Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Siberia of the Arts

As I mentioned in my last post, one reason Eliza Anderson undertook the editorship of a weekly publication in Baltimore was to raise the level of culture in her hometown, which she appears to have considered a backwater of tackiness and bad taste. (I'm not even going to speculate on what she would think of John Waters!)

So here we have one of those paradoxes that history often presents us with: On the one hand, Anderson is a feminist pioneer, probably the first woman in the United States to edit a magazine. But on the other hand, she's a reactionary defender of "high culture," ridiculing the nouveau riche merchants who don't know their Corinthian columns from their Ionic. As I've discovered in the course of researching other historical figures, actions that we moderns consider "progressive" don't always go hand-in-hand with opinions we ourselves would embrace. The past is complicated, and the people who lived there have to be seen in the context of their times--not through the prism of our 21st-century assumptions.

Anderson's efforts to raise Baltimore's cultural tone, heavily laced with her acid brand of sarcasm, frequently got her in trouble. She started out optimistically enough, writing in the February 7, 1807, issue of The Observer that she planned to "awaken taste ... convinced that our sensible readers will welcome instruction though in the garb of severity." Uh huh.

A couple of weeks later, she's ridiculing a Baltimore builder who admired the new Gothic chapel built by St. Mary's College (and designed by Anderson's future husband) and said that he planned to build one just like it, "but that he would not have pointed windows." (For those who never took art history, pointed windows are a hallmark of the Gothic style.)This solecism was still bothering her in November, when she brought it up again. But, she laments in another column, such things are only to be expected in a place like Baltimore, where "you see columns placed in niches like statues" and "fine houses with steps like a hay loft."

The sins of the tasteless nouveau riche were perhaps most evident in architecture, but Anderson carried her culture crusade into other branches of the arts as well. In June she weighed in on the relative merits of two artists who were having a sort of joint exhibition in Baltimore. While she bemoaned the fact that both artists had been reduced to the indignity of selling their paintings by lottery (one of her frequent themes was the lack of support for starving artists in Baltimore), she made it clear that she thought William Groombridge, who had been formally trained, was far superior to Francis Guy, a self-taught working man whose background was as a tailor and dyer. Anderson lamented that Guy “from want of encouragement reduced to the necessity of making coats and pantaloons ... has not had it in his power to cultivate his talent, nor has he made a single striking step in the art.” Whereas Groombridge, she thought, was a true artist. In fact, the judgment of history has been quite the opposite: Groombridge has been forgotten, while Guy has been praised for his vigorous American primitivism--his paintings of Brooklyn were the subject of a special exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago.

But Anderson was, as I have hinted, something of an elitist. Indeed, Anderson's scoffing at Guy and those of his ilk has earned her the dubious honor of a mention in Gordon Wood's magisterial new history of the early Republic, Empire of Liberty. "Anderson," writes Wood, "could not get over the American tendency to believe that mere artisans--tailors and carpenters--could pretend to a taste in painting." Quoting something Anderson wrote in the leading Baltimore newspaper of the time, Wood ridicules her short-sightedness: "Apollo is somewhat aristocratic," Wood has her claiming, "and does not permit of perfect equality in his court ... The Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit of workmen to their levees." Guy, she wrote, should return to his "soul-inspiring avocation of making pantaloons." And just to top things off, Anderson referred to Baltimore as "the Siberia of the arts." (Wood mentions that Anderson was "a female editor," but doesn't seem to find anything remarkable about that fact.)

As we shall see, that "Siberia" remark raised the hackles of some Baltimoreans (or should I say,as Anderson might, "Baltimorons"?)--as did Anderson's scathing criticism of some local musical performances.

1 comment:

  1. Not very knowledgeable about human nature, was she? I have never met ANYBODY who likes to be set straight. (Yes, I learned the hard way--by trying to set people straight).
    I am sure Baltimore cannot have been a total cultural wasteland, at least not compared to the small town I come from.
    Soon, I want to write about your efforts again. It will be in my Letters From Lyonesse blog. You need not assume that more than a handful of people will read my comments, but one has to start somewhere--and blogs give us a place to start.
    Happy Independence Day! And keep writing...