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”?
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.
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.
Ho 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.
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.”