Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 16, 2006 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Nassau County Museum of Art. The essay is included in a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem to be held at the Nassau County Museum of Art. February 19, 2006 - May 14, 2006. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Infamous New York: Bosses, Burlesque & Mayhem

by Constance Schwartz


The history of American art in the first half of the 20th century is in part a history of collapsing boundaries between high art and low art and all that simmered beneath it. And, in part it is a history of the people: the people in the rural farms and the people in the cities. In this exhibition, Infamous New York: Burlesque, Bosses and Mayhem, the underbelly of the Big City, New York, is disclosed in a visual cacophony that offers examples of sadness, poverty, seediness, alienation, crime and corruption, social and political issues, artificial spectacles and entertainment, a chaotic turmoil of everyday life happening around and within a small world of privilege and wealth.

Within the context of America's cultural and social landscape, modern American artists at the time had a tradition that continues to this day of standing in the vanguard -- of tackling tough issues and creating a visual language that obliges us to look at varied social changes that had impacted our society. Often controversial, turbulent and always vital, these paintings were defined under the banner of Realism or Representationalism and bridging within these areas, Social Realism.

At the turn of the century, art was expected to elevate and enrich the individual with high aspirations and respect for classical ideals according to Kant who thought beauty was connected to moral goodness, as well as to a follower of Hegel, who thought that art revealed the divine and possibly even Schopenhauer who believed that art was recognized only by the gifted few. The wealthiest families turned to the Old World to amass collections with a prevalent disdain for American art. American artists were considered the low-end of the totem pole because of a system of patronage which excluded their creative achievements. The American Impressionist movement, born in France in the mid-1880s at Giverny at the feet of Claude Monet, was not regarded highly. Even when these talented American painters returned to the United States with the new style, their pictures were greeted with scorn and derision.

In tandem with the American Impressionist aesthetic that was being enshrined in the show at the Panama-Pacific Exposition Hall in San Francisco in 1915, the newer aesthetic represented by John Sloan, George Bellows, Robert Henri and others of the Ashcan School was receiving much critical attention in the same exhibition hall.


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