American culture is a very difficult thing to pin down because it’s drawn from so many places. In the past, there was a lot of immigration to America from all over the world. This civilization was not founded by its native inhabitants, but by an eclectic collection of people. In countries like Italy and Egypt, the art and culture of those ancient civilizations can be seen in Rome and Cairo, but there’s no equivalent in America. This raises the interesting question about the culture we are all a part of. What is “American Culture?” What makes something “American?”
Articles and videos on American artists like Winslow Homer and Daniel Chester French seem to preach on their “American-ness” or the “American-ness” of their work. Homer’s work was once called “quintessential American art,” and French was sometimes referred to as the “Dean of American sculpture.” What makes these artists different from the innumerable other American artists of their time or what sets them apart from their contemporaries? Why are these artists remembered as inherently American?
Hypothetically, the reason Homer was the paragon of “Americanism” could be because of the content of his work, not only because of his excellent skill. He depicted many scenes of average American life during his time period, but this did not make him unique. I believe the real charm behind his work lies, not in the scenes themselves, but in the figures. In “The Cotton Pickers,” two African-American women can be seen carrying out the titular action, but the interesting part is their faces. The two women both convey a sense of anger and resolution, which an article describes as the idea that even if the war happens, these women will still be doing the same thing, picking cotton. There are many examples of Homer’s figures conveying a sense of the mentality of the American people. The spirit of these women and even more characters can be felt through the forms and faces of Homer’s work. Winslow Homer embodies American art because, not only does he paint scenes from American life, he paints emotions from American culture.
Moving out of the 2D world of painting and into the 3D, the “Dean of American sculpture” Daniel Chester French is most well-known for designing the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. He also made sculptures of other classic American figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and made many other works, large and small. On the contrary to Homer, I believe that the subject of French’s work is what makes him so American. He’s sculpted iconic Americans in a way that conveyed who they were. For example, with the Lincoln Memorial, he specifically made Lincoln in a relaxed pose, seated and looking over the people. This was most likely how Lincoln would want to be seen, as a guide, not a ruler over the people. I think that French’s work is classically American, not only because it conveys the important American figures, but also because it conveys them in the way they would want to be conveyed to the public.
All this talk about what is American art raises an interesting question for me. Much of the famous artwork in American culture (no matter what we classify as our culture) is predominantly male. Most of the people in our current art class are female, but how many well-known female artists can we name in comparison to male ones? This poses an interesting paradox, are the majority of American artists women, but they aren’t recognized as much as their male counterparts. An example highlighting this fact would be Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, which recently sold for $44 million, putting her on par with her male counterparts. Why don’t we consider her a “quintessential American artist?” Her artwork is definitely the same, if not better, skill level as male artists and she is very well-known, but she’s overshadowed by artists like Homer and French. It could be an ingrained cultural phenomenon to, not ignore, but to look over great American women artists in favor of great American men artists.
Regardless of the apparent disparity in the art world for women, American art is still in the process of being turned over and analyzed. Gothic art, Hellenistic art, and Renaissance art all have their themes and similarities, but the eclectic nature of American culture makes it difficult to ascertain the foundations and archetypes of American art. Asking the right questions about what American art is can lead to very in depth, necessary discussions about why certain people are held to the “perfect American standard” and why certain people do not get that honor. Who gets to decide what American art is, and who gets to decide why?