Things American

Things American examines the relationship between American museums and cultural democracy in the first part of the twentieth century by looking at the role museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the institutions it inspired played in Progressive Era social and cultural reform.

Things American
Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era

Jeffrey Trask

2011 | 312 pages | Cloth $39.95 | Paper $27.50
American History | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction. Museums and Society
Chapter 1. Progressive Connoisseurs: The Intellectual Origins of Education Reform in Museums
Chapter 2. The De Forest Faction's Progressive Museum Agenda
Chapter 3. The Educational Value of American Things: Balancing Usefulness and Connoisseurship
Chapter 4. The Arts of Peace: World War I and Cultural Nationalism
Chapter 5. The Art of Living: The American Wing and Public History
Chapter 6. Americanism in Design: Industrial Arts and Museums
Epilogue. Depression Modern: Institutional Sponsors and Progressive Legacies


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Museums and Society

In the early twentieth century a new generation of museum reformers ushered in an institutional revolution that redefined the relationship between art, museums and industrial urban society in the United States. Determined to overturn the image of museums as elite storehouses of art, those curators and administrators developed a progressive museum agenda that linked art and beauty to citizenship. Combining the era's impulses for civic and urban reform with new professional standards and a commitment to democratic access, they turned art museums into modern, efficient educational institutions in service to the people. At the center of this movement for museum reform stood the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frequently seen as a bastion of elite cultural values and social exclusion, the Met presented itself as a model for new ideas about cultural democracy during the Progressive Era. While hardly alone in the movement for making museums more useful and accessible, the Metropolitan nonetheless stood apart because of its dominant economic and cultural position in the United States.

I call this generation of museum reformers who led the movement for more democratic museums progressive connoisseurs. Instead of seeing art museums as rarified institutions that preserved the sacred status of art, progressive connoisseurs established museum standards that introduced modern, bureaucratic business management and practical education programs that could produce measurable results, similar to other Progressive Era social reform. They integrated museums into the larger social reform movement because they recognized the important role the arts played in the health of the nation. Whereas an earlier generation of cultural leaders and philanthropists had believed that art could lift up the poor by providing civilizing influences, progressive connoisseurs insisted that American citizens had a civic right to beauty and tasteful surroundings. And they insisted that better cities and better homes could assist people in becoming better citizens. For progressive connoisseurs like Metropolitan trustee Robert de Forest and museum administrator Henry Watson Kent, the alliance of art and industry stood at the cutting edge of museum reform. They thus turned to collections of decorative arts to implement their ideas about cultural democracy, and they used the Metropolitan's position of authority to advance a cultural agenda tied to the display and promotion of American art and design.

For reformers like de Forest and Kent, collections of decorative arts—the everyday things in people's homes—represented opportunities to both democratize museum collections (by expanding the art museum canon from the fine arts of paintings and sculpture) and to democratize the museum experience by presenting objects that could be used to teach practical skills of design and workmanship. Because progressive connoisseurs saw tasteful home environments as centers for the formation of good citizens, they argued that museums should use decorative art collections to improve public taste and enhance individual civic capacity. Reformers hoped decorative arts would seem more accessible to a broader public of potential museum visitors. But progressive connoisseurs also recognized the economic advantages of improving American design and the aesthetic quality of American industrial production. Thus, part of the progressive museum agenda involved linking museums more explicitly to American economic production and consumer capitalism.

Among progressive connoisseurs, Met trustee Robert de Forest was perhaps the most influential figure, and he took the lead in integrating the Metropolitan Museum into the Progressive Era reform movement. Frequently called New York's "first citizen," de Forest built local and national networks of social and cultural institutions dedicated to civic reform and cultural democracy. De Forest sat on the boards of multiple philanthropic organizations, chaired city commissions, and led national social-reform and cultural institutions. But the thread that tied all of his civic engagements together was his commitment to improving American cities, and his belief in the union of social and aesthetic reform. De Forest applied social-scientific theories of environmental determinism to older nineteenth-century ideas of moral uplift because he believed that improving the physical condition of industrial cities would enable people to improve their lives and become better citizens. By improving the quality of American industrial production, he hoped both to give American consumers better choices for their homes and to make American industry more competitive on an international market.

