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Seeking an American Essence in Art

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

Washington's about to see the reopening of two newly renovated Smithsonian museums: The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Both are dedicated, one way or another, to Americanness. And also to art. Forging convincing, sophisticated ties between the country and its pictures is one of their great challenges. It's also where they stand to be most interesting, even when they fail.

The museums don't manage to elucidate some essentially American culture -- because no such thing can or should exist, especially in a country as young and big and plural as this one. But they manage to do something just as important. They show the country and its artists, and even sometimes today's curators, busily constructing what it is to be American, and investing in the building of some kind of national identity. American pictures -- but only some, at certain times -- have set about defining what Americanness is supposed to be.

The whole idea of some kind of more fundamental "Americanness," seeping into all our art the way the landscape of Bordeaux seeps into its wines, falls apart as soon as you start testing it.

What if it turned out, for instance, that all of Jackson Pollock's pictures were actually painted by a Frenchman -- a certain Jacques Saint-Paul Oc -- who got a hard-drinking young American to flog them for him? Someone would be bound to insist that only a Frenchman could have managed all that insouciant paint-dripping, with its Gallic joie de vivre and a soup?on of panache .

Or how about if Pollock were German? Those angstfully expressionist canvases, painted just after the destruction of World War II, clearly speak of a flattening of everything that came before, of protean foundations that could lead to either equal-opportunity democracy or leveling communism.

Could his pictures even be Canadian? A snowstorm of paint, but also a happy mixing of many different forces to produce a pleasant unity.

Of course, it could indeed be that Pollock's art is American. But who could ever say for sure, merely from looking at it?

As anthropologist Michael Herzfeld put it, speaking from his office at Harvard, Americans have "the assumption that if we are all members of the nation-state, we're in some transcendent way alike" -- but that is an assumption, he says, that he and his colleagues have been questioning for years. He acknowledges that their doubts have yet to hit the country's mainstream culture.

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In our National Portrait Gallery, the quest for an American identity happens quite explicitly. The museum is officially dedicated to talking about America through its "significant" Americans; saying anything about the art that shows them -- even as an emblem of "Americanness" -- comes a distant second. The gallery's pictures of Americans don't even have to be by Americans to get on the walls. Edgar Degas, working at his most French, does the job just fine -- so long as his Gallic talents are being used to reveal an American as significant as Mary Cassatt. (Though she spent most of her working life in Paris as one of the official French impressionists, and Degas painted her there.)

The fact that there's no claim that the art is especially American, or even especially good -- only a tiny fraction of its artists come anywhere close to Degas -- doesn't simplify the museum's artful task of using it to give us a big-picture view of America.

Curators have dedicated a deluxe suite of galleries to the nation's presidents. Many scholars, however, would say that such a "great man" view of history shortchanges the true shapers of a country. It neglects the nameless people who find new ways to till the land and raise their kids and work assembly lines -- and who, in America especially, are supposed to be the ones who choose the leaders tasked with realizing the public's dreams.

The gallery's assembled presidents may not necessarily tell us much about the actual shaping of the nation or its "character." But their pictures, gathered together in a publicly funded museum, do show us how much even a democratic nation can invest in hero worship. A kind of aristocracy of power is given pride of place in our National Portrait Gallery -- and that fact may tell us more about ourselves than any bunch of famous people's faces could.

After all, regardless of whom you choose to highlight -- the museum includes galleries of entertainers and sports stars -- it's not easy to see how simply showing the faces of Americans, prominent or not, could ever really tell us much about the country's self. Imagine switching labels so George Washington winds up looking like John Adams and George Gershwin like John Steinbeck. Would a visitor seeing that topsy-turvy world really come away with a very altered vision of what is it to be American? We like to see the faces of our heroes, because it lets us talk about them -- even if it hardly changes the things we're likely to say. That conversation always depends on documents and historical artifacts, rather than art. We'll use portraits to confirm the things we know, but we would never dismiss the heartiness of Teddy Roosevelt just because some artist made him look effete.

* * *

To really find out about America -- about the place it thinks it is, about the ideas that built it and were built by it -- you're better off with the huge mishmash of art presented across the hall from the Portrait Gallery, in the close to 1,000 works displayed in the permanent-collection galleries of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

American Art doesn't have a grand pile of great masterpieces. It holds a few major artists in real depth (Albert Pinkham Ryder and George Catlin, for instance) and has fine holdings in African American and folk art. Otherwise, it tends to have at most a couple or three significant works by many of the classic figures and one or none at all by others.

So if the museum isn't an American Louvre -- not, that is, a museum to be visited only to revel in a huge spread of our very greatest art -- what comes out of the showing and telling that it does?

Not a single coherent vision of Americanness, or of American art. Culture doesn't follow national borders -- a wealthy Manhattanite is likely to have way more in common with a well-heeled Londoner than with a Mormon from rural Utah.

In fact, the striking thing about most of the work on view at American Art is how closely it lines up with the way art has always been made and used by the Old World elites of Europe. You could tuck many of SAAM's pictures into a European museum, and nobody would leap right up and say, "Hey, what's all that Americanness doing here?"

Notable American talents, including pioneers Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, have done some of their best work in Europe, and slipped seamlessly into its artistic currents. When they returned home -- or when their European colleagues settled on these shores -- the work didn't change much.

But occasionally the work has changed, and that's the really interesting fact. It wasn't fundamentally transformed, in how it looks and works at some kind of unconscious level, under the influence of some kind of "American spirit." Instead it shifted very deliberately, in what it talked about. Working at the very moment in history when the new notion of the nation-state was taking over, the first American artists sometimes chose to use their pictures to define what America was supposed to mean.

Herzfeld explains that anthropologists identify a process whereby the "highly contingent" political and cultural ideals of any national identity often come to be "naturalized." Carefully constructed notions of American identity, for instance, are made to seem "natural" and necessary, a part of the unavoidable mental landscape that comes from living in this particular place. Paintings of American nature, in particular, have long been used to shape our psychic terrain.

When John James Audubon paints his great picture of a noble bird he names a "Washington Sea-Eagle" -- a species whose very existence may have been the product of some patriotic wishful thinking -- he's careful to include in the untamed background a ship flying the Stars and Stripes. This bit of American nature isn't simply in our land . It's of our nation the way the flag is.

One of the most impressive pictures at American Art is the 10-foot-wide canvas called "Among the Sierra Nevada, California." It gets a room all to itself, where it sits majestically framed in gold, set off between lavish theatrical curtains -- rather as it would have been presented when it made a profitable tour of Europe, and then the United States, in the years after 1868. That was when the German-born painter and showman Albert Bierstadt had cobbled together his giant "American" painting -- while he was in London, using sketches of Swiss mountains and bits and pieces of Western wilderness and traditional ideas of what a beautiful landscape painting should look like. It gives an artifice-filled, manufactured image of an archetypally "American" moment, made more convincingly present by including rushing water (that may never have rushed) and flitting reflections (that can never have flitted). And it is a moment that, even if it had existed in reality, would have been (still is, mostly) foreign to the daily experience of the vast majority of Americans.

Bierstadt's picture stands for a deliberate building of nationhood that plays out across the whole museum.

Tying art to America, and to the events and ideas that are supposed to have mattered most to the American psyche, happens more deliberately in these galleries than in most other "national" museums -- in Germany or England, Norway or Canada. That may be because few other countries have had as much invested in ideas of coherent nationhood, and a less obviously coherent nation to build them around.

The collection opens with a blast of all-American fervor, in the form of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi's original 1880s maquette for the Statue of Liberty (made by an entirely French artist, incidentally). But after that the works at American Art proceed more or less chronologically from the 1600s on, divided up not just by century or movement -- the standard way to tell the story of artistic change -- but also by historical epochs peculiar to America. There's the art of "The American Colonies," of "The New Republic" and of "The Gilded Age." There's a gallery of "Antebellum Art" and a space that represents "The Civil War" by cutting across the middle of the whole suite of second-floor galleries. The thick volume published for the museum's reopening is essentially a quick trot through American history. Its lavish reproductions feel almost like they're only there as illustrations for that simple history lesson.

Many of the pieces on show in the museum are busily at work "Americanizing" European traditions: There are a bunch of iffy marbles that seem to cross Indian "squaws" and "braves" and "chiefs" with ancient Greek gods. There are also plenty of landscape paintings, good and often bad, that set out to demonstrate the nature of our unique Home on the Range. (Interestingly, the most thoroughly Europeanized countrysides of the East Coast, which early English settlers worked so hard to craft, are slighted in the country's later art. They fail to signify as symbols of a distinct nationhood.)

But there are also pictures, plenty of pictures, that refuse to flesh out a particularly American story. The roomful of glorious Pinkham Ryders tend to live in the artist's head more than in the public space of national identity. A delightful 1909 painting by Frederick Carl Frieseke, of a roly-poly redhead wearing nothing but slippers, would stand better for exhausted European decadence than for any notably American virtue or vice or aesthetic. It would make a perfect illustration of the title character in Emile Zola's scandalous "Nana," the famous Frenchman's deliciously salacious tale of courtesans in Paris.

And once you get to the museum's galleries of modern and contemporary art, there's often a sense that works are keen to address new issues of the international avant-garde, rather than local concerns.

When later works do seem to register ideas -- or fictions -- of national identity, it's often only to pull them apart, almost the way a Harvard anthropologist might want to do today.

A painted collage made by Tom Wesselmann in 1962 is an ironic compendium of classically American symbols, as clipped from the nation's advertising imagery: The giant Sunday roast on a gingham tablecloth, the ice-cold beer, classic green bottles of Coke. By the time of pop art, pictures such as this were clearly set on questioning the "American way" that earlier art had helped define.

In the early 1970s, with the country still swamped in Vietnam, photographer Lee Friedlander began to shoot a huge series of images called "The American Monument." They helped establish him as one of the country's greatest artists, worthy of being shown in depth at our national art museum. Their central theme, you could say, is destabilized American identity, and it affects these pictures right down to the chaos of their compositions.

One of the crucial functions of this art museum, at its best, is to let us witness the rise of Americanness as an ideal in art. And also its collapse.

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