• U.S.


4 minute read
Robert Hughes

The United States of America is an immigrant society, and has been since the beginnings of European settlement in the late 16th century. English, French, Spanish, Italians, Africans, Chinese, Japanese and everyone else have been carrying parts of their past, their inherited or remembered culture, into America for the past 400 years. As a result, American art tells the American story: Americans, like any other people, inscribe their histories, beliefs, attitudes, desires and dreams in the images they make.

At first, the story is one of displacement and adaptation. The severe, timber-framed houses of the New England Puritans are the same houses that were built in Old England, in East Anglia, in the 17th century, because that was what the Puritans knew how to build. The Fraktur paintings and the massive decorated schranks, or family wardrobes, made by the Pennsylvania Dutch were German decorative arts, transplanted. When a Virginia sotweed planter in 1750 wanted a portrait of his successful self, he chose an artist who could do a passable version of what was fashionable in England and hung it in the saloon of a house whose Anglo-Palladian design had been based on a pattern book by the English architect James Gibbs.

The fact of immigration lies behind America’s worship of origins, its intense if erratic piety about the past–which combines sometimes with a perplexing indifference to its lessons. In America the past becomes totemic, and is always in a difficult relationship to the great central myth of American culture, the idea of progress and newness.

For the New World really was new, at least to its European conquerors and settlers. It fostered a passionate belief in reinvention and in the power to make things up as you go along, which is an important form of freedom. This and a hankering for origins are both strong, contradictory urges. They produce closely twined feelings: on the one hand a sense of freedom to act in the present and future, and on the other a nostalgia for the past. These lie at the heart of all immigrant experience and are summed up in America as nowhere else. The art Americans have made often testifies to this.

A culture raised in immigration, through the piling of arrival upon arrival in an adopted land, cannot escape feelings of alienness. A faith in redemptive newness is what makes up for the whisper of unease at the loss of origins. Both are present in the growth of American art and architecture, which begin weakly and derivatively in the 17th century but acquire seemingly irrefutable power by the late 20th.

Not all of America’s story is in its art, of course. How could it be? That would be too much to ask of art. And some of the best art made in America has been completely silent about its social context–although there are times when silence itself can be read as a significant act of sublimation. There’s very little visual art, for instance, that directly deals with slavery. Or, to take another example, here is a country founded on religious impulses–Puritanism in the Northeast, Spanish Catholic missions in the Southwest–which nevertheless has hardly produced any major doctrinally religious work of art.

The story is a long, rich and complicated one because American culture is older than people tend to think. Americans love to invoke the idea of American newness, but neither the place nor its visual culture is new: Boston is older than St. Petersburg.

In the pages that follow, you will not find anything like a systematic history of American art. Rather, think of this issue’s seven major sections, or chapters, as slices across spans of cultural time, and of the works of art as lenses through which one can glimpse aspects of American character, hopes, fears and aspirations.

The aspects we have chosen as our themes are the impulse to create meanings for the (at first) unfamiliar panoply of American nature; the “American grain” of direct, pragmatic vision and craftsmanship; the urge to visionary expression of spiritual experience; the wish to implant grandeur in society; the move into cities and the obsession with their heroic technology; the desire to commemorate events and remember exemplary people; and the fondness for breaking (and defending) cultural molds.

None of these is uniquely American. All take on a peculiarly American cast. “What, then,” asked a visiting Frenchman, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, back in the 1780s, “is this American, this new man?” The things and images in these pages represent some of the ways in which Americans themselves have created their partial and sometimes contradictory answers to that riddle.

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