Artist: Ben Shahn
From The Shape of Content:
The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt…appear unexpectedly bearded…offer, freely, unsolicited advice…or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite another matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.
…There was a great commotion aroused in Paris around 1925 when it was proposed by officials that one of the pavilions of the coming Exposition des Arts Decoratifs be housed in that space traditionally reserved for the Salon of the Independents. It was suggested that, in view of the new enlightenment, there was actually no further need of an Independents show in Paris. An indignant critic promptly offered to give 25 reasons why the Independents’ show ought to be continued.
The 25 reasons proved to be 25 names–those of the winners of the Prix de Rome over as many years, the Prix de Rome being the most exalted award that can be extended to talented artists by the French Government. But all these names, excepting that of Rouault, were totally unknown to art. The critic then called off 25 names, those of artists who had first exhibited with the Independents, who had not won a Prix de Rome, and who could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award. They were Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Degas, Derain, Daumier, Matisse, Utrillo, Picasso, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Braque, Gauguin, Léger, and so on and on.
This incident has great bearing upon the matter of conformity. For it was through the questionable virtue of conformity that the Prix de Rome winners had prevailed. That is to say, they had no quarrel with art as it stood. The accepted concepts of beauty, of appropriate subject matter, of design, the small conceits of style, and the whole conventional system of art and art teaching were perfectly agreeable to them. By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always the in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.