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The Ashcan School: Cultural Renewal May Not Be Pretty, But It is Beautiful

Do whatever you do intensely. The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life.

Robert Henri

It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was sixteen years old in 1986, living near Washington, DC. My geeky group of friends and I were participating in the young male ritual of rebellion right next to an epicenter of an aggressive, controversial youth movement.

Only about a decade old at that point, the music and fashion sensation of punk had mutated into what was called hardcore. DC was the home of now-legendary bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, and the excitement they generated spilled out into the suburbs. I got a bad haircut and started wearing a black leather jacket and combat boots. We’d go into the big city to visit seedy clubs featuring shows with loud, fast songs and shouted vocals, while the audience danced by jumping around and bouncing off of each other. It was exhilarating.

Punk began when a bunch of self-starting kids, often working-class, got bored with the bland, predictable culture being offered by the establishment. We created our own alternative, and it spread. When I look around today, at all the people with dyed hair, tattoos, and facial piercings, I remember how shocking it was when my peers were doing it back in the day. It makes me reflect how art is a leading indicator for society – for good or ill.

Almost one hundred years earlier, there was another aggressive, controversial cultural phenomenon going on in the United States, in painting. We’ve come to call it the Ashcan School.

Artist Robert Henri (June 24, 1865-July 12, 1929) was an inspirational artist and teacher initially based in Philadelphia; he later relocated to New York City. Henri (pronounced Hen-rye) was bored with the bland, predictable art being produced in the American art establishment at the time: either gentle, pale Impressionist imitations, or flattering Gilded Age portraits of wealthy patrons.

In the early 1900s, Henri mentored a group of journalist illustrators which included notables such as William Glakens, John Sloan, and George Luks. In an era before common photographic reproduction, newspapers used artists to create pictures for their stories. These men were used to depicting the grime and grimness of newsworthy city life. Henri encouraged them to bring that real-world engagement into fine art.

Like punk many years later, the Ashcan School was an alliance of free-thinking individuals each following their own artistic vision, rather than an organized, regimented movement. The artists shared a Modernist urban sensibility, dark palette, gritty realist subject matter, and an appreciation for the common people. They made sketchy yet accurate depictions of how life was lived at the time, instead of polite, idealized fantasies. As Henri put it, “There is only one reason for art in America, and that is that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time and their own land.”

This was considered to be in bad taste. Like many other art movements such as Impressionism or Stuckism, the title of Ashcan started as an insult. A reviewer sneered about the “pictures of ashcans and girls hitching up their skirts on Horatio Street.” The artists embraced the derision as a badge of honor.

Robert Henri “Snow in New York” Photograph: Flickr
Robert Henri “Snow in New York” Photograph: Flickr

The Ashcan School artists were also referred to as “The Apostles of Ugliness,” much as the punks were called “foul-mouthed yobs.” But the critics are missing something important: the ugliness isn’t the point. It’s the willingness to embrace the actual messy energy of life. Punk taught me the value of independence, skepticism of unearned authority, the power of DIY action, and the vital role culture still plays in our lives.

Something too constrained stagnates, even dies. There’s always something a little wild and scary about real growth.

There’s a difference between pretty and beautiful. Prettiness is a surface. Beauty is the substance. Pretty is an outside appearance; beauty is from within. Pretty is agreeable. Beauty is truthful, and as we know, the truth isn’t always pleasing. Accepting yet refining the harshness of truth through creative expression is a transcendental experience. The joyous human offering of art can add significance to mundane squalor.

Right now, establishment mismanagement has created a culture that is neither pretty nor beautiful. They need us to believe the squalor is the point, after all. Artists are needed as the pioneers who carry out the idea that life is wonderful and surprising, even if elitists call us trashy. Cultural renewal will be a little wild and scary.

As for Robert Henri, his wisdom was captured in a great book called The Art Spirit. It encourages us to understand how important the role of the artist is.

As for me, I still pull out my Bad Brains and Minor Threat albums when the mood strikes me. It’s good music to paint to.

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