Art and Act

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

One of the major tasks of any historian, Peter Gay writes in the opening chapter of Art and Act, is to answer the perennial question, “Why?” What were the factors that brought about a particular historical event? An invitation to deliver the Critique Lectures at the Cooper Union in New York City in 1974 prompted Gay, Durfee Professor of History at Yale and one of America’s most distinguished cultural historians, to take up the problem of causal analysis in relation to a special group of historical events—the works of three tradition-breaking artists, painters Edouard Manet and Piet Mondrian and architect Walter Gropius.

Gay begins his book with a complex, tightly packed introductory chapter entitled “The Dimensions of Cause.” He suggests that many of his fellow historians, notably the Marxists, have kept these dimensions too narrow, looking to one area, like economics, for the full explanation of events. Valid causal analysis, on the other hand, must take into consideration what Gay calls longrange causes, short-range causes, and releasers—immediate stimuli that trigger an act. Each of these types will include forces arising out of the three areas of life: the world of culture, the world of craft, and the world of privacy. The first category embraces nature and society, all influential human institutions; the second, “the domain of work and habit”; the third, the family and the inner life. Gay asserts that historians have in general concentrated too heavily on the first area and neglected the equally potent effects arising out of the work that consumes a substantial part of most lives and out of the psychology of both individuals and groups.

A substantial—perhaps a disproportionate—section of this chapter is a call for the expansion of the field of psychohistory, which at present, according to Gay, too often consists of “trivial,” “pretentious,” “reductionist” studies of “world-historical neurotics.” He wants to incorporate into the perspective of each historian “theories that will permit him to construct causal explanations of all conduct and all motives, rational and irrational, intelligent or stupid, realistic or projective.” He urges his colleagues to “do the old work in a new temper, to scan and record the surfaces of the past continuously alert to the lava beneath the crust.”

Gay’s study of Manet, Gropius, and Mondrian is an attempt to follow the directives he has laid down in his introduction, to identify and rank in a “hierarchy of causes” those influences from the worlds of culture, craft, and private life that inspired Manet to break with the traditional styles and subjects of the mid-nineteenth century French Academy, led Gropius to seek new functional forms in architecture, and impelled Mondrian to convey his vision of life in colored rectangles. In three interesting, extensively documented, and copiously illustrated chapters, Gay explores the society in which each artist worked, the techniques and traditions that both limited and liberated them, and the personal traits that contributed to the creation of the works that make their names live today. He finds, not surprisingly, that causes arising from the three areas interlock, but he also feels that in each artist one of the three predominates. His chapter on Manet is called “The Primacy of Culture”; the one on Gropius, “The Imperatives of Craft”; and the one on Mondrian, “The Claims of Privacy.”

Gay’s Manet is a man of his age, the second half of the nineteenth century, a painter who celebrated in such works as “The Railroad” (which is reproduced on the dust jacket of the book) the coming of the modern world of industrialization and the machine. Although Manet is often characterized as a rebel for his refusal to be bound by the standards of the Academicians, Gay sees him as one who was for the most part in harmony with his society. One side of him was distinctly conformist. He dressed conservatively, enjoyed “bourgeois” social life, and coveted the cross of the Legion of Honor as a measure of success. Yet he also saw the limits of this world and felt a need to express his own views through the new techniques of color and composition he developed from his study of Goya and Velásquez.

Gay notes that Manet wrote often of the “sincerity” of his work as an expression of what he saw and felt, perhaps as a defense against those who charged that he painted merely to shock. There was, however, in Gay’s opinion, a critical, satirical aspect to Manet’s “sincere” work, an aspect that Manet himself might have been reluctant to acknowledge. The famous nude “Olympia,” which created a scandal when it was first exhibited, is seen as “an implicit but devastating criticism of the Academic nude,...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)