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Thursday, 25 March 2010

U.S. art vs. Europe

For some Europeans, especially those in the cultural elite, Americans will always be déclassé. The United States, in their conception, is the land where great art goes to be homogenized, a place forever more rearguard than avant-garde. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “America is the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”

It is little surprise, then, that Surrealism, one of the most revolutionary art movements, came late to the U.S., not arriving to a significant degree, in fact, until the late-1930s, by which time it was already in decline in France. The American Man Ray, however, overcame the defect of his place of birth to become one of the era’s leading modernists, if not an official Surrealist. This, though, would only happen following the (immediate) failure of a New York-based Dada publication he founded with Marcel Duchamp and a subsequent move to Paris.

Man Ray developed photographic techniques that would become crucial to Surrealism, using “photography just like any other artistic medium – he would crop, retouch, print in negative, flip and invert images. He even made photographs without a camera. In short, Man Ray invented surrealist photography.” (L’Ecotais 139) Many of his images, meanwhile, demonstrate why his art was embraced only upon becoming an expatriate. In the early-20th-century United States, his often erotic, frequently disturbing – sometimes both – photos of nude women would probably have been considered more pornography than art, and may have been more likely to lead to an arrest than an exhibition. Other Americans with Surrealist leanings – such as Julien Levy and Joseph Cornell – similarly had to cross the Atlantic in order to practice their craft. As Man Ray observed, trying in the 1920s and early 1930s to start a Surrealist or Dadaist movement in even the most cosmopolitan of American cities – New York – was “as futile as trying to grow lilies in a desert.” (L’Ecotais 150)

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