Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 11, 2000
James Cooper Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape Hudson Hills Press, 2000. 109 pp.; 56 color ills.; 2 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (1555951805)

James Cooper believes in art. In his book, which amounts to a manifesto long on assertion and short on argument (as befits manifestoes), Cooper holds up the canvases of the Hudson River School as a standard for cultural renewal. His arch-principle is that the arts carry a culture’s moral, spiritual, and aesthetic values such that as the arts go, so goes the culture. This idea operates in the book as a traditional American jeremiad that both critiques modern history and heralds the opportunity of rebirth. Cooper promotes what amounts to a form of cultural theurgy: If the arts are an index of spiritual well-being, by improving them artists will produce a corresponding progression in the spiritual health of the nation. The logic is dubious, but it is what avant-gardists like Joseph Beuys or Wassily Kandinsky, as well as cultural conservatives like Cooper, have similarly contended. This may appear ironic at first, but it isn’t. Rather than the anarchist practice of avant-gardism familiar in the twentieth century, Cooper endorses an earlier, heroic theory of the avant-garde, one indebted to the ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon, who first applied the term “avant-garde” to artists during the 1820s. The artist is not a surly despiser of the cultural establishment, but rather its hero, prophet, and spiritual leader, an artistic Moses leading the way to the promised land of the future.

As Cooper points out, the belief in the heroic capacity of art to enlighten and refine society at large has been the contention of American moralists and intelligentsia since the antebellum period. For instance, clergy, arbiters of taste, and republican apologists well before the Civil War wrote long articles, sermons, memoirs, and accounts of their visits to European museums. During these visits, they encouraged attention to the arts and insisted that the development of national taste was an essential ingredient in refining the new republic and preserving its dedication to liberty. A properly cultured citizenry was key to the perpetuation of freedom. But freedom as the produce not of democracy so much as of republicanism. Cooper is apt to blur the distinction, yet his artists and writers were often not admirers of what antebellum American Whigs meant by “democracy.” That term entailed a populism and egalitarianism that were altogether too commercial and crass for their taste. The “republic” was what they had in mind since they firmly believed that the American experiment was most likely to succeed if led by a cultural and financial aristocracy that could discern by virtue of its spiritual and cultural refinement what was best for the nation. “We have come a long way from the time of Washington and Jefferson,” the author regrets, “when leaders set the taste of the nation” (79). Cooper considers the postmodern irony and relativism that mark the failure of the twentieth century to be an outgrowth of what began with the Jacksonian affirmation of the marketplace.

Cooper’s jeremiad claims a special place for America, reinvoking the exceptionalism that has been a part of American cultural rhetoric since the earliest colonial days. If the new world for the seventeenth-century Puritans was elected by God for a millennial mission and the nation came to be understood in this way by eighteenth-century Americans, nineteenth-century Americans embraced the “manifest destiny” of the new republic taking shape in the continental migration westward. Cooper bemoans the fall of the American Adam and Eve in the Civil War, a fateful turning point for the nation and the beginning of a long century of carnage and lost faith. Although President Kennedy sounded a call of hope with the inauguration of the National Endowment for the Arts, this initiative has been lost to the fractious energies of postmodern relativism, multiculturalism, and political correctness. What the nation needs, according to Cooper, is a return to the transcendent values of beauty, truth, and goodness that were visualized and celebrated in the artistic achievements of Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Jasper Cropsey, and Frederic Church. Their celebration of the American landscape replaced the outmoded visual rhetoric of neoclassicism and directed Americans to discover in the landscape the material expression of a providential will for nationhood and greatness. Beauty, as Cooper understands it, is the visual signature of truth and moral goodness, and whenever he needs to tell us this he turns to John Ruskin for the suitable epigram.

“Relativism” is the bugbear of cultural conservatives. Spokespersons for the right such as Lynne Cheney, Robert Bork, and William Bennett, all of whom Cooper quotes approvingly, regularly lament it and call for objective standards that will ground judgment in the bedrock of empirical (or constitutional) certainty. Cooper himself is convinced that American art historical scholarship has been poisoned by relativist thinking. He longs for a firm foundation on which to establish taste and artistic sensibility, which can revolutionize Americans’ sense of spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual value. Scholarship and art that assume beauty is a historical, social construct deprive themselves of authority and any claim to verification.

