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Benton Spruance's The People Work series (1937)
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American Identity / American Art

By: Elizabeth Bigham & Andrew Pechuk.

The period that extends from the 1930s to the mid-1960s has often been construed as a complete cycle in which an American identity emerged from the hardships of the Depression, reached fruition in postwar prosperity, and crumbled amidst the social upheaval of the Great Society. A parallel view has portrayed America’s artistic production of these years as an inexorable linear progression from the conflict within American Scene painting and its abstract opposition to the dominance of the New York School, culminating in what Irving Sandler called “the triumph of American painting.” Now we are going to argue that there is neither a single persistent national identity nor a coherent movement guiding a national art. Rather, each of the three landmark decades (1930s , 1950s & 1960s) embodies a specific construction of “American identity” and “American art,” demonstrating that these are transient notions reflecting the societal needs and conditions of three distinct eras.

An examination of the three historical moments also reveals a tension within the very construction of these concepts. The abstraction signified by the term national identity can never fit seamlessly with the plurality of lived experience: ruptures and conflicts arise when many aspects of identity are excluded or ignored in order to achieve the illusion of a unified whole. Analogously, the nexus between art and identity is complex and multilayered, for an American art is never simply the literal reflection of the American identity that embraces it nor purely the ideological tool of that identity. Rather, art performs real work in society, resolving fissures between a constructed national identity and the actual conditions under which Americans live. It is this ability to encompass the dominant identity and its seemingly irresolvable contradictions and inconsistencies that makes an art emblematic of its era.

Against a backdrop of economic chaos and social collapse, the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair held out the promise of a “Happier Way of Life in the World of Tomorrow.” The fair was an attempt to demonstrate that through social engineering an ideal future America could emerge. It provided a blueprint to carry the nation beyond the traumas of the Depression by stressing only those elements of American identity that had a direct social utility. The unifying force in this progressive project was a new idea of the “people,” redefined as a collective of “average Americans” who shared the same beliefs and values. The common goal of prosperity could be achieved if these new Americans worked together in interdependent social groups.

Philip Evergoods Through the Mill, 1940.
Philip Evergood's Through the Mill, 1940.

Over the course of the fair’s two seasons, two very different notions of the “people” were promoted. The 1939 World’s Fair was based on an optimistic New Deal worldview of internationalism, progress, and urban planning. Under a different administration and in the midst of world war, the 1940 “Folk Fair” was isolationist, anti-progressive, and tradition-bound. This contention between conflicting assertions of American identity was also evident in the art at the fair. The major exhibition held in the 1939 season, “American Art Today,” was very clearly broken down into three tendencies by its organizer, Holger Cahill: “Regionalism,” “Art of Social Content,” and “Modern” or “Pure Art.” Although housed under one roof, each movement made a claim to be the “American art” of the time.

The artists who were defined as Regionalists, Social Realists, and abstractionists all recognized the primacy of social utility in their work. Each movement thought that art had a direct role in creating a better tomorrow, but ideological differences led to three conflicting visions of that tomorrow and art’s place in its realization. Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood rejected what they considered the debilitating effects of European-influenced urban culture, which had eroded central American values and brought about the current ills. Thomas Craven declared that “if we are ever to have an indigenous expression, it will be an art proceeding from strong native impulses, simple ideas, and popular tastes. …” By purging foreign influence and embracing specifically “American” characteristics in both form and content, Regionalism posed itself as the only art that could put the nation back on the right track. Artists with left-wing political allegiances, generically described as Social Realists, opposed the advancement of a regional art. They believed that in an America plagued by economic and political conflict, an art that did not clearly delineate social problems was either romantic or escapist. In focusing on the hardships and disruptions that defined the present, their art called for a more just American order. Even abstract art, generally thought to be self-referential and unconnected to a social agenda, made a claim for its progressive possibilities. The American Abstract Artists (AAA) announced in a letter to Art Front that “abstract art does not end in a private chapel. Its positive identification with life has brought a profound change in our environment and in our lives.” For George L.K. Morris, abstract paintings could promote psychological healing: “in a period of chaos like the present, there will be many who can recover emotional stability in the presence of such works as these.”

