Theodore Roosevelt’s commonsense art criticism

In 1913 an art show was held at the New York's 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. It brought to America the wave of new artists and their art then scything through the old ways of Europe -modernist painters like Picasso, Matisse, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gaughin, and Duchamp. It was lauded as one of the most influential events in the history of American art.

Theodore Roosevelt was among those who visited the Armory show and “took a moderate approach, lauding the unconventional spirit of the Armory Show while casually dismissing the work of such “European extremists” as the Cubists and the Futurists.

His essay “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition,” in Outlook, 103 (29 March 1913) gives a glimpse of the commonsense school of art-criticism- the kind that is totally lost today in the morass of art-jargonese mumbo-jumbo.”His essay is a useful reminder that not all new art is good art, even when the critics rave about it.”

The following are some excerpts from this essay.I have added the images and titles for proper appreciation-
 "There's a sucker born every minute" is a phrase often credited to P.T. Barnum

It is true, as the champions of these (European)extremists say, that there can be no life without change, no development without change, and that to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life.
P.T.Barnum's fake mermaid
It is no less true, however, that change may mean death and not life, and retrogression instead of development. Probably we err in treating most of these pictures seriously. It is likely that many of them represent in the painters the astute appreciation of the powers to make folly lucrative which the late P. T. Barnum showed with his faked mermaid. There are thousands of people who will pay small sums to look at a faked mermaid; and now and then one of this kind with enough money will buy a Cubist picture, or a picture of a misshapen nude woman, repellent from every standpoint.

They may call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine

In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists. I am not entirely certain which of the two latter terms should be used in connection with some of the various pictures and representations of plastic art—and, frankly, it is not of the least consequence.
L'Affiche de Kubelick-Georges Braque
L'Affiche de Kubelick (Le Violon), (1912) Georges Braque,oil, 18 1/8 x 24 inches

The Cubists are entitled to the serious attention of all who find enjoyment in the colored puzzle pictures of the Sunday newspapers. Of course there is no reason for choosing the cube as a symbol, except that it is probably less fitted than any other mathematical expression for any but the most formal decorative art. There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another.

A Navajo rug called “A well-dressed man going up a ladder”

Take the picture which for some reason is called “A naked man going down stairs.”
Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2-Marcel Duchamp
Nude Descending a Staircase(Nu descendant un escalier), No. 2 Marcel Duchamp, oil, 58 x 35 inches

There is in my bath-room a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, “A well-dressed man going up a ladder,” the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the “Naked man going down stairs.”
historical navajo rug
A historical Navajo rug

From the standpoint of terminology, each name would have whatever merit inheres in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture.

Forty thousand years later a smirking pose of retrogression

As for many of the human figures in the pictures of the Futurists, they show that the school would be better entitled to the name of the “Pastists.” I was interested to find that a man of scientific attainments who had likewise looked at the pictures had been struck, as I was, by their resemblance to the later work of the paleolithic artists of the French and Spanish caves.
Improvisation No. 27 (Garden of Love)-Wassily Kandinsky Improvisation No. 27 (Garden of Love), 1912,Wassily Kandinsky oil on canvas, 47 3/8 x 55 1/4 inches
There are interesting samples of the strivings for the representation of the human form among artists of many different countries and times, all in the same stage of paleolithic culture, to be found in a recent number of the “Revue d’Ethnographie.”
cavepainting at Lascaux Detail from a cave painting at Lascaux, France
The paleolithic artist was able to portray the bison, the mammoth, the reindeer, and the horse with spirit and success, while he still stumbled painfully in the effort to portray man. This stumbling effort in his case represented progress, and he was entitled to great credit for it. Forty thousand years later, when entered into artificially and deliberately, it represents only a smirking pose of retrogression, and is not praiseworthy.

A question of pathological rather than artistic significance

So with much of the sculpture. A family group of precisely the merit that inheres in a structure made of the wooden blocks in a nursery is not entitled to be reproduced in marble. Admirers speak of the kneeling female figure by Lehmbruck—I use “female” advisedly, for although obviously mammalian it is not especially human—as “full of lyric grace,” as “tremendously sincere,” and “of a jewel-like preciousness.”
Kneeling Woman (Femme á genoux)1911 Wilhelm Lehmbruck Kneeling Woman (Femme á genoux), 1911, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, cast stone, 69 1/4 x 54 1/2 x 27 1/2
I am not competent to say whether these words themselves represent sincerity or merely a conventional jargon; it is just as easy to be conventional about the fantastic as about the commonplace. In any event one might as well speak of the “lyric grace” of a praying mantis, which adopts much the same attitude; and why a deformed pelvis should be called “sincere,” or a tibia of giraffe-like lengths “precious,” is a question of pathological rather than artistic significance. This figure and the absurd portrait head of some young lady have the merit that inheres in extravagant caricature. It is a merit, but it is not a high merit. It entitles these pieces to stand in sculpture where nonsense rhymes stand in literature and the sketches of Aubrey Beardsley in pictorial art.
praying mantis Praying Mantis
These modern sculptured caricatures in no way approach the gargoyles of Gothic cathedrals, probably because the modern artists are too self-conscious and make themselves ridiculous by pretentiousness. The makers of the gargoyles knew very well that the gargoyles did not represent what was most important in the Gothic cathedrals. They stood for just a little point of grotesque reaction against, and relief from, the tremendous elemental vastness and grandeur of the Houses of God. They were imps, sinister and comic, grim and yet futile, and they fitted admirably into the framework of the theology that found its expression in the towering and wonderful piles which they ornamented. Very little of the work of the extremists among the European “moderns” seems to be good in and for itself ….

(emphasis and italics in the excerpts are mine)


Incredibly interesting stuff! I know I can always rely on this site for intriguing perspectives, new angles and, most important of all, rare good sense.