So it is more than curious when Cooper himself uses language that affirms a constructivist understanding of human knowledge and cultural experience. He refers again and again to the “cultural lens” of art, the “spiritual optics of the beholder,” and the “projection” onto the American landscape of “Victorian idealism” and the “widely shared range of religious, moral, philosophical, and social ideas” (19, 23, 33, 54, 76). In fact, Cooper knows very well that art and culture are human constructions. And that Romanticism was a particularly deft form of cultural enchantment. Romanticism helped shape the emergent national conception of the United States because it aggrandized a rural nation and linked national identity to a continent whose mystery signaled the potential of the new republic. Romanticism, in other words, helped project or imagine a nation that did not exist.

The practice of looking to nature for a transcendent or purposeful vision remains part of American life today: witness the crowds of tourists/pilgrims at Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, or the popularity of nature programming on public television. In the nineteenth century, the picturesque, a visual mode imported from European Romanticism, answered to the national context and purpose: The picturesque is an anthropocentric visuality that constructs “nature” as unfolding before the human viewer. Cooper is surely correct when he insists that the way of seeing deployed in Hudson River School painting was linked to the national vision of its painters. Cropsey’s justly admired Autumn—On the Hudson River (1860; National Gallery of Art) seduces the viewer into a benevolent ebb and flow, a beguiling rhythm of breath that moves through and animates its scene. The picture situates the viewer in a brilliantly colored foreground that frames a receding landscape, which is, in turn, crowned by the concealed sun, whose rays form a pyramid that circumscribes in a celestial gesture the placid landscape gathered within the framing device of the trees in the foreground. The image configures an elegant emanation and return, a “natural” order that beckons human indwelling and promises an endless reward. It is the familiar, and consummately executed, architecture of Romantic landscape painting. Hardly a transcription of nature, but an Edenic conjuration that, as Cooper notes, “existed only in [Cropsey’s] imagination and heart, a vision shared by the other Hudson River School artists and embraced by Americans awed by the sublimity and promise of the American wilderness” (54).

Shall latter-day viewers content themselves with a simple deconstruction of this vision as Whiggish, white, and Protestant? Is this beauty merely the visual encoding of a power interest? Does the art of Cole or Cropsey appear beautiful simply because it constructs the gaze of manifest destiny, a landscape shorn of Native Americans and open to appropriation as the throne of white Protestant nationhood? Even if it does nothing else, Cooper’s book is worthwhile if it helps American art historians develop a richer understanding of aesthetics. Certainly, as Cooper himself acknowledges, the canvases of Cole and his followers heroically embed republican values (which were unabashedly white and Protestant) in the soil of the American landscape. Not only his art’s detractors but also James Cooper believe that this semiotic naturalization of a national ideal is what makes these pictures beautiful: “We are drawn to the artists of the Hudson River School because they enable us to see what they saw with fresh eyes: the beauty of nature, the glory of God, and the virtue of America” (24).

The task of a critical historical investigation is to establish what happened in the past and to account for why it happened that way. Beauty is no exception to the rule. To claim, as Cooper relentlessly does, that beauty is transcendent and timeless does not exempt the historian from treating beauty as a historical phenomenon. If beauty were ahistorical, then the one could safely ignore it as something that surpassed historical interpretation. But the fact is that Cooper himself historicizes the beauty of the art of Cole and Cropsey: their works employ a particular “cultural lens” that Cooper would have Americans today employ as the means of faithfully envisioning their nation and its mission. So we should proceed as historians to analyze these pictures as historical constructions. Yet we should not, I think, simply dismiss them as anachronistic ideological artifacts. For if the ideological optic makes these pictures beautiful, their beauty is not exhausted by that way of seeing. Looking at the art of the Hudson River School today, having dispensed with or at least chastened the republican vision it records, we must ask ourselves why these paintings remain beautiful. Perhaps their beauty is motivated by other ideologies, ideologies that we still share with Cole or Cropsey. What does the landscape continue to mean to many Americans? Or how has it been recoded since the days of the knights of the brush?

James Cooper adds little or nothing to the art historical record concerning the particular works of the Hudson River School featured in his book. Yet his peevish and stalwart (and lavishly produced) tome is an eloquent statement of an ideology that champions the political and cultural interests of art. This is a book worth reading if the national conversation about the role of the arts in American life is worth conducting. Which it certainly is.

David Morgan
Valparaiso University