American Quarterly 49.1 (1997) 193-202
In the introduction to The Torchbearers: Women and Their Amateur Arts Associations in America, 1890-1930, Karen Blair states that the nineteenth-century belief that women were "to ornament, rather than create and interpret" resulted in an "eruption" of arts organizations in the Progressive era (3). Large numbers of middle-class (non wage-earning), white, ... [Show full abstract] Protestant, urban women who had been trained to appreciate and value art but kept from becoming sufficiently accomplished to function as arts "professionals" joined arts-oriented clubs and associations at the turn of the century. These women did not "make" art, but sponsored and promoted arts activities, thereby ensuring that art was a strong presence in the lives of their families and communities. Collectively, their groups formed a wide-reaching, powerful network of arts advocacy and exerted a strong influence on American culture.
The Torchbearers is intended to be both "a tale of [women's] success at perpetuating their own dilettantish status," and a record of the "impressive array of permanent cultural programs and institutions they helped create" (3-4). It thus touches on two broad areas that have received scholarly attention in the past two decades: the history of women's separate institutions and associations, many of which centered around voluntarism, charity, and philanthropy, and an assessment of the impact of the behind-the-scenes or "invisible" work they did through these organizations; and an historical and analytical exploration of women and the arts -- of their roles as art producers and consumers, and of their particular understandings, interpretations, and activities. The book is more successful in its consideration of organizational history than in its understanding of the arts, but in foregrounding the pervasiveness and political importance of these organizations, it raises provocative and important questions on both fronts.
Blair sets the stage for her narrative by explaining that like her earlier work, The Clubwoman as Feminist, this book continues the discussion of "domestic feminism" first laid out by historians such as Barbara Epstein, Estelle Friedman, Ruth Bordin, and Nancy Cott. Developed in the nineteenth century, domestic feminism was one approach taken by women looking to increase their autonomy and influence. They broke out of the confines of the home by forming groups that invoked the values of the home sphere -- an emphasis on the family, cooperation, and beauty -- but brought them to bear on public issues and institutions. Blair argues that many of these groups advocated a deeper community involvement in the arts because this was an arena where the "so-called female traits of gentleness, . . . beauty, and sensitivity" were valued, even reified (11). The women approached their activities with a kind of missionary zeal. They believed in their own moral superiority, and saw themselves as "torchbearers"; that is, as the ones who were to lead others (men and children) in the pursuit of high ideals (7).
Blair prefaces her story of the arts organizations by reviewing the kind of training and exposure to the arts that nineteenth-century women received. Popular wisdom then held that women had a special affinity for art because both women and the arts were "ruled by feeling," but since art could be dangerously self-absorbing, women's involvement had to be kept within bounds, always subservient to the needs of the family. Women were, in effect, to be kept as dabblers -- accomplished at many artistic pursuits, but serious about none (12). By the end of the century this proscription had been challenged to a limited extent; a few women were functioning as "professional" artists, and women's colleges began offering arts classes for serious students. Nevertheless, the specter of patriarchal assumptions and nineteenth century beliefs was difficult to shake. Because they were anxious to maintain the image of "serious" institutions, colleges such as Mt. Holyoke were wary of associations with the female dabbler or dilettante, and tried to disassociate art from traditional women's interests. For example, they fostered the study of art history and connoisseurship, but remained cautious about studio art (25...