3-D Beauty in a Flat Screen World

The nobility of men lost in a sea of toys.  courtesy Pinterest
The nobility of men lost in a sea of toys.
courtesy Pinterest

Imagine spending 15 years on a work that people see in passing, can touch if they want to, but hardly notice. Plastic Barbie dolls and Star Wars figurines, Pier One trinkets and Walmart cement garden gnomes are hardly capable of producing the emotions and awe once felt by viewers of  public sculpture. But can you blame us modern consumers? Can we really turn to modern abstract and often ugly sculpture with the same sense of wonder and optimism as the men and women living in the “American Renaissance”?

Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox
Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Kenyon Cox

Here’s Augustus Saint Gaudens working. Kenyon Cox, another artist looks on. How easy on the eyes this portrait, lovingly rendered, is. Yet Augustus Saint Gaudens was a sculptor and in a world of flat screens and paper books a sculptor’s work looks dull.

My husband and I visited a local ironworks art weekend crowded with people trying to be different, shocking and mysterious. What lacked was beauty and heart. (and art). My husband does not fancy himself a sculptor, but the house he built for our ducks has integrity and a loveliness that springs from something deeper than wanting to be cool.

Augustus didn’t come from wealth. His father recognized an artistic sensibility in his son and apprenticed him to a cameo maker. Later he took classes at Cooper Union and went to Paris where one day he spotted a young fellow American art student. Maybe he whispered a sweet nothing, but she could not hear him.  Augusta Fisher Homer was deaf but not blind to the charms of a young, sensitive and ultimately extremely generous man. They fell in love and married.

Atop Madison Square Garden. courtesy thehistoryblog.com
Atop Madison Square Garden. courtesy thehistoryblog.com

Public men paid for beauty back then. This was when people thought art was interchangeable with beauty. Pompous, greedy men some of them were but these materialist businessmen  still commissioned a Diana for everyone to admire or a William Tecumseh Sherman (before modern and often sloppy scholarship made him such a villain). What do modern magnates do, I wonder? Maybe some quietly do great things, but I long for public beauty not abstraction and Piss Christ.

If you’ve ever gone to the MET in New York you notice in the Greek Art galleries a hush almost as if people know they should truly love the beauty so unlike what they see just outside on the busy street. It’s difficult to sit with these sculptures because we’ve become so unused to sublime beauty. Where’s the color? Where’s the stuff that makes our blood boil? Maybe these quiet sculptures shame us when they remind us how easily our tastes are satisfied with McDonalds happy meal sculptures of the girl from FROZEN.

shermanHo hum I’ve often felt passing one of the greatest American equestrian sculptures ever. Yes, Sherman helped win a war. Now we debate motives and hate them for their lack of purity. But who are we? Lost in a modern world of cynicism and inertia. Happy to point fingers–you’re racist! sexist! elitist! Determined to view the pit and drag it into every conversation and every art work.

Summer painted at the artist colony founded by Saint Gaudens by Thomas Wilmer Dewing
Summer painted at the artist colony founded by Saint Gaudens by
Thomas Wilmer Dewing

Augustus Saint-Gaudens in his naivete may have thought the men who commissioned his work were doing a fair-to-middling job with the country. I don’t know but Louis Auchincloss had this to say about the men and women of the late 19th century and Augustus Saint Gaudens in particular: “Yet when I turn back to Saint-Gaudens’s work, including the portrait bas-reliefs–those wonderful, grave, reflective men, women and children, so subtly conceived and so exquisitely rendered–I have a sense that the American Renaissance may have been a better time in which to live than ours. Its people seem so serious, so high-minded. They seem so determined to make a better and more beautiful world, so concerned with order and dignity. I envy their apparent tranquility. I wish I could share their sense of purpose and progress.”

33 responses to “3-D Beauty in a Flat Screen World”

    • I LOVE Sherman. But you’d be surprised at how many people think him horrible for his feelings towards the Indians. People forget that he was devoted to his men and occasionally said heated and rash things like we all do. he didn’t make indian policy–it was those slimy politicians!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • You create beauty– even now in this sometimes ugly world.

      I have some hope. I just don’t think we’ll find great beauty given to us by world government and mega corporations.

      I think the soul demands beauty and will rebel against totalitarianism as it always does. There was a brief period of time when Christianity and progressivism combined for a flowering of public works to enrich humanity. Public museums and parks etc.

      At the same time Utopian movements espoused mediocrity and fairness as the ultimate virtues. I think the utopians have won for now but there’s bound to be a swing back to meritocracy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I suspect my usual Sagittarian optimism is a little lacking at the moment. I mourn the days of my childhood when each was so filled with luscious public works, whether Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilization’ on the BBC or free museums, not to mention the wealth of libraries, which are now toppling like dominoes in the UK. Yes, you are right, Adrienne – it will come again. Bless you for the compliment on my own art. You make this old girl very happy!


  1. “Public men paid for beauty back then.”
    I’ve been trying to find the time to talk about this.

    “… businessmen still commissioned a Diana for everyone to admire….”
    HA HA!!

    “They seem…so concerned with order and dignity.” It’s a whole other world today. Social media and the boundaries obliterated online have taken with them societal virtues.


