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American Art Turns Inward
Over a year ago I wrote regarding American art. I discussed those distinctly "American" qualities peculiar to American art, such as a fondness for large size artwork; art that is in some way functional; and art that is literal. These aspects have, to one degree or another, and in different forms, held sway pretty much over the course of all of American art history. If we peer back through that history all the way to colonial times, we find that first and foremost, the functional aspect of art was most prominent, as evidenced in the large number of colonial era portraits. A similar trait could be found it Colonial sign painting, tombstones, and weather vanes. All were decorative to a degree, but primarily they were functional. Even the portrait served the function of passing down from one generation to the next the physical likeness of ancestors to their descendants.

During the toddler years of this great nation, there came to the fore America's love of the land. And why not, there was so much of it, raw, threatening, unlimited, and strikingly beautiful--the stuff great art is made of. The landscape replaced the portrait on the walls of the elegant, European-style drawing rooms of the East as well as the raucous taverns of the West. So long as there was still a frontier there was an unlimited pool of subject matter from the Hudson River School in the East to the Taos School in the West. To be sure, there were traces of European influence creeping in from time to time (such as Impressionism) but this country's landscape painting of the nineteenth century was unabashedly American.

With the dawn of the 20th century, our artwork began to look inward, rather than outward, first at our cities, as in the Ashcan School; at ourselves, as in the Regionalism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton; then at the social and political institutions as seen by Ben Shahn, Jack Levine, and Edward Hopper. And finally, American art in the middle years of the century turned more and more inward, exploring that which was within the individual even as our affinity with sheer size became more and more apparent. Abstraction allowed the individual to probe within himself or herself for the content of the work, whether it be the same or different from what the artist intended. And more recently, with the dawn of the Post-modern era, American art has become quite self-conscious, revelling in its own existence, not only aware of its own pretensions but exalting them, revisiting and reviving its past but also reviling and revising it, in search of its future. From Stuart to Star Wars, from Pop to popcorn Americans have preserved the past, promoted the present, and predicted the future in a shrinking nation dominating a shrinking world of art and culture that is more and more American.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 June 1999


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