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Still in Europe's shadow WILLIAM MENKING The American Century Art and Culture 1900-1950 At the Whitney Museum, 945 Madison Avenue, New York until 22 August

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The Whitney Museum holds its corner like no other building in New York, yet its exhibitions have never grabbed the public as Marcel Breuer's concrete and granite bunker does.

This may be because it was founded as a salon for artists as much as a gallery for the public and still thinks of itself as committed to exhibiting new and challenging work. However, because of a precipitous drop in government funding for the arts in America, museums must increasingly generate more income, whether from admissions or product spin-offs. Consequently, New York institutions are forced to conjure up popular exhibitions of spurious relevance to the visual arts: Italian Fashion, The Warhol Style and The History of the Motorcycle (sponsored by BMW) are recent examples. Which brings us to the Whitney's current show The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950 - its only true blockbuster in recent memory.

This is the first half of a two-part twentieth-century survey (1950-2000 opens in September). It is the largest exhibition the museum has ever mounted.

The American Century sets out to test the veracity of Henry Luce's 1941 boast that the US is the 'intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world'. It is clear, however, from this first half-century of work that, in the arts, the us is nowhere near the capital of the world.

In fact, it was more common for American artists in the first half of the century to leave for Europe to live in a more supportive culture. Some expatriates like John Singer Sergeant painted society portraits on their return, but others became the first Americans committed to Modernism - meaning that the early abstract paintings of Stanton Macdonald Wright and the Cubist compositions of Max Weber and Stuart Davis owe their development to Paris and not New York.

Rather than foolishly claiming global supremacy, it would have been more interesting to focus on what is unique and compelling in American art. The show does begin to hint at this when it leaves the fine arts for the domain of mass culture: Charlie Chaplin's film Modern Times (1936), Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly's realist music and the American Guide series of books published by the Federal Writers project in the 1930s all point to a unique American outlook. But, to its credit, the exhibition does highlight the neglected contribution that African Americans have made to the course of American culture: Langston Hughes' prose, Dudley Murphy's film Black and Tan (1929), music by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, the photography of Gordon Parks and paintings by William Johnson, Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence.

The highlight of the exhibition is undoubtedly photography. Where photographers aimed for the same insights as painting and sculpture, the results were often more direct and uniquely American. The earliest image in the exhibition, Edward Steichen's 1903 photograph of J Pierpont Morgan, puts other contemporary society portraits in the shade by capturing the hardness of this American robber baron. Furthermore, photography had a relevance far beyond the gallery in the work of social reformers Jessie 'Tarbox' Beals and Jacob Riis, and the New Deal images of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, while photographers like Lewis Hine and Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee) began confronting the modern world in a specifically American manner.

Although the exhibition does acknowledge urbanism and architecture, they are presented as minor arts simply to fill out the survey format. It includes, for example, the renderings of Hugh Ferris and City Beautiful remnants like Pennsylvania Station by McKim, Mead and White. But the most insightful urbanism comes again in the form of photographs of the city - its skyscrapers and its street life. Paul Strand's Wall Street New York (1915) summarizes the economic reality of the American city and its resulting architecture in a forthright manner, reminding one of Marcel Duchamp's comment that 'the only works of art that America has given are her plumbing and her bridges'.

In one respect, however, America genuinely was an art capital in the first half-century - that is, in terms of the European artists and architects who emigrated here in the 1930s, bringing to this country a new intelligence and energy. Indeed the exhibition ends with two paintings by European immigrants, Louise Bourgeois and Arshile Gorky.

Ironically, this only goes to show how the need to package an end-of- millennium exhibition has forced the museum to present an otherwise standard survey within a spurious format. It is clear that, even by 1950, the 'American Century' had not escaped Europe's shadow.

William Menking teaches at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn

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