The Man Who Made American Modernism

As a photographer, a tastemaker, and a friend to African-American artists, Carl Van Vechten defined American modernism and helped create the multicultural world of today.

Mark Lutz/Carl Van Vechten Collection/Library of Congress

Carl Van Vechten is the most important figure in American culture you’ve never heard of. Edward White’s superb biography, The Tastemaker completes the work of reclamation begun in Emily Bernard’s thoughtful but partial 2012 portrait, Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance. Yes, Van Vechten was a pioneering advocate of African-American artists who fostered the careers of Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson, among many others. But his fascination with black culture, born in Chicago in the 1910s, became the core of a larger mission that White explores with acute intelligence and a zest that is never dampened by Van Vechten’s narcissism and mythomania—indeed, he appreciates those qualities as essential armor for someone engaged in a lifelong quest to shatter taboos and foster a radically new vision of American life and art.

Van Vechten was the first to celebrate the nation’s multiethnic, polyglot cities as the home of everything vital and exciting in America. While muckrakers and other earnest social reformers were exposing poverty, crime, and despair in urban slums, he was visiting Yiddish theaters on the Bowery, Italian opera houses and black vaudeville in Harlem, relishing their exuberant performers and audiences filled with working men in shirt sleeves, mothers casually suckling babies, and grandmothers sipping soda pop. (His involvement in New York’s gay subculture remained covert, masked by his marriage to actress Fania Marinoff.) He championed “advanced” modern art—the free-form dances of Isadora Duncan, the abstract paintings at the 1913 Armory Show, Richard Strauss’s scandalous opera Salome, Gertrude Stein’s enigmatic books—and he insisted on the equal value of popular art. Ragtime was as sophisticated as Stravinsky, Van Vechten asserted, blues singer Clara Smith as sublime an artist as any opera diva. He dismissed the distinction between high and low culture in 1917, years before Gilbert Seldes published The Seven Lively Arts, decades before it became commonplace.

Assessing the impact of this “one-man publicity machine for American modernism,” White is particularly nuanced on Van Vechten’s complex relationship with African-American culture. He acknowledges a tendency to fetishize black artists as “primitive” and hence more “authentic,” a view that even in the 1920s struck some African-Americans as patronizing, but notes that for Van Vechten, primitivism was “the essence of modern art,” black or white. His blithe assumption that he was “an honorary Negro” was akin to the abundant name-dropping in his essays, a means of claiming intimacy with the talented people he promoted—partly as a means of self-promotion, White shrewdly comments.

The deliberately provocative adjective Van Vechten chose for the title of his 1926 novel Nigger Heaven (a word he never again used in conversation after his Harlem friends told him how hurtful it was) was another act of publicity-mongering and taboo-breaking; Van Vechten wrote fiction to make money, and “he knew it would get people talking—and spending.” The novel’s reception revealed a divide within the African-American community: political activists accused him of focusing the seamy side of black life; the Young Turks of the Harlem Renaissance, who often received the same criticism themselves, by and large thought he wrote honestly and empathetically, though many had private reservations about the way he depicted his two intellectual protagonists as alienated from their “primitive birthright.”

His intended audience, White points out, was not in Harlem but among the white people who wrote to him expressing their shock that there were well-educated blacks in America and that some Caucasians “go to Negro homes or receive them in their own homes as social equals.” From his earliest days as a journalist in Chicago through his groundbreaking cultural criticism in magazines like Vanity Fair to his zeitgeist-capturing novels of the ‘20s, Van Vechten saw himself as a guide for the uninitiated, the man who would show all those upright bourgeois like his parents back in Cedar Rapids how glorious their culture was in all its energy, diversity, and vulgarity. “Americans are inclined to look everywhere but under their noses for art,” he sniffed. He led them by the nose into places they were too timid to visit, all the while flourishing his superior understanding of the true nature of our national genius.

The ‘20s were his heyday, a boozy and convivial decade that shared his devotion to the art of living. His apolitical, self-consciously exquisite ethos began to look awfully old-fashioned in the Depression-wracked ‘30s, and his belief that racial equality could be achieved by inviting Negroes over for drinks became positively embarrassing as the civil rights movement surged into militant action after World War II. Independently wealthy following the deaths of his father and brother, Van Vechten in the ‘30s gave up writing and to turned portrait photography, an ideal medium for his obsession with glamour and celebrity. Private scrapbooks, mostly compiled in the ‘40s and ‘50s, recorded his anguish over the increasing demonization and persecution of homosexuals, a grim change from the relatively tolerant prewar era, when he enjoyed signaling his camp side to those savvy enough to get it.

He wasn’t happy about his loss of public stature either, and set about securing his legacy by finding permanent homes for his vast archives of photographs, manuscripts, and letters. Characteristically, he established the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale, the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature at Fisk University, a historically African-American school in Tennessee. “I thought this would interest people of the other race to go and look up things in their respective places,” [p285] he said.

“Noblesse oblige, one might call it,” comments White, “an aristocratic individualism conducive with…his desire to be seen as an exceptional man of foresight and influence.” True enough, but what makes Van Vechten truly exceptional is the way he used his foresight and influence in the service of his generous, inclusive notion of American art as an expression of “the rich diversity that made urban life in the United States so thrilling.” It’s a notion still controversial 50 years after Van Vechten’s death, as witness the ridiculous, mean-spirited furor over Coke’s Super Bowl commercial featuring a multilingual version of “America the Beautiful.” Carl Van Vechten would have loved it.