    • Haha. I should have captioned the Diana as “Holistic Wayfarer on the top of Madison Square Garden.” 🙂

      Virtues are racist and sexist–haven’t you heard? When I was at college the art history professors were serious-minded conservative people (I’m not talking politically exactly) in a very liberal university culture (NYU). I ADORED THEM. They had a respect for beauty and skill that was sadly missing in my studio art classes were if you even considered the masters you were deemed an elitist scum. If you painted anything “pretty” or “hopeful” you were relegated to the back of the studio.
      I gamed the system because I didn’t really like doing art anyway.

      I painted hideous abstractions and told meaningless stories at the critiques and coasted through with A’s. The art world was a fraud and I never looked back (until now).

      But I do have some hope. Mass media picks their superstars but in quiet parts of the country real art is being made (I’ve seen it in the tiny galleries of Upstate NY). People crave real food and real feeling. Yes some will never disengage from their computers (I say this as I type) and they’ll miss life.

      There are people even now who seek out square dances (in some places they never went away). Some elements of the hipster culture give me hope. First there is the looking around and saying this “culture” is dying and fake and then there’s the doing something locally to change it. Even if it’s just being an elitist who goes to the farmer’s market and wears homemade hats.
      Even back in the 1890’s some people only saw art as a commodity. The art collections of some of the wealthiest NY families are considered second rate today.


      • So funny you say this – with such zeal. I just finished yesterday the book by songwriter/rock star Amanda Palmer (one can always look it up if one doesn’t know the title but I was hoping to save every bit of it for a post). She is known for getting her hands dirty in the whole art-is-a-commodity thing (of course for fighting it tooth and nail). I love how you point out the political/racial biases that can get in the way of art (beauty, like in my Korean beauty post). That can get in the way of truth. I think THIS is what made you so mad. I’ve always found it so sad how postmodern art has bested the Classics simply by confusing the hec out of everybody with the deconstructionism. Has happened in literature as well, of course.

        “Yes some will never disengage from their computers (I say this as I type) and they’ll miss life.”


        Art will always have her torch-bearers in our farmers’ markets and many things homemade.

        I didn’t know you went to NYU!! The Village and the Cooper Union area was my second home – hung out there all the time in high school (I went to Stuyvesant, btw). =)


      • We’re practically related then. 🙂 I spent my HS years there too on weekends getting into The Peppermint Lounge and drinking pink champ ale (gross).

        I’ve always been drawn to the more classical things in life (my mother’s influence). NYU was such a weird mix of horrible deconstructionist and socialist nonsense and true classical beauty. It depended on the professor, of course.

        It went like this: Any socialist theory, ethnic studies or feminist studies class–automatic A. (They were all about FEELINGS)

        Any history, art history or classics: B+ -A only if you really studied and showed up to class. 🙂 WARNING RIGOROUS THOUGHT REQUIRED.


      • Actually, not surprising NYU is such a mix, NYC being the crazy smorgasbord it is.

        Speaking of feelings, I have hated how these have infiltrated the Church, the seeker’s demand in worship, how feelings have usurped content in praise and worship songs. Bump theology and God off, sit MAN in their place. *Gag* Postmodern culture has come to dictate what the Church does and how she does it rather than the influence be the other way around.

        In part because to resist this would be

        WARNING RIGOROUS THOUGHT REQUIRED. (I laughed there, btw.)


      • As Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Maybe it’s always been a dirty word to deceivers. The quiet removal of thousands of years of deep thought because it may lead to uncomfortable “feelings” like guilt and shame or maybe faith and redemption strikes me as a work brought on by the great deceiver, but people will say I’m foolish and intolerant to believe such things. Oh, well.

        I thought church was about love and nothing but love, Diana? Why can’t you see that? Haha!


    • I’m glad you mentioned our responsibility. I hate to be a blamer but okay I will. There are powerful cultural forces at work that many of us have little control over–like knowing where our wheat comes from or when a company switches from sugar to corn syrup. I think we’ve been brainwashed to seek pleasure above all things and that pleasure is marketed in such a way that we believe mediocrity and being nice are the ultimate virtues.

      But some people begin to question the script. Is nice better than brave? Everyone complains about PC (myself included) yet we watch with glee as a celebrity is taken down because he or she spoke truth or questioned mass brainwashing. This sounds extremist but look how we’ve let the world change. We’re all terrified of the PC police. We can’t say this art is awful or this idea is silly. People lose their jobs for such things.

      My husband and I are taking classes for foster care and the Duggars from TV followed all the proper protocol (it seems) when dealing with their young son. (I don’t even watch tv but I’m bombarded with this info) Meanwhile famous directors (and not just one!) wear their pedophilia brazenly in public. No one cares. off to the next super hero movie. And all of this controversy pales against the Justice department deciding websites will have to turn over the names of commenters on their sites if the comments are deemed dangerous! Free speech is dangerous but something our country was founded upon!

      But I believe the quiet majority of people do care and have been cowed into silence. People can’t stay silent forever. Beauty will one day rise again.

      Wow that was a bit of a rant. I feel fired up this morning–and all about beauty!


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