home - news - about - superstars - interviews - articles - soup can - films - art - timeline - abstract expressionism - sources - citations

Andy Warhol and the Social Construction of the Late Modern Artist (cont.)
by David Deitcher

page two

to page one

Before the WPA was liquidated in 1943, the government helped return American art to a private base of support; not to its original patrician base, but to middle-class people who would buy art in order properly to furnish their domestic interiors. This was the purpose of the "Buy American Art Weeks" that were held in 1941 and '42, and which sold off thousands of government-commissioned and government warehoused works of art. But this was not the full extent of private support for art; there was corporate support as well. Since the mid-1930s, a few companies had collected art, but, more importantly, many more were employing artists and designers in a variety of ways. For example, it was to commercial artists and to practitioners of industrial design that American companies turned during the Depression to inspire lost confidence in American business, and to lure consumers back to the marketplace. The emergence of industrial design as an important profession, one which required proper academic training, had a profound effect upon university art departments. In 1935 the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Tech introduced a B.F.A. degree with a specialty in industrial design. This was the first such program in the united States. Five years before, the Westinghouse Electric Company of East Pittsburgh had hired Donald Dohner, a graphic artist on the Carnegie faculty to redesign their products and develop plans for new ones. Had this not happened, Dohner and his colleague, the artist Alexander Kostellow, would not have conceived of the new course of instruction when they did; nor as they did. The industrial design curriculum prepared its graduates to understand the material requirements of mass production, to anticipate the desires of consumers, and to employ the logic of aesthetic structure. In a paper he wrote to commemorate the introduction of the new and immensely influential program, Robert Lepper, Andy Warhol's most important teacher at Carnegie Tech, used the hyphenated term "artist-designer" to describe the new breed the faculty hoped to engineer.

As industrial design grew and became more prestigious throughout the 1940s, it spawned a variety of institutional and pedagogical manifestations. University art departments - always eager to increase enrollment - competed for students. This was especially true after the war, when returning veterans - future Pop artists, armed with federal funds, among them - turned to careers in art in unprecedented numbers; to careers, I emphasize, not to colorful lives of bohemian indigence. These Depression-era youths saw no romance in economic marginalization. Consequently, administrators and faculty member in art departments refashioned curricula to suit the widest possible range of application. Art and design instructors, who came of age during the 1930s and identified themselves a pragmatic modernists, might come from backgrounds in art and illustration, as did Lepper; or from engineering, as was the case with Hoyt Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein's instructor at Ohio State. These zealous young modernists responded to the challenge of increased enrollment, and to the demand for more adaptable forms of practical training by codifying the principles of what they considered a universal aesthetic in all-purpose foundation courses which all students, no matter what their career plans, were required to take. To achieve greater efficiency - and authority - such instructors turned to science. Gestalt psychology, with its scientific theory of good form and its overall suitability for what Kurt Koffka called the "task of integration," had special appeal among those who modernized introductory courses in drawing and pictorial structure. On the other hand, sociology, anthropology and psychoanalysis informed Robert Lepper's 2 year course in pictorial design. The latter prepared juniors and seniors in the Carnegie design program - including Warhol - to be keenly aware of what Lepper called the "social flux;" that is, of their ever changing relationship to the component parts of the community in which they lived. Equipped with such social insightfulness, and with the organization powers they had acquired in the foundation courses, it was hoped that this "artist-designer" would create products which effected what Lepper described as stability within the "social organism." This is another way of saying that these individuals could fashion designs that achieved transcendence by satisfying the consumer's desire, however temporarily, in individual acts of consumption. In these and other ways science and technology, the ethos of an aggressive productivity, and a romantic belief in art's conciliatory power combined to inform instruction within university art departments.

This correlation of the artist and designer's training was furthered by the emergence of "organic" curriculum planning, a concept that acquired special prestige during the 1940s. In 1942 the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Tech implemented a "Fine Arts Academic Program" which required students in all its divisions (painting and design, industrial design and art education) to take new courses. These included: Thought and Expression, The Arts and Civilization, and Individual and Social Psychology. The academic program was intended, in the words of Dean Keeble: "to exploit the capacities... and correct the limitations of the typical art student... to provide a complement to his particular kind of professional training... to widen the horizon of our young artists, to reduce their prejudices and multiply their enthusiasms, to link intellectual and practical interests with their creative endeavors and, finally, to integrate them with society and equip them to take an effective part in the difficult world which this generation must face." By responding to the threat of too technical an education, organic curriculum planning advanced the tendency to erode hierarchical distinctions between the education of the artist and the designer. In this sense it extended a century old tradition of liberal educational reform. But it also emerged within the framework of a widespread perception among university administrators, educators, intellectuals and more than a few businessmen that since this continent alone would be likely to survive the war intact, it was incumbent upon Americans to rescue Western culture. This they did, recasting it into the paradoxical guise of a popular postwar humanism.

Clearly, in much of this there are echoes of the Bauhaus. But the transformation of art, design, and their instruction in America was not simply an emulation of lessons pioneered by European immigrants like Albers, Moholy-Nagy, Gropius or, for that matter, Hans Hofmann. While schools like Black Mountain College and the New Bauhaus became wellsprings of high modernist pedagogical theory in this country, the professionalization - and rationalization - of American art instruction was a late modern response to conditions that were endemic to the U.S. throughout the 1930s and '40s. High modernism, as exemplified by Bauhaus teaching, aimed at a virtually Hegelian transformation of art and design. Late modernism, as it surfaced on American university art departments - or in transactions among businessmen, artists and designers - delineated an altogether more instrumental combination of aesthetic and industrial economies. That combination was prompted by historical and economic circumstances so distinct from the conditions which obtained in Europe between the two world wars that it compelled Moholy-Nagy, among other high modernists, to reconsider and adjust their methods. Moholy's two books, The New Vision and Vision in Motion, are therefore separated by more than the 17 years of their respective publication dates; a theoretical gulf divides them. This rift was symptomatic of the contradiction between the Bauhaus design standard, which presides over, and is itself the product of, a painstaking, literally ecological investigation, and an American economy that is fueled by what Moholy variously condemned as waste or "forced obsolescence."

To sum up then, the pedagogical situation on American university campuses during the 1940s was governed by the desire to reconcile variously Deweyan and high modernist cultural ideals with the productive demands of an expanding American economy. In making this assertion, I am not denying the presence, nor the prestige, of those teachers at art schools around this country who, especially after the "triumph" of the New York School, would help to reinforce high aesthetic purity or vanguard autonomy through their teachings. If anything, their mission assumed even greater urgency as the effectiveness of late modern art and design instruction facilitated the growth of a postwar consumer culture voracious for artistic effects. Nevertheless, Pop art like Warhol's should also be read in relation tot that strange, fleeting moment between the Depression and the end of World War II, when art and design instruction coalesced on university campuses to foster a prosperous and democratic American culture. Of necessity, this prospect could surface only in a United States that was recovering from economic Depression in an increasingly perilous world. Similarly, it could but only vanish as this nation achieved hegemonic military, economic and cultural status. The fact that this relatively innocent moment was so brief should not prevent us from recognizing its traces in Pop art. Nor should the fact that it was so quickly forgotten justify those who would interpret Pop art solely in terms of the success or failure of the cultural negations it contains, and declare, whether from the Right or the Left, that cynicism remains its principal legacy.

David Deitcher

to page one

David Deitcher's website can be found here.

home - news - about - superstars - interviews - articles - soup can - films - art - timeline - abstract expressionism - sources - citations