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The Western Round Table on Modern Art (1949)
Edited by Douglas MacAgy

The following abstract of proceedings of the Western Round Table on Modern Art aims at a balanced treatment of topics covered and a fair representation of individual contributions to each topic. For the convenience of writers who may wish to comment on the symposium, material in this abstract is grouped by topic. All direct quotations in the present digest have been checked in transcript and approved by each contributor, but the indirect quotations, omissions and re-arrangement are the sole responsibility of the editor.


George Boas (Moderator): Philosopher; Professor of History of Philosophy, John Hopkins University; Trustee, Baltimore Museum of Art.

Gregory Bateson: Cultural anthropologist, Lecturer, Langley Porter Clinic of the University of California Medical School; authority on Bali and New Guinea.

Kenneth Burke: Literary Critic, philosopher, novelist; Professor, Benning College, Vermont.

Marcel Duchamp: Artist.

Alfred Frankenstein: Critic; Music and Art Editor, San Francisco Chronicle.

Robert Goldwater: Critic and Art Historian; Editor, Magazine of Art; Associate Professor of Art, Queens College.

Darius Milhaud: Composer and conductor; Professor of Composition, Mills College.

Andrew C. Richie
: Art Historian and critic; Director, Department of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art.

Arnold Schoenburg
: Composer.

Mark Tobey: Artist.

Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect.

(Note: Quotation marks are used for all statements made directly by members of the symposium. Sections cut from a given statement are indicated by a row of dots. Chronological gaps are shown by a separate line of asterisks. Editorial paraphrases and indirect quotations appear outside quotation marks. Editorial observations are enclosed by parentheses.)

The Western Round Table on Modern Art met in San Francisco, April 8, 9 and 10, 1949.

The object of the Round Table was to bring a representation of the best informed opinion of the time to bear on questions about art today (1949). A set of neat conclusions, as to the outcome of the conference, was neither expected nor desired. Rather, it was hoped that progress would be made in the exposure of hidden assumptions, in the uprooting of obsolete ideas, and in the framing of new questions.

Two quotations may emphasize this intention. Alfred North Whitehead pointed out, in discussing the basic assumptions by which we live, that ". . . assumptions may appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occured to them."

Pursuing this statement, Suzanne Langer wrote that "a philosophy is characterized more by the formulation of its problems than by its solution of them. Its answers established an edifice of facts; but its questions make the frame in which its picture of facts is plotted."

Judgement of what was said at the Round Table is invited in terms of these general purposes.

Describing the meeting later, one of the participants put it this way: "There in that room, were a bunch of guys trying to think. We were most of us prima donnas, and from time to time we stopped thinking to try to pull off an epigram. But still––a bunch of guys trying to think. Still more difficult, we were trying to think aloud and trying to communicate with each other––trying to get things clear that have never been gotten clear."


Three sessions were scheduled for the first two days; an unscheduled fourth session was added the third day at the request of some participants. The second session was open by invitation to the public and to members of the San Francisco Art Association; the three other sessions were closed.

All sessions were transcribed by two court reporters and also recorded on wire. Conference time totaled nine hours. The typed transcript was then corrected and approved by each contributor.

Sets of photographic reproductions of works in this exhibition were made in advance and sent to members of the symposium for preparatory reference. During the discussion, points were illustrated from time to time by examples in the exhibition. At the onset, however, it was decided that lengthy devotion to analysis of specific works of art would emphasize individual preference and idiosyncrasy at the expense of ideas with the possibilities of wider and deeper implication.

A special exhibition of modern art was assembled for the event and shown concurrently at the San Francisco Museum of Art, where the meetings were held. A list of works in the exhibition is appended to the abstract.

The Round Table and its Exhibition were organized by Douglas MacAgy, then Director of the California School of Fine Arts.


The abstract contains approximately 18 percent of the total words counted in the complete transcript.



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