Sunday, April 10, 2011

John Sloan: a Political Man First and Second

Note: the subject of this article is very dear to me.  He exemplifies not only what an artist, but a public figure, ought to be.  Not only that: I'm writing a novel about him and his colleague, Robert Henri, so I have a vested interest in getting excited about him again.  If you don't know Sloan's work, there's a pretty good biography about him called (you guessed it!) John Sloan, Painter and Rebel by John Loughery.  I used to think it a great book.  It's not.  I can't, in fact, stop copyediting it.  But it is generously insightful and the primary source for my novel. 

Many of us have forgotten about the political ferments of fin de siecle America.  To re-engage them, I want to introduce a single figure: John Sloan.  In addition to dredging up home truths about city life, he was a fighting firebrand.  His images of strike-breaking and courtroom chinacery stand alongside of Daumier and Gavarni.  He was, briefly, a politician, running for city council on the Socialist ticket.  As no socialist was ever elected, Sloan's candidacy - like his mentor, Eugene Debs' - was symbolic.  But it sent a message that was dear to socialists' hearts, and it hit home.  In later years, it would be increasingly dangerous to subscribe to the party platform.  By the Thirties, American socialists gravitated to the Communist Party, for which they paid dearly when Joe McCarthy decided they were not the Americans they ought to have been.

Sloan's political activities ranged far and wide.  He participated in parades and rallies.  He wrote fiery letters.  He provided journalists with copy they could take to the bank.  All the while, however, he was painting pictures that were devoid of political content.  He even said that art and politics don't mix and practiced what he preached to a degree that is rare in art or any other field.

Among his more significant contributions are the exhibits he, Robert Henri, and other "ashcan school" artists organized as a way to challenge the supremacy of the National Academy of Design.  It is hard for us, in the second decade of the 21st century, to conceive of the possibilities that were available to artists in the early 20th.  As in France, the way to official acceptance was through the academy whose semi-annual exhibitions were an open door that could also shut.  Sloan, Henri, and their colleagues, William Glackens and George Luks, submitted to these exhibitions routinely.  Yet their rowdy populism - as their commitment to reflect the lives of ordinary people was thought to be - grated on the nerves of jurors.  For the most part, their pictures were given short shrift or rejected outright.  After losing out so much, Sloan and Henri - who was an Academy member - broke away and mounted exhibits of their own.  In a relatively short period of time, the balance of power started to shift.  Sloan and Henri had sparked a revolution which culminated in the Armory Show of 1913.  It was here that the so-called  "Ashcan School" - now in capital letters - was unseated by European modernists, who became the rage of collectors who wanted to break with what was "merely" realistic.  In less than a decade, Sloan and Henri fought, came to power, and were de-throned.  The new kids - whose hothouse creations few people understood - were the ones to look at now.  Press stories lampooned the new stuff as much as it ballyhooed it.  In fact, if you compare its cartoons to the ones that ridiculed the Impressionists, there's hardly any difference.  They both highlight these new paintings' incongruities, they marvel that any of them would pretend to be art, and they conclude that anybody who could think so was a lunatic.

Then the war came and, for a time, that was that.  

A period of reassessment followed, during which Henri dug in his heels, Sloan relented somewhat, and the rest of their colleagues went their separate ways.  Never again would a band of artists be as unified as Sloan, Henri, and their fellow renegades.  By the time Henri died in the late Twenties, he and Sloan had drifted apart.  Still believing in Velasquez, Henri was disillusioned by the new gauds and fineries, which had, in effect, replaced the old ones he and Sloan had been trying to overthrow.  Art had become so splintered that there was no central focus - which, for better or worse, the National Acadmy had provided.  For Sloan, teaching became a bully pulpit - so much so that he would eventually have to resign from the Art Student's League, which had made him president. 

It might be said that controversy happened wherever John Sloan happened to be.  Having found the Southwest, he became an advocate of Indian rights.  He watched wealthy tourists study Indian rituals with no love lost for his fellow Americans.  He did a painting of the old civilization he admired performing for the new one that he didn't.  It is a scathing document - and a lively little canvas that gives the native population its dignity.  In all things, Sloan was a humanist who gave himself unstintingly to the notion that everybody was worthwhile.

It is Sloan's New York City phase (or phases) most of us know best.  This was the Haymarket period, during which Sloan eased himself into the night-life genteel artists might enjoy privately, but would never show in their paintings.  During this period, Sloan watched the election returns like everybody else, but did not quite rejoice - as his people do in Election Night - in the choices of his fellow citizens.  In the Chelsea neighborhood where he lived, his friend and mentor John Butler Yeats held court at a little restaurant, where Sloan painted him surrounded by admiring colleagues.  And when people came home from work, he was there to greet them, as one can see in Six O'clock.  Sloan was frequently characterized as the "American Hogarth" and there's some credence to this description.  In Sloan's work, humor and pathos combine to show how ordinary people face what one might call "interesting situations."  Where Hogarth showed the upper classes getting their comeuppance, Sloan was content with his shopgirls, who sat back in their chairs at restaurants or tempted the "house cat" with a sardine.  Hogarth's satire was about class and its dehumanizing effects on people who rose above their station or plummeted beneath it.  Sloan liked the collision of the high and low, but his treatment was more subtle.  His Fifth Avenue matrons are there because they own it, but they still have to walk among the canaille.  Politics do not appear directly in any of his paintings, but they hover just outside.  Some of us take life as it comes.  Sloan's appreciation was double-edged.  He took genuine pleasure in the city's heartbeat, but he was aware enough of its underside to flip it over now and then.  When a penniless recruit faces a military officer, he looks tired enough to sign.  If he were doing better, he might have moved on.  And if a young prostitue can snap on a pair of white gloves, we know what where she's been and what she's been doing.  Those white gloves come at a price few "respectable" women were willing to pay. 

When I lived in New York, I found political contexts myself.  In no other place is the dichotomy between rich and poor played out so visibly.  As a broker gets off the train, a homeless guy will stagger behind him.  Every day folk from the outer boroughs come to work for people who essentially own them - and are, considering their servitude, astonishingly good humored.  (Sloan's painting of washerwomen in the Astor Library comes to mind.)  Lord and peon can ride an elevator, but disperse forever afterwards.  A guy who's been off his meds can run crazily down Upper Broadway - and be followed by somebody who's asked his limousine driver to slow down.  And all over there are people asking for spare change.  They wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't in circulation.

Sloan teaches us to see these paradoxical relationships and, if we do nothing about them except notice, it enriches our sense of polity.  We become conscious people for whom the world is by turns, infurating and wondrous.  And if we get angry about it, that's all right.  Sometimes anger is the only appropriate response.  Yet Sloan has also given us the opportunity to be amused - as when a group of onlookers watch a hair-color specialist perform her magic.  Or when a man watches some good-looking women who are aware he's watching them.  He allows us to notice strangers we would otherwise ignore - and glimpse in these strangers the humanity that is common to us all.  Just because his people work for a living, it doesn't mean they don't dream; nor does it mean that they'll stay exactly where they are.  Sloan celebrates the path we're on, which can mostly meander.  He celebrates triumph against a backdrop of despair.  He says that wonder is our baseline mood, but it's often interrupted by the obligations we can either meet head-on or postpone until they kick us in the rear.  Humor, pathos - and, lastly, politics.  Sloan has all of them and we, as observers from a faraway land, ought to remember - and thank - him for reminding us of our common destiny.

No comments:

Post a Comment