Friday, March 23, 2012

Lewis Mumford, Art Critic

To my mind, Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was a good example of a "public intellectual" -- an admittedly slippery term -- of the 1925-1965 variety. You can do a Google search on the label, but for my present purposes I'll define the concept as a person not always equipped with college degrees and not employed by a college or university who thinks about matters important to society and writes influential articles regarding his take on such matters.

Mumford's Wikipedia entry is here and that of the Dictionary of Art Historians here. Although his interests were wide-ranging, he is probably best known for his commentaries on architecture and urban planning. He wrote books on those subjects that were considered important in his day and he served as architecture critic for The New Yorker magazine for three decades.

What I hadn't known until recently was that for six years (1932-37) he also wrote an occasional New Yorker column dealing with what he found in art museums and galleries. These pieces have been gathered into this book. Reading those old columns was like being transported to another world -- a world whose residues I encountered growing up and whose art I'm currently trying to make sense of with respect to a self-imposed writing project.

Besides spouting off opinions as a critic must, Mumford was obliged to write in a casual, digressive mode that New Yorker editor Harold Ross felt epitomized New York City's sophistication in those days. And New York City was indeed the center of intellectual and creative ferment in the United States. So Mumford tried to visit as many important museum exhibits and gallery shows as he could, mentioning what he liked and disliked as well as sometimes commenting on what (and who) he felt was missing.

What did Mumford like? Just about anything associated with John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. He was also favorably disposed to the idea of an American Art, something in the air for many years that became a big 1930s topic. For instance, he liked several of the Ashcan School artists of the early 1900s. But he didn't care for art that contained a whiff of patriotism and therefore wasn't entirely fond of American Regionalism in the form of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, etc. He liked the paintings of communist-sympathizing William Gropper and Joe Jones and favored modernism over conservative, traditional, bourgeois-oriented art even though recognizing that not all of it measured up.

He had a reasonably good knowledge of 19th century art and thought Albert Pinkham Ryder was really good, Winslow Homer pretty good and Jules Bastien-Lepage and his ilk hardly worthy of mentioning in passing. At least he mentioned Batien-Lepage who at the time was well on his way to becoming a non-person so far as art history was concerned.

Mumford was not receptive to Surrealism at first, but wrote a column basically supportive of it not long before dropping his art criticism job. As for other Europeans, he liked Renoir (aside from his middle, non-impressionist period), Maurice Utrillo (whose reputation was high in those days) and Picasso's early modernist work (though not so much his post Great War exploration of heavy, classically-derived forms).

My general take on Mumford's art criticism is that he was a little too smugly a proponent of the "advanced" artistic theories and fashions of his day -- more a cheerleader than someone with a deeper, more strongly based critical sense. But if he had taken the latter tack (assuming he was capable), I wonder if he ever would have gotten his New Yorker gig.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

I'm not familiar with this episode in Mumford's career, but I'd venture based on pretty much every other experience I've had with critics that your last paragraph is part or all of the explanation. One Mumford work I have spent a lot of time with is Art and Technics (early 1950s), and suffice it to say that by that time he was anything but a smug proponent of modern art. As you evince some skepticism of "modernism" in your epigraph, I'd be curious to know what you think of Mumford's tack in Art and Technics. As someone who is more inclined towards "modernism" (if only we could agree on what it means...) I feel that he defines the role of art too narrowly, as invariably dealing in "symbols," and as too simple/direct/reductionist a reflection of the culture at large. This then allows him to show, objectively of course, why "the modern artist, defensively, has less and less to say." Basically, the whole world seemed to have lost its mind, and you can see this in the art, because it's easy to see things like this in art. Maybe I'm not doing it justice here, but it strikes me as incongruously shallow against the depth of his best work. And, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have flown in The New Yorker ca. 1932, though nowadays who knows.