Connolly on Katz, 'Humbug!: The Politics of Art Criticism in New York City's Penny Press'

Wendy Jean Katz. Humbug!: The Politics of Art Criticism in New York City's Penny Press. New York: Empire State Editions, 2020. 304 pp. $140.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-8537-2; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-8538-9

Reviewed by Thomas F. Connolly (Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University)
Published on H-SHEAR (November, 2022)
Commissioned by Peter Knupfer

Printable Version:

Art Criticism and NY's Penny Press

Historians of the arts are in dire need of more studies of the ramifications of criticism. Humbug! The Politics of Art Criticism in New York City’s Penny Press by Wendy Jean Katz is a model text for the sort of analysis that is needed. Katz takes up the popular press art criticism of the first half of the nineteenth century. She is an art historian but clearly understands the context of journalism and the politics of the printing press. Her study draws on sociopolitical and economic factors to dissect the corruption attendant upon criticism at the time. Theater historians are well acquainted with the “puff” system whereby reviews were favorable in proportion to theatrical advertising in a given newspaper. Katz discusses this practice, amplifying her thorough grounding in the dubious standards of the time (pp. 34-36).

In six chapters, Katz argues that the penny press’s democratic imperatives trumped aesthetic concerns. It can be argued that this has ramifications in the art world today. The antebellum egalitarian urge is reflected by the contemporary insistence on aesthetic equity. What is more, this ostensible moral underpinning is specious; then as now commercial value was the ultimate arbiter of worth. Katz identifies three key political movements: nativist, abolitionist, and expansionist. Each would rally their partisans around a particular artist.

The author does well to emphasize the influence of James Gordon Bennett’s editorial style and the impact that his New York Herald’s populism had on the upper class’s presumed prerogatives concerning taste. Bennett dismissed aristocratic dilettantes as “loafers.” In response, George D. Strong, in the high-toned pages of the Knickerbocker, sneered at the newsboys who peddled Bennett’s papers as “lazzaroni.” Such hoity-toity assaults played into the hands of the penny press barons. She notes the profound influence that the language of the popular press had in effecting the erosion or the evolution of critical standards—depending on the eye of the beholder:

“That new language, the piquant and lively style of the penny press, was an aesthetic ideal itself. Thus, when the Herald described the dark and stormy night of the National Academy of Design’s council meeting in 1838, its satirist spied a colossal bust of the newspaper poet McDonald Clarke in the corner of the room, the genius of his scene. This detail was partly a dig at the Academy for not including sculpture in the exhibition. Lack of sculpture was a particular complaint of the Herald, which had taken up promotion of James Varick Stout, the artist who had carved this bust of the ‘mad poet’ and had to exhibit it at the American Institute annual fair, amid wax babies and mimic fruit.” (p. 59)

The entire enterprise of the art world of seems to have been compromised. While not as shamelessly controlled by marketing as it is today, nevertheless it is clear that journalistic manipulation was the norm.

Katz details the corruption of the putatively patriotic American Art-Union, an organization that expertly manipulated the reputations of the artists it favored. Not only is the widespread trade in fake Old Masters discussed in economic terms, but the penny press’s coverage of art dealing chicanery is presented in a nationalistic context of another triad: socialists, freethinkers, and bohemians. Like the latter-day efforts of Walt Whitman and the Pffafians, they advocated for an American art, with new approaches that rejected the past. Katz reveals manufactured controversies instigated by journalists and artists as well. Newspaper campaigns revealed artists who were supposedly denied exposure, collusion, and cabals. She concludes with a summation of the challenges to “evangelical zeal” from the penny press that bolstered much of the rising Republican press on the eve of the Civil War. Such journals urged an abolitionist editorial stance. Here we have a fascinating linkage with the controversy of American exceptionalism carried over into artistic ideologies (pp. 234-235).

Katz’s writing is clear; she cogently presents a panorama of antebellum journalists and artists. There is an inkling of idealism in the penny press’s populism that she addresses in her interesting comparison between certain artistic groups and the Fourierist communes such as the Sylvania Association and Brook Farm (p. 128). Ultimately, this text is a rich cultural study more than an art history or journalism volume. It is a deep read of the first half of nineteenth-century culture. What is more, it demonstrates the fraught nature of American aesthetics as revealed in an emergent metropolis.

Citation: Thomas F. Connolly. Review of Katz, Wendy Jean, Humbug!: The Politics of Art Criticism in New York City's Penny Press. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022.

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