Raphael Soyers The Mission, c. 1935.
Raphael Soyer's The Mission, c. 1935.

Within “American Art Today,” the conflicto extended not only to the function of an American art but also to whom this art should represent. Several versions of the average American appeared as representative figures of the opposing artistic projects. Social Realist paintings portrayed the urban proletariat in many guises—as workers, strikers, and dispossessed. Philip Evergood’s Through the Mill (1940) defines the work experience as the central determinant of identity in the capitalist system. Conversely, Raphael Soyer’s The Mission (c. 1935) demonstrates the extreme consequences of the absence of work for the structuring of identity. The Regionalist art at the fair sought to construct a very different average American, a stalwart provincial with strong ties to the soil and simple needs and pleasures. Images such as Benton’s I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain (1938) abound with the activities that define the “folk” identity-harvesting, fiddle playing, dancing.

The abstract art at the fair eschewed such specific definitions of “American,” positing instead the hope for a new and harmonious world in which conflicting identities would cease to be an issue. The work of Byron Browne and other members of the AAA emphasized continuity with contemporary modes of European modernism. Pared down geometric forms, interacting in measured relationships within a logical and ordered space, represented the first step toward a universal language. This visual Esperanto did not exist in a formalist vacuum. Set against the fragmentation of worldwide depression, the rise of Fascism, and impending world war, it sought to unite Americans and bind them with the rest of the anti-fascist world.

Bentons <em>I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain</em>, 1938.
Benton's I Got a Gal on Sourwood Mountain, 1938.

This search for unity underlay all attempts to move from Depression to prosperity. In both “American Art Today” and the larger model of the fair, identity was perceived to be a group phenomenon: the “average American” could only work for change as part of a larger social unit with common beliefs, needs, and goals. The American yeomen in the lithographs of Benton and Curry flourish in self-sufficient farming communities, and in Wood’s Dinner for Threshers (1933), the farmers, their wives, and children work together as a collective to satisfy the modest desires of the group. Inherent to these united social formations is a strong sense of interdependence and a celebration of productivity, but in the Regionalist vision these goals can only be achieved by ignoring the conflicting identities of the vast majority of Americans outside the boundaries of these idyllic rural constructs. Social Realist images, by contrast, demonstrate the potential strength of the urban working class as a social force, whether at labor, as in Benton Spruance’s The People Work series (1937), or taking direct action for social justice in strikes and demonstrations. However, in William Gropper’s lithographs The Witness (1940) and Sweatshop (1934), the focus on corruption and the conflicto between capital and labor illustrates that the divisiveness of class interests makes social cooperation an impossibility under American capitalism.

Woods <em>Dinner for Threshers</em>, 1933.
Wood's Dinner for Threshers, 1933.
Benton Spruances <em>The People Work</em> series, 1937.
Benton Spruance's The People Work series, 1937.
William Groppers <em>Sweatshop</em>, 1934.
William Gropper's Sweatshop, 1934.

Although the notion of interdependence was integral to the art of the fair, neither the Regionalists, the Social Realists, nor the abstractionists achieved the fair organizers’ vision of the “interdependence of men of every class and function.” This ideal future was physically represented in the exhibition “Democracity,” housed in the theme center of the fair. A depiction of the typical American city in the year 2039, “Democracity” was a perfectly integrated metropolis that made the advantages of progress available to all. The exhibition ended with an audiovisual spectacle in which masses of farmers, workers, and schoolchildren sang in unison of the “brave new world, Tomorrow’s world, That we shall build today.”

The socially engineered perfection of “Democracity” was widely ridiculed by critics of the day. Its message of a future Utopia was de-emphasized in the “Folk Fair” of 1940, which stressed far more pedestrian entertainments as a palliative for a people plagued by economic hardship and the specter of war. And just as an ideal America united by interdependence was to prove impossible, no single art achieved recognition as the national art. Each of the rival movements provided only partial satisfaction, and none engendered the cultural resolutions that could foster a true sense of unity.

