The Magazine

Paint By Numbers

New Deal art and the problems of public patronage.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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"We used to see games like that in Denver."

The speaker was a petite, intense-looking Hispanic woman accompanied by her son. I could be wrong, but she did not seem like a regular museumgoer. The setting was the exhibition currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM): "1934: A New Deal for Artists," containing 56 paintings created under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). And the subject was an appealing work by Morris Kantor, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, entitled Baseball at Night.

To the average art snob, such comments are of no consequence, because they reflect what ordinary people do when confronted with works of art: they look at the subject matter, not the art. From this perspective, Kantor's painting could just as well have been a magazine illustration; that woman would still have remarked to her son, "We used to see games like that in Denver."

In America, this art-snob perspective reached a zenith of sorts in 1939, when the critic Clement Greenberg published "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," a famous essay positing two ways of looking at art: the "cultivated" way, which focuses on the formal attributes of a work and fits them into an unfolding historical process; and the "naïve" way, which simply reacts to the scene or personage being portrayed.

Greenberg gives the example of a Russian peasant looking at a picture by Ilya Repin, the great realist painter touted by Stalin as a template for Soviet art. With Trotsky, Greenberg believed that to serve the revolution, art had to be on the cutting edge of modernism: the avant-garde. Thus, he dismissed Repin's work as "kitsch" that "predigests art for the spectator and .  .  . provides him with a short cut .  .  . that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art." Repin's technique, acquired at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and honed in Paris, is so masterful that it allows the peasant to perceive "no discontinuity between art and life."

Thus, the "naïve" spectator looking at Baseball at Night sees only the red-dirt diamond illuminated by racks of yellow lights, the little clubhouse and radio station with windows aglow against the night sky, the players captured in classic poses anticipating the pitch, the candy-colored spectators jammed into low bleachers, the neat row of bats, the American flag, and the black-clad umpire standing with arms judiciously folded.

By contrast, the "cultivated" spectator sees Kantor's "abstract technique": the way he uses the lines of the chalked diamond, flagposts, batting cage, and long curved bleacher to pull the composition together. There must be a golden section in there somewhere, because the effect is so harmonious that the eye barely registers how absurdly small the playing field is, or how improbable it is that a bleacher would be curved. The cultivated eye is further seduced by Kantor's "painterly" style: His brushes were wet when he sketched all those lively human forms, and while the paint has long since dried, the fluidity of his deft, playful touch remains visible.

To Greenberg, these two ways of looking are all but mutually exclusive. Yet to judge by the actions of the aforementioned woman, this was not the case with her. Unlike most museumgoers, she did not plod dutifully from picture to picture, spending 2.5 seconds in front of each one. Rather she crisscrossed the rooms with smiling son in tow, stopping before all the good paintings and ignoring the rest. And her response to Tenement Flats, a large, brilliant canvas by California painter Millard Sheets--"Look at that!"--suggested an appreciation for pure "plastic values" that, according to Greenberg, is found only in the "cultivated."

That woman is hardly unique. Most people, including most art connoisseurs, find it unnatural to look at a well-wrought picture without responding to the subject it depicts. After all, Van Gogh didn't paint cow flaps, he painted sunflowers. Yet to Greenberg, any such surrender to "the vividly recognizable, the miraculous, and the sympathetic" is hopelessly reactionary. Indeed, he held that the future of humanity depended on visual art being purged of its most ancient and primal power: representation.