After the founding generation of Met trustees retired in 1905, de Forest and Kent recruited a staff of new professionals to the museum and brought together an expansive network of collectors, curators, businessmen, philanthropists and social reformers. Through institutional collaboration and the migration of professionals, their ideas about democratic museums spread to other museums across the nation. De Forest set the cultural agenda at the Met, while he used the American Federation of Arts and the Sage Foundation to replicate its programs for expanding access to art in almost every industrial city in the United States. While modernizing the Met's infrastructure, Kent pioneered new professional standards for museums and disseminated them through the professional publications and national associations he helped to found. Moreover, Kent and other museum reformers at the Met trained a generation of new professionals in the teens and twenties who then went on to implement a progressive cultural agenda in art museums from Cleveland and Detroit to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. "The phrase 'Art for Art's sake,'" Kent proudly declared by 1922, "has no place in a healthy republic." "Art for the People's sake is the motto of the American museum today." "Art for the enjoyment, for the study, and for the profit of the people," Kent insisted, "is the cornerstone of the museum edifice, the object of its collecting, exhibition, and demonstration."

Debates about the civic role of museums—whether museums should serve primarily as places to preserve the sacred status of fine art and reify cultural capital or as institutions to promote social cohesion through democratic programming and educational outreach—continue to this day. That these debates continue, along with the conviction that museums have only recently begun to grapple with them, underscores how completely the progressive museum agenda has dropped out of institutional and historical memory. Historians continue to see art museums as spiritual temples filled with treasures that reinforce cultural and social exclusion, and they see museum leaders as custodians of culture who fear industrial modernization. Museums of all types—art, anthropology and natural history—tend to be treated as agents of social control that incongruously both promote hegemonic messages about the progress of civilization to the masses, and at the same time restrict their galleries to elite patrons.

Things American challenges such interpretations by looking to the people who themselves challenged what they considered to be old-fashioned, undemocratic policies of cultural restriction. Following the Metropolitan Museum's lead in the early twentieth century, progressive connoisseurs built professional networks to expand museum audiences and disseminate ideas and images to promote American things. Indeed, it is the early twentieth-century focus on things—decorative objects for the home—that set the progressive museum agenda apart from visions of the museum as a place for uplifting ideas about the sacred status of fine art and the reification of cultural capital. Museum reformers across the nation teamed up with housing advocates and city planners, they borrowed education theories from European museums and research universities, and they tried to make American art museums laboratories for the improvement of public taste. Reaching far beyond museum galleries, they developed education programs that used objects from the past as models for modern industrial design. Rather than restricting knowledge about the cultivation of taste, progressive connoisseurs tried to democratize taste by presenting a diverse array of objects and using those objects to teach a broad public of museum visitors the principles of design, through examples in the everyday objects of domestic life.

Today the innovations that progressive connoisseurs made in museum policies of access, education and display hardly seem radical, but they nevertheless represented a significant rejection of many of the ideals upon which art museums had been founded in the nineteenth century. The museum had always been a product of industrial capitalism, from the origin of endowment funds to the bequest of collections, and ideas about the civilizing influence of cultural institutions informed the founding of many museums in the 1870s, alongside parks, libraries and theaters. Most nineteenth-century Americans would have understood that the golden age of museum building had been a reaction to industrial modernization. In 1870, at the very moment postwar American industrialization took off, New York's civic and industrial elite founded the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, while Boston Brahmans founded the Museum of Fine Arts. Philadelphia and Chicago later opened their own art museums following the world's fairs of 1876 and 1893. All these institutions pursued nineteenth-century ideas of moral uplift linked to art, but the Metropolitan Museum most personified the social anxieties that accompanied industrialization, and the supposed balms that a museum could provide.	