It has often been said that the two driving forces in the United States of the 1950s were the quests for prosperity at home and prestige abroad. Concurrent with the massive infusión of American aid to a prostrate Europe was the export of what a group of senators in 1950 called a “worldwide Marshall plan in the field of ideas.” A key element in this propaganda effort was The International Council at The Museum of Modern Art and the United States Information Agency’s sponsorship of traveling exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism. The most notable was “The New American Painting,” which toured Western Europe in 1958 and returned home to The Museum of Modern Art in 1959.

Inherent to the requirement that all the world be made safe for democracy was an attempt to package the American for consumption both at home and abroad. That Abstract Expressionism proved to be ideally suited to fulfill the ideological goals of this project seems at first unlikely, since it was characterized as apolitical, antithetical to core American values, and alienated from the era’s homogeneous identity.

The first major USA-sponsored exhibition to tour Europe in the immediate postwar era was significantly titled “Advancing American Art” (1947). Using the rhetoric of contemporary foreign policy, it laid out a clear agenda for the role of American culture. Hugo Weisgall wrote in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue: “the younger artists today have very little to do with the localism of the thirties. They tend toward an internationalism more in harmony with post-war ideas.

… All this has nothing to do with politics, but is an expression of the prophetic function

of art which has been heralding the idea of ‘one world’ from the beginning of the century.” In the context of America’s hegemonic position in 1947, terms such as “internationalism,” “nothing to do with politics,” and “one world” cannot be deemed value-free, but instead are buzzwords cloaking the inception of a distinctly American world.

Mark Tobey, <em>White Journey</em>, 1956.
Mark Tobey, White Journey, 1956.

The discourse that surrounded Abstract Expressionism mirrored the language of American expansionism. A public statement made by some members of the movement declared, “Now that America is recognized as the center where art and artists of all the world meet, it is time for us to accept cultural values on a global scale.” Rejecting the socially committed precedent of the Depression era, artists like Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock searched for a universal symbolism. Their work was said to partake in the mythic Jungian store of the collective consciousness of all humanity. They sought a language of pure ideas, abstract concepts, and absolute emotion, drawing from sources as varied as the Southwest Indian art that influenced Pollock and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism that informed the work of Mark Tobey. The search for a transcendent meaning beyond the temporality of politics or nationalism was a formulation with significant political relevance in the global dynamic. The only implicit content ascribed to Abstract Expressionism was an aggrandizement of personal freedom, a direct link to the essence of human existence that was parallel to America’s perceived monopoly on individual liberty. As Alfred H. Barr, Jr., said of the Abstract Expressionist artists in the catalogue for “The New American Painting,” “they are not politically engages even though their paintings have been praised and condemned as symbolic demonstrations of freedom in a world in which freedom connotes a political attitude.”

However, in the era of McCarthyism, Abstract Expressionism was not an uncontroversial choice as the embodiment of America’s political agenda. It was violently attacked by its critics as antithetical to American values, and many of its artists were branded political undesirables. In the words of George A. Dondero, the Republican Congressman from Michigan, who led the fight against oficial sanction for this work, “art which does not glorify our beautiful country in plain, simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government, and those who create and promote it are our enemies.” However, more enlightened cold warriors, including those in the CIA’s cultural division, recognized that the hostility this work engendered at home could be put into the service of America’s cold war agenda. In sending Abstract Expressionism abroad, the nation demonstrated that it was open to dissent and was truly the citadel of liberty. And as a new and specifically American avant-garde superseding the School of Paris, the New York School could claim for the nation its place as the inheritor of Western culture.

Another factor that seemed to prevent Abstract Expressionism’s acceptance as the “American art” of the cold war was its declared alienation from the homogeneous construction of American identity that characterized this period. The Abstract Expressionist project was a violent reaction against “Eisenhower conformity” by artists who saw themselves as isolated and solitary. Robert Motherwell defined alienation as the formative relationship of their work: “the ‘gesture’ was, so to speak, that of an artiststanding alone before the Absolute…”

This alienation was not only existential but described the radical artist’s position in society. Clement Greenberg outlined the conditions under which the avant-garde was forced to labor: “Their isolation is inconceivable, crushing, unbroken, damning… What can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?”

