[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 2001.]
Knights of the Brush:
The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape
James F. Cooper
Hudson Hills Press, 1999
Readers of this journal will recall the article entitled An Artistic Renaissance? in the summer 1999 issue that told of the American Arts Quarterly's championing of a potential aesthetic renewal in the United States. The goal of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, publisher of the Quarterly, has been to bring sublimity and beauty to the arts, supplanting what it sees as a studied ugliness in postmodernist art. One of the early-American schools of art that is often featured within the Quarterly is the Hudson River School of Romantic painters that towered over American painting between 1830 and 1860. Although the Quarterly contains articles by a number of authors about many different artists and their work, the intellectual core of the Quarterly's efforts comes from two men: James F. Cooper, the editor, and Frederick Turner, who works with the magazine and serves on the editorial advisory board.
Now the Quarterly is in effect supplemented by a book of high-quality artistic reproductions and aesthetic, historical commentary. James F. Cooper is Knights of the Brush's primary author, providing the text that accompanies the illustrations and that explains the characteristics of the Hudson River School and its place in American history. Frederick Turner adds a second to Cooper's views with a brief Foreword. Fifty-six colorplate reproductions of the leading paintings by such artists as Thomas Cole, Jasper F. Cropsey, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Brown Durand, and others, combine with the text to make this book rank high among the many beautiful and informative art books available.
The early nineteenth century American wilderness, suffused with light that is made even more striking by its contrast with deep shadow, provides the paintings' subject. The scenes often contain Protestant Christian imagery, reflecting the artists' central purpose of presenting nature as a manifestation of God's presence. The values informing their work? - virtue, chivalry, spirituality, beauty, order - to which we might add Plato's philosophic Realism, as is evident when reference is made to "timeless archetypal forms."
Accordingly, Cooper and Turner see the Hudson River School as a champion of artistic standards that have been repudiated by the postmodernist school, which for several years has held sway within academic and institutional art. They tell us how art today has been politicized and condemns the past as Eurocentric, heterosexual, racist, hierarchical, and an instrument of class and racial oppression. The radical relativism of Foucault and Derrida denies the value of standards, representational art, and archetypes.
To present this contrast and to point, then, to a possible renewal of Western artistic commitment to beauty, Knights of the Brush contains three sections: "Paradise Found," about the Hudson River School itself; "Paradise Lost," about the slide into secularism and cultural alienation; and "Paradise Regained," about the signs of incipient renewal.
There is more that could be told here about the paintings and artists themselves, but the reader is best left to experience those things personally, since the paintings speak more eloquently than words can describe.
In some important ways, this reviewer would suggest, however, a different analysis of recent art history than the text provides:
It is a mistake, induced by focusing exclusively on art as it is recognized by an "art establishment," to believe that contemporary American art repudiates the beauty-focused art of the past. This repudiation comes from an institutionally dominant art, but there is a vast corpus of art, much of it excellent, being produced by thousands of artists throughout the country that has always continued to be representational and "traditional." The renaissance for which the Newington-Cropsey foundation hopes has, in effect, always been there, if only the non-establishment art were given full recognition.
Perhaps this reviewer's main conceptual criticism of the text's analysis is that it is only partly correct in ascribing the 20th century's move into alienated art to the rise of secularism. It is indisputable, of course, that secularism has taken the West away from the Hudson River School's vision that "God is immanent in nature." But the Enlightenment and secularism need not have given rise to alienated art, one that is actually (as one Dadaist described it) "anti-art."
It is important to understand the central feature of what we know as "the world Left" as it came into being in the early 19th century. Perhaps the best definition of "the Left" is that it has for almost two centuries been a movement headed by a vastly influential literary-artistic subculture that has fashioned its thinking to appeal to the many allies it has sought, with varying degrees of success, to enlist from disaffected or unassimilated groups. Marx courted the "proletariat," but that was just one of many hoped-for sources of support. The most characteristic feature of the alliance has been its alienation against virtually all aspects of 19th and 20th century mainstream Western society.
This combination of alienation and alliance-with-disaffected-groups produced an ideology (which may be spoken of in the singular even though it has experienced many intramural disputes) that, as one of its principal weapons, has included a repudiation of the value-system embraced by the mainstream society - and this has included a repudiation oof what the subculture has seen as "bourgeois" art. If we understand this dynamic, we see that it has been the Left, not secularism or the Enlightenment per se, that has so long been the inveterate enemy of sublime or even emotionally satisfying art. It is possible to be secular without being alienated.
To this, of course, a caveat must be added. It is that the Left has in quite a serious way been mistaken in its identification of representational and beauty-oriented art with the mainstream modern commercial and middle class culture; it is true that the average person prefers that sort of art, but such art was revered long before the rise of such a society (and, seen historically, has largely been a product of aristocracy). In its alienation, the Left has thrown out the Athenians with the Philistines.
This criticism of Cooper's analysis is the same as this reviewer has made previously of the historical perspective of Russell Kirk, who in common with Richard Weaver and others saw modern secularism as the central force for cultural destruction. Cooper's text seems very much a reflection of Kirk. The criticism is included here not to diminish Knights of the Brush, but intellectually to give its message the attention it deserves.
Dwight D. Murphey