Nineteenth-century connoisseurs and taste critics had created a declension narrative of American art and design that linked industrialization to bad design and cultural insecurity. The decline in American taste, many critics feared, coincided with urbanization, sliding public morals and the dramatic social changes of industrialization. Machine production allowed manufacturers to churn out elaborately carved and ornamented decoration on everything from chairs and candlesticks to rugs and dishes and mantelpieces. Styles of ornament could be changed with the adjustment of machine parts, so consumers could choose between Etruscan, Rococo, Medieval and Spanish Renaissance-influenced objects. The speed at which objects and styles could be made, and the apparent consumer appetite for new and unusual designs, led to interior fashions that changed almost annually. After Ulysses Grant redecorated the East Room of the White House, critics derided Gilded Age interiors as "General Grant Gothic."

Once factory-produced Victorian furnishings hit the market, self-appointed taste experts and critics began issuing jeremiads and treatises to halt the further decline of public taste. Writers Clarence Cook and Charles Eastlake flooded popular magazines and decorating manuals with advice for uneducated consumers, while intellectuals like Matthew Arnold and Charles Eliot Norton articulated complimentary definitions of art and culture that exalted the cultural production of established masters (whether painting, literature or music) to an almost sacred status, thus setting art and ideas about high culture apart from everyday life. In contrast to the confusion and ugliness of industrial cities, art museums offered to nineteenth-century cultural critics the best examples of human creative capacity. Their spiritual elevation of art reinforced the conception of museums as sacred temples of culture.

Compounding the crisis, Americans in the nineteenth century felt acutely insecure about their nation's art and culture because they assumed that the United States had no established traditions. Instead of collecting American art, museum founders stocked their galleries with classical and European art in the hope that it would have a trickle-down influence on national artistic production. One patron declared in 1869 at the first organizational meeting to found the Metropolitan Museum: "In the year 1776, this nation declared her political independence of Europe." "The provincial relationship was then severed as regards politics." "May we not now," he patriotically implored, "begin institutions that by the year 1876 shall sever the provincial relation of America to Europe in respect to art?"

The belief among museum founders and cultural critics that paintings and sculpture in museums would lead to better design in American factories and workshops followed the teachings of the British art and social critic John Ruskin. Ruskin had studied medieval architecture, and he saw in the work of its artisans a simplicity and purity that he argued resulted from their intimate knowledge of craft traditions and their personal commitment to the products of their labor. Ruskin also linked good art and design to ideals of moral and artistic uplift, but he argued that modern craftsmen had lost sight of those ideals when machines and factories replaced artisanal guilds.

The international stage of world's fairs seemed to reinforce the arguments that linked industrialization to bad national design. Unlike French craftsmen, who maintained relative autonomy through the nineteenth century, both British and American producers had all but eliminated older craft traditions in their embrace of factory work, which critics blamed for the inferiority of British and American design. Ruskin and his admirers like Arnold and Eliot argued that industrialization had severed the link between art and labor, so they turned to models for design reform that would once again fuse artistic knowledge and craft production. British arts and crafts reformer William Morris borrowed Ruskin's philosophy and implemented artistic and social reform through communal craft associations and emphasis on hand-crafted production. At the South Kensington Museum in London, Henry Cole also tried to implement Ruskinian reforms, but he did so by integrating craft techniques and principles of design into machine production. Cole used examples of British handicraft and folk art in the galleries of the South Kensington to teach students in his industrial art schools, in order to improve the quality of British industrial production.
The South Kensington model of allying art and industry strongly influenced American design reformers and art museums. In fact, most art museums in the United States had included education goals similar to those of the South Kensington in their missions when they were founded in the 1870s. Museums in New York, Boston and Philadelphia all opened schools for craftsmen, but they kept students physically separate from museum galleries, and they restricted public access through policies that limited gallery hours in favor of elite audiences. The determination among museum trustees to protect their museums from commercial interests and the taint of industrial society thwarted efforts at design reform throughout the nineteenth century. Calls to improve American cultural production continued into the twentieth century, but as long as museums positioned themselves against industrialization, they continued to have minimal effect on public taste. This failure on the part of museums to improve American taste and design had to do, in large measure, with the profound fear and distrust most cultural leaders in the nineteenth century had of the public. But the failures of nineteenth-century museum education programs also reflected bourgeois anxieties about protecting art museums from the crass influences of commercialism. Beginning in the 1890s, however, a new generation of progressive connoisseurs emerged in museums to challenge ideas of moral and artistic uplift and policies of exclusion.

