What’s American About American Art

Last night’s Clarice Smith Lecture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum posed the question. Adam Gopnick, American critic, essayist, commentator, and journalist, entertained the crowd very well. A writer for The New Yorker, Gopnick split the discussion into three sections. First, he considered who are American artists, then he focused on American art institutions, then concluded with a discussino about the definition of being American.

The artists he discussed including Winslow Homer, often moved into painting and other fine arts, after working in a more practical application of their artistic skill, such as illustration for newspapers. Unlike many European artists, they were not academically trained in many cases. Gopnick observed that these American art emerged in the mid-nineteenth century at a time when photography emerged to depict what painting had often been used for (showing an image). Thus, theses artists immediately faced the question of what is the purpose of art. Gopnick noted that the artists frequently made paintings that showed the abundance of American reality or the spiritual as a single white glowing oblong.

The boomerang effect between these two poles forms a major part of what is American about art. Another is that American art institutions included a wider range of items in their collections than European art galleries and museums. They showed decorative and other arts in the same gallery and hall as the “fine” arts, defining them all as part of American artistic creations. He did not discuss the origins of museums in America, which came out of the tradition of the dime museum, or the great hall of wonders, and included a wide-range of objects.

The presentation concluded with an argument to see American as not an innate biologiocal thing but a pluralistic urge that includes.

Surprisingly, Gopnick showed a small number of images. The main pieces he showed included Wayne Thiebaud’s Cakes

   and James Turrell’s light painting to illustrate the boomerang effect.

I think some people in the audience would have liked to have seen more images so that they could see things for themselves.

As a historian, I would like to see Gopnick link his thesis tohow the artists thought in the specific time and place in which they created their work. A sense of abundance in America would mean something different in the late 19th century US or even in mid-Twentieth century US, then it means to some one today. Same for the effortsd to represent the spiritual.


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