But the sense of anxiety that defined the Abstract Expressionists’ place in the social order was seen by others to be a fundamental quality of cold war existence. I.F Stone referred to this era as the “haunted fifties” because of the unmistakable social tensions

behind the facade of homogeneity. America, believing itself to be endangered by Communist aggression, internal sabotage, and the threat of nuclear war, feared that its unrivaled power and prosperity could suddenly disappear. But as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued, the only alternative to the free man “devoured by alienation” was the totalitarian automaton, “ruthless, determined, extroverted, free from doubts or humility.” The frightening consequences of this dichotomy were manifested by the many who, anticipating the onslaught of the “red hordes,” practiced civil defense in underground bomb shelters.

However, anxiety and alienation did not have to be debilitating. In the discourse surrounding Abstract Expressionism, the triumph of the New York School artists was located precisely in their ability to stare those fears directly in the face. Harold Rosenberg, in his essay “Parable of American Painting,” claimed Jackson Pollock as a modern Daniel Boone, venturing out into an unchartered and dangerous aesthetic wilderness. In this formulation, alienation was no longer the curse

of freedom, but was an expression of heroic American individualism. Thus, Abstract Expressionism was able to efface the contradiction between an optimistic Pax Americana that attempted to posit a homogeneous American identity and the underlying tensions and fears that were an inextricable symptom of this construct.

Robert Indianas <em>USA 66</em>6, 1964-66.
Robert Indiana's USA 666, 1964-66.

The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair appeared at a crossroads of shifting emphases about the essentials of American identity:’ John Kennedy’s optimistic New Frontier, an extension of the messianic postwar urge to export American ideals to all corners of the earth, was by the mid-1960s confronting the realization that “soulless wealth” and unrestrained progress would not produce Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. While continuing prosperity maintained a certain unity within the nation, the refusal of ignored elements of American society to remain invisible was to prove a divisive force. The impossibility of effacing the underside of the American Dream made it difficult for the fair organizers to formulate a coherent agenda, and they ultimately decided to salvage the remaining vestiges of the optimistic postwar identity-business and consumerism.

The fair’s rampant materialism was widely condemned, especially as it left little room

for art. The Fair Corporation insisted that all exhibitions of art be privately sponsored, and the only significant contemporary display was the Pop Art decoration on the exterior of the New York State Pavilion. While art’s role in the fair was minor, the theme park appearance of the exhibition grounds was described as a gallery of Pop Art turned inside out. But the “Pop Fair” reflected only one aspect of Pop Art, its celebration of American consumer society.

By the mid-1960s, it was apparent that Coke and other icons of American consumerism were far more effective representations of the nation’s worldwide dominance than the direct propaganda of the Marshall Plan had ever been. Pop Art reinforced the particularly American genius of the packaging, advertising, and marketing of the nation’s abundant material production, adding to the perception

that America’s greatness lay in its prosperity. This art depicted the common images in which America recognized its own distinct identity: Warhol’s packaged goods, Oldenburg’s fast food, Lichtenstein’s comics, Rosenquist’s billboards, Indiana’s road signs. As Claes Oldenburg said of his work, “I am for Kool Art, 7-Up Art, Pepsi Art, Sunkist Art…”.

Beyond elevating the imagery of consumer society to the status of high culture, Pop Art employed the methods of mass production. Serial imagery, silkscreening and other mechanical processes, and the use of assemblyline products brought about a fundamental shift in the function of art. No longer was a work unique, the result of long, agonized hours in the studio; it could be part of a series and churned out quickly. The immediate accessibility of these images also led to their almost instant acceptance, which radically changed the role of the artist. As Allan Kaprow commented in 1964, “if the artista was in hell in 1946, now he is in business.”

James Rosenquists <em>Somewhere to Light</em> , 1966.
James Rosenquist's Somewhere to Light , 1966.