The New Generation

Progressive connoisseurs, along with a contemporary generation of young intellectuals and cultural critics, rejected what many called the "genteel tradition" or the "cult of the best," as espoused by Ruskin, Arnold and Norton. This new generation of progressive intellectuals debated the contours of what cultural democracy would look like in the twentieth century and, in the process, articulated an entirely different relationship between art, labor and society. For many progressives, modernity offered the opportunity to throw aside many of the traditions that Arnold and Eliot had defended. Unlike earlier critics, young intellectuals like Randolph Bourne and Lewis Mumford did not see industrialization and urbanization in stark opposition to social progress, nor did they see a need to separate cultural practices from industrial life. Instead they challenged exclusive canons that separated art and culture from everyday life, and they called for more fluid definitions of American taste and identity that incorporated multiple perspectives, which they felt more accurately reflected American society. Rather than setting art—or good design for that matter—aside for elite consumption, social theorists like John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen called for greater integration of art and labor that could link aesthetic appreciation to everyday activities. Progressive connoisseurs responded to these cultural debates by expanding museum canons to include decorative arts, and by arguing that museums should pursue pragmatic educational programs that could have a measurable impact on modern American design and taste.

In addition to their engagement with intellectuals like Mumford and Bourne, Robert de Forest, Henry Kent and other progressive connoisseurs in museums also worked with and were influenced by social reformers more recognizable to us today as Progressives, such as Jane Addams, Lawrence Veiller, Mary Simkhovitch and Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, ideas about cultural democracy and education reform in museums developed alongside similar shifts in other civic institutions in the last decade of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, progressive reformers were looking for answers to social problems that stepped beyond moral uplift, and instead tried to confront social inequalities. Social reformers responded to these problems by attending international housing and public-welfare conferences, studying new pedagogical methods in cultural and educational institutions, taking courses at new German research universities, and forging social and educational theories that they could implement in schools, settlement houses and social-service institutions in American cities. Cultural reformers like de Forest also saw museums as quintessentially urban institutions, so they studied European models of museum reform to implement in American cities as they integrated museums into the larger network of public-service institutions.

What distinguished progressive connoisseurs from more radical intellectuals like Lewis Mumford and Randolph Bourne, and from later cultural reformers in the 1930s and '40s, was their insistence on defining a distinctly American style, and their adherence to traditions of connoisseurship that they believed art museums needed to uphold. The progressive museum agenda never entailed a salvage mission. Art museums never tried to document all of the American past, nor did they collect examples of vernacular craft traditions. Rather, they collected and presented examples of American craft that could be attributed to master craftsmen—whether in the past or the present. Museums pursued their ideals of cultural democracy by using those objects to influence the production of mass-produced modern American things, and by encouraging broadly defined audiences to consider museums places of their own. During the teens and early twenties, progressive connoisseurs popularized the colonial revival aesthetic, but by the late twenties functional modernism offered a new civic aesthetic that stood in tension with "old things." Both of these aesthetic movements encouraged museums and cultural policy makers in the 1930s: the Museum of Modern Art took over the institutional role of promoting modern design, while the Federal Art Project and other New Deal programs further expanded definitions of American aesthetics through documentation projects like the Historic American Buildings Survey and the Index of American Design. One of the central questions of this book is how the tension between old things and social and aesthetic modernism in the 1920s influenced ideas about art, labor and democracy for the twentieth century.

Progressive connoisseurs negotiated these tensions between modern social philosophies and older tradition-bound ideas and cultural practices. They embraced bureaucratic modernism, pragmatic educational theory, and inclusive, democratic ideas about social protections and housing, while simultaneously hanging on to sometimes quite conservative notions regarding social relations of deference and liberal economic conceptions of industrial capitalism, which reveal the nineteenth-century roots of their social and educational backgrounds. Progressive connoisseurs like Robert de Forest aligned themselves with social reformers like settlement leader Jane Addams to improve the built environment of homes and cities, and they encouraged the preservation and cultivation of immigrant craft and aesthetic traditions as a means of integrating new Americans into civil society. But the wide umbrella of progressive politics brought together advocates for cultural nationalism from multiple social perspectives that often fused selective interpretations of the colonial revival with more inclusive definitions of American taste and identity.

