- One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic
Any humanist anxious about the seemingly diminished state of the arts in a time of political and economic crisis should hasten to read Martha Banta's exhilarating new book, One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic. Though only partly about the present day, Banta's book nonetheless provides an invaluable perspective on contemporary concerns by examining an earlier and equally consequential moment in our national history—from roughly the mid-nineteenth through the early-twentieth century—when the arts seemed, inexorably, to be yielding vital cultural ground to the sciences. Banta in fact demonstrates not only that such "crises" have been ongoing in American culture but also that we might well learn something from the resolute faith of an earlier era in the potential unity of art's "soft feelings" and science's "hard facts" (xiv).
The search for that unity—the "quest" of Banta's title—is the principal focus of the book. "Across the shifting template of the 1800s," she instructs, "there were those Americans (the kind who cared greatly about the sort of cultures their nation was in the process of creating) who believed it was their duty to piece together a viable system of aesthetic values, the more unified the better" (xiv–xv). Challenged by Emerson "to uncover a theory of nature that would include all of life at its most inchoate and creative" and inspired by Darwin, who in The Origin of Species saw the complex interdependence of a multiplicity of different forms in each "entangled bank," these Americans earnestly hoped "to unveil a theory blessed by a simplicity applicable to all the laws of the universe" (xv).
Grand hopes, these, to be sure. And yet if to many in our more cynical age such desires appear naïve, to the mid-nineteenth-century enthusiasts at the heart of Banta's study they seemed not only attainable but also absolutely necessary. Which is not to [End Page 85] say these questors succeeded, nor even that measuring their success or failure is the point of the volume. "The emergence of any single aesthetic theory per se is not the point," Banta emphasizes. "What matters is to offer a record of the myriad cultural pressures that led to a series of aesthetic statements crucial to meet their time and circumstances" (xxi).
The record Banta provides in One True Theory and the Quest for an American Aesthetic is at once intricate and elegant and at times (and in the best sense) truly dizzying. She divides the book into three main sections, or "testing grounds" (xvi), each featuring a dozen or more "minihistories" (xxi) embedded within. Part One, "An American Aesthetic and Its Travails," examines the struggle to develop a national aesthetic between the 1850s and the early 1900s. Of the many players in this section, two take center stage: William James Stillman—founder in the 1850s of the Crayon, the first independent art journal in the U.S.—and Thorstein Veblen, turn-of-the-century social scientist and economist, as well as influential skeptic about the role of the humanities in an age of science. Through Stillman and his fellow Crayonites, Banta recovers both a mid-century enthusiasm for the "Art Idea" (rather stubbornly indebted to aesthetic ideals embodied in the Old Masters of Italy's High Renaissance) and a deep anxiety about America's woeful cultural deficit. She details the ways art's boosters sought urgently to institutionalize worthy "Art Thoughts" through new forms of criticism, education, and outreach, from public exhibitions and affordable reproductions, to the founding of American art schools and (eventually) the development of a newly rigorous—even scientific—American art criticism.
Through Veblen, Banta foregrounds not merely the skepticism and distrust with which many advocates of scientific inquiry regarded humanist strivers but also the broad usefulness as a theoretical tool of what she terms "Veblenism." For Banta this term encodes the principles for analysis laid down by Veblen in his own studies of social...