While Pop Art celebrated the mass society it depicted, its approach was cool and distanced. Rather than aggrandize personal freedom, it portrayed the limited freedom to be a consumer, to choose between Brand names. This was exactly the form of liberty that the “Pop Fair” promoted. Upon entering the grounds, one saw inscribed on the facade of the Hall of Free Enterprise the slogan “The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number,” followed by the fair’s presentation of this concept-the multitude of synthetics at DuPont, the limitless uses of electricity at GE, the worship of currency at American Express’ “Money Tree,” and the wonder of advanced information technology at Bell and IBM.

Unlike the fair, however, Pop Art criticized the ethos of business and consumerism-the emptiness of a culture whose values were entirely material. It sought to expose the sort of world that the American Dream had created, a two-dimensional landscape of billboards, highway signs, and mass-media images that bombarded Americans with a plethora of instructions telling them what to want, do, think, and wish for. Andy Warhol commented glibly on the end product of this process: “Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine.” The ideals which America had long used to define its unique identity-plenty, equality, progresswere reduced to the level of cliche in the play of three-letter words in Robert Indiana’s USA 666 (1964-66) and the hollow slickness of James Rosenquist’s Somewhere to Light (1966). The fair, meanwhile, emphasized the very elements of American culture that Pop critiqued to a level many found absurd.

GM’s Futurama was the epitome of this tendency: it depicted dwellings in five unspoiled regions -the rain forest, the ocean, floor, the desert, the mountaintop, the moon- but also envisioned an antiseptic future city of massive freeways and skyscrapers.

It portrayed American wealth and progress venturing out to conquer the “dark

places of the earth” and creating at home a sterile, mechanized society that was inhospitable and claustrophobic. Another criticism was beginning to emerge in some Pop works of the mid-1960s, a criticism that did more than attack America’s smug glorification of technological progress and material comfort. These works sought to reveal that racism, violence, and the suppression of difference were irreducible components of American society. The admission that there was a rottenness inherent in America’s egalitarian founding principles was threatening enough to be censored by the fair’s administrators. Andy Warhol’s original project for the New York State Pavilion, Thirteen Most Wanted Men, took actual mugshots of mafioso figures from FBI wanted posters and blew them up to mural size. This work was a clear reference to America’s position as the international capital of violent crime. Warhol’s treatment of criminals in the same manner as he had portrayed Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy pointed to the disturbing equivalence of celebrity and infamy in America’s social hierarchy. “Nowadays,” Warhol commented, “if you’re a crook you’re still considered up-there. . . . This is because more than anything people just want stars.”

Andy Warhols <em>Thirteen Most Wanted Men</em>, 1964.
Andy Warhol's Thirteen Most Wanted Men, 1964.

Warhol’s mural was destroyed, literally whitewashed, before the opening ceremonies. Governor Rockefeller claimed that he ordered the destruction because the mural was offensive to Italian-Americans and he feared mob reprisals. But clearly the image depicted one of the aspects of American identity that the fair and the culture at large were desperate to suppress. Other “difficult” identities intruded on the fair’s retrograde construction of America. On opening day, three hundred civil rights demonstrators were arrested for protesting the racist nature of the fair’s employment policy, which excluded minorities from all positions of power; a group called Women’s Strike for Peace, chanting “No More Hiroshimas,” called for the immediate end to America’s involvement in Vietnam. These events foreshadowed the crises that were to break apart the homogeneous postwar identity.

Pop Art was able to simultaneously occupy both laudatory and critical stances toward American consumer society. It was predicated on the notion that a celebration of seductive materialism was inseparable from a repugnance for hyperconsumption and empty wish-fulfillment. Pop’s ability to encompass this ambivalence within a single work of art permitted a tenuous yet cohesive construction of American identity, which could not be achieved within the fair’s one-dimensional presentation. However, the criticism implicit in works such as Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men foretold the shift in both Pop Art and society at large from the conflicted Great Society to the fragmentation of the late 1960s, when war and civil strife would tear apart any semblance of a unified American identity.

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  • […] “American Identity / American Art” de Elizabeth Bigham y Andrew Pechuk, desentrama las tensiones y enfrentamientos artísticos e institucionales, que dieron forma a la concepción del arte estadounidense moderno en las décadas decisivas de los años treinta a los años sesenta del siglo pasado. […]

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