Like the larger progressive movement, progressive connoisseurs often pursued paradoxical goals, and they came to reform with contradictory motivations. A cultural leader like Robert de Forest, for example, was also a captain of industry and a member of New York's patrician elite, whereas his assistant Henry Watson Kent came from a middle-class background, with professional training in library science. De Forest's ideas about cultural democracy were always tinged with nineteenth-century vestiges of noblesse oblige, but he also responded to a broader philosophical commitment to improving civic landscapes for social betterment. De Forest thus pursued programs for civic improvement that reached far beyond museum galleries. Kent, on the other hand, came to institutional reform with a more specific commitment to improving American industrial production and making galleries "work" for the public. Kent also used his position in a prominent museum like the Metropolitan to increase his own stature within networks of antique collectors, who themselves wanted to increase the value of their collections. Unlike many of those collectors, however, Kent and de Forest hoped that decorative arts could be used to teach good design to craftsmen, both to improve American cultural production and to improve the material conditions of working Americans by offering them marketable skills. Just as the larger progressive movement embraced individuals as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jane Addams, the movement for cultural democracy in museums frequently meant many different things for the various progressive connoisseurs who came together to revolutionize the relationship between museums and society.

Thus American art museums in the early twentieth century became crucibles for competing ideas about Americanization, industrial education, connoisseurship and consumer capitalism. Linking social and aesthetic goals through a focus on American decorative arts produced paradoxical results, in which contradictory definitions of social democracy and American identity were pitted against one another. Museum reformers tried to provide aesthetic models to improve objects for the domestic realm because they believed that ordered, tasteful homes were central to citizenship. By reaching out to public schools to teach future citizens, and by coordinating with manufacturers during World War I to improve the quality of objects available to household consumers, they tried to make museum galleries useful for a large museum audience. Drawing from the educational theories of John Dewey, they offered museum galleries as laboratories for craftsmen and designers to study principles of good design, to improve the quality of American industrial production. To provide models of tasteful American things, museum educators and curators turned to older American craft traditions, and they teamed up with collectors in the emerging field of American antiques. Collectors of old American things, however, frequently had more conservative ideas about American identity and cultural politics. Their influence on decisions about what to collect in art museums, and how to interpret them to the public, had profound effects on the way the public history of the United States would be told. Period rooms of colonial and early republic American interiors ultimately defined a narrative of elite American history that most museums, historical societies and historic houses reproduced through the twentieth century.

The colonial revival inadvertently narrowed definitions of American taste in the 1920s, and it shifted programs for the education of civic taste away from making better citizens in favor of encouraging the American public to make better consumer choices. After World War I, progressive calls for cultural nationalism and the improvement of American industrial production also shifted, from training craftsmen to improve the material and cultural opportunities for working Americans to making American industry more competitive in international markets. Postwar attitudes of social conservatism and enthusiastic consumerism also placed museum programs for the promotion of American things in opposition with one another: on the one hand, art museums teamed up with Americana collectors to build colonial-revival period rooms; on the other, they also collaborated with industrial manufacturers and department stores to cultivate a modern American industrial design aesthetic. The Metropolitan Museum, for example, opened the American Wing of colonial-revival period rooms in 1924, while it also presented annual exhibitions of modern mass-produced industrial objects that promoters hoped would lead to a new modern American style in design. The tensions between aesthetic modernism and colonial-revival taste in the 1920s illustrate the paradoxical nature of early twentieth century education reform in American museums, and the impossibility of simplifying its history. Progressive connoisseurs like de Forest promoted bureaucratic modernization, and the aesthetics of industrial modernism that could be mass produced, but they remained leery of what they considered avant-garde aesthetic movements such as cubist, abstract, and social-realist modernism in paintings and sculpture. Like other early twentieth-century intellectuals, museum leaders chose selective examples of a usable past to work out what twentieth-century modernity would mean, what it would look like, and what kind of modern society they wanted to safeguard.