- Visual Art and the Urban Evolution of the New South by Deborah C. Pollack
Deborah C. Pollack’s contribution to the literature on the cultural history of the New South lies in her emphasis on taking the artists of the era as her main subjects, rather than treating artistic production only as representation. Starting from the premise that artists “became the impetus of the cultural and at times physical, economic, and sociological advancement of …six New South cities,” her task is to explore the influence of “artists and other cultural strivers in the evolution of several major New South urban centers” (p. 1). These artists chronicled the Old South and the transformations of the New South and, in so doing, “established a synergistic dynamic by joining forces with philanthropists, women’s organizations, entrepreneurs, writers, architects, politicians, and idealistic dreamers” (p. 10). Pollack asserts that these allies helped usher New South cities into an era of cultural maturity. Significantly, Pollack does not focus solely on picturesque images of the Old South, but also examines artistic productions that borrowed from European idioms and attempted to capture the character of urban life. Casting a broad net from sculptors to photographers, [End Page 702] Pollack puts the artists of the New South, both black and white, in the context of a national movement toward urban beautification.
Ambitiously, Pollack chooses Atlanta, Charleston, New Orleans, Louisville, Austin, and Miami as her case studies, and for each city she identifies the main artists and culture-minded boosters, exploring their efforts at artistic production and at establishing a cultural milieu that included sketching clubs, expositions, and, eventually, museums. The book is generously illustrated with images on almost every page, and the reader gets a sense of the prolific and vibrant art scene in these burgeoning southern cities. One of Pollack’s main strengths is the significant amount of research she did to uncover the biographies of these artists, the provenance of their works, and the collaborations among artists, civic leaders, women’s groups, and art collectors. Another strength is the attention she pays to African American artists and the discrimination they faced.
However, the book has several problems. First, despite Pollack’s acknowledgment of the presence of Jim Crow laws and racial violence, she generally adopts a tone that is uncritical of the Redeemers’ point of view, using phrases such as “Carpetbaggers … invaded Atlanta, taking advantage of distressed property owners and intertwining themselves in local politics” (p. 13); in Miami, Yankees were resented for “taking advantage of freedmen” (p. 245). Similarly, Pollack downplays the problematic implications of the Uncle Remus story, which, according to her, “prove[s] the universality of its Americana charm, regardless of any racial or sociological ramifications” (p. 16).
Second, Pollack does not engage the rich secondary literature relevant to her exploration, including W. Fitzhugh Brundage on the role of women in guarding public memory, Catherine Cocks on changing notions of the tropics, Kirk Savage on art and the politics of historical memory, and Anthony J. Stanonis on tourism to New Orleans, to name a few. As a result, much of the book is undertheorized and uninformed. Finally, though it seems logical enough, the chronological arrangement of each chapter does not serve Pollack well, as her narrative goes more or less year by year without organizing principles or themes. The result of such narration is that the book suffers from non sequiturs, such as a brief description of Atlanta’s 1906 pogrom followed by, “Meanwhile, native-born Lucy May Stanton … an innovative miniaturist, was active in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, where she relocated in 1902” (p. 48). In short, this book is more encyclopedic than analytical, and it is more useful as a reference rather than as an interpretation of cultural development in the New South.