; $50

"Inventing": Sarah Burns uses the present participle to convey something more flexible than the abstract models of cultural production once associated with the sociology of art. By "Inventing," more precisely, Burns wants to suggest that the image of the artist in the Gilded Age was at once malleable and contested. No single image prevailed in this respect, even as the figure of the artist assumed center stage in the popular imagination. From the urban dandy to the rugged individualist, from the ambitious mural painter to the humble illustrator, from the society painter to the bohemian, the roles played by artists remained fundamentally unstable--no less unstable, Burns holds, than the competing cultural discourses and commercial pressures that underwrote them.

In part those roles tracked shifting public expectations. In bohemia, for example, American audiences claimed to discover an arena dedicated to youthful fantasies of wild conduct and artistic liberation. Here, Burns writes, "was a sort of Oz," where "almost nobody grew old and where there was always something odd and diverting going on" (p. 247). Still other artists rode ethical, scientific, and religious waves: the virtuous antimaterialist, for example, or the genius whose renditions of nature relied on a new, secularized conception of the artist as a privileged seer. Often those discourses targeted artistic behavior for social criticism, typically framing their concerns in gendered terms. Accusations of degeneracy, for example, led artists and critics to suppress, expel, and recast those attributes of artistic character typically gendered as feminine.

The notion of celebrity assumes a commanding role in Burns's narrative--to the point, in Burns's phrase, where "the identification of product with producer became complete (p. 5). What Burns means in part is that public attention fell less to the art than to the painter's self-image, expressed in details of lifestyle, in personal conduct, in the artist's spaces and social activities and, finally, in the character of his or her painting (more on this below). If this "media driven cult of surfaces" sounds awfully current, it is supposed to. Here, Burns claims, lie the roots of a commercialized practice of artistic self-fashioning that found its apotheosis in the career of Andy Warhol. Whistler was the first great master of this new "commodified self" and "post-modern performance art" (p. 245). If the analogy to Warhol seems overdrawn, we should not underestimate Whistler's efforts in...

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