Saturday, January 7, 2017

World Premiere - America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age

View film excerpts on Vimeo.

In my new film, America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age, I make the argument that movements in the arts “leach beyond the stiff chronologies we assign to them.” I make this point in America Rising because, in the 45 years between the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the death of Mark Twain in 1910, America came into its own…as an economic and political power, and just as importantly as an artistic force. In painting, in literature, and in sculpture, no period in the history of American art was more fertile or more meaningful, and therefore more relevant to Americans today.

Detail from Diana, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1894. Bronze sculpture. 
Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1985. Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

America Rising ends with Childe Hassam’s flag series and John Singer Sargent’s monumental painting Gassed, and some may feel that, by doing this, I’ve stretched the acceptable boundaries of the period otherwise known as America’s Renaissance. I certainly have, if a discussion of the arts of the Gilded Age is to be defined by and confined to the stiffest of chronologies; but when we entered the First World War in 1917 (something we observe the 100th anniversary of this year), many of the most productive and creative Americans of the Gilded Age were still alive and still working. This is the most simple of points: painters such as Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent, otherwise thought by many in 1917 as being archaic relics of a prior period in our artistic history, were still showing us how to look deeply within ourselves for the answers to the most pressing issues of our time. Not only were they doing that, but they were doing it more tellingly than were the Modernists, who had supplanted them in our attention. In Hassam’s case, it was simply whether we should become the World’s Policeman; in Sargent’s case, it was whether the first widespread use of poison gas marked the beginning of the end of what we mean when we say the word “civilization.” If you think the debates provoked in 1917 and 1918 by these two old men of the Gilded Age are over, think again…whether we should be the World’s Policeman is still the most important of questions. Whether we should idly stand by as populations are gassed is as important an issue now as it was 100 years ago.

I’m particularly happy that the World Premiere of America Rising will take place at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond on January 20. I’m happy for more than one reason. Not only is it a joy to show our films at VMFA, but it’s a particular pleasure in this case, because VMFA’s collection of important American Gilded Age art is impressive and so illustrative of this important period.

January 20, 2017 is also an important day for America, and I am equally happy that Terri and I will be premiering America Rising on that day. I do not make political films, and America Rising takes no political position…but whatever side of the issue you come down on, I’m urging us all on January 20 to reflect upon America’s greatness. The profound greatness of our American artistic heritage is what America Rising celebrates. When you see this film, and you see the work of Childe Hassam, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Alfred Stieglitz, and Maurice Prendergast, and Mary Cassatt…and when you see, on the screen, Mark Twain walking toward you, ever-present cigar in hand, in the only known film footage existing of the Father of the Gilded Age…I hope you will remember, and then reflect upon, the things that endure in America: our history, our values, and, of course, our art.

Mark Twain, 1907. Photograph. Library of Congress 
Prints and Photographs Division.
Watch clips on Vimeo: