American-ness through Art

In the following non-art-historical lucubrations about art I want to address the question of which three American artists in my view most compendiously represent three non-exhaustive categories of American-ness – of what America is all about, of what it implies to be an American, of both some of the (in my view) positives and some of the (ditto) negatives about America.

And please begin by remembering that I am not necessarily talking here about the best American artists qua artists but only in terms of each functioning like a kind of painterly synecdoche for the totality of representations of that one particular category — among very many — of American-ness I am now addressing.

The artists in question, then, are Edward Hopper (22 July 22 1882 – 15 May 15 1967), Norman Rockwell (3 February 1894 – 8 November 1978) and Jackson Pollock (28 January 1912 – 11 August 1956).  The categories of American-ness I wish to discuss today are, respectively and in chiastic order, advertising/hucksterism [Pollock], sentimentality/romanticizing [Rockwell] and aloneness/loneliness [Hopper].

True, I am not formally, by training or education, an art historian or an art critic, but I do have admittedly rather opinionated views about art.  And those more knowledgeable than I in this area may well find my comments that follow naïve, jejune, uninformed.  So be it!  I offer only opinions here, personal likes and dislikes, not timeless truths.  Take them for what they are.

I begin by asking you to have a look at these pieces: Eyes in the Heat (1946), Lucifer (1947) and Convergence (1952).  Now I ask you what you, having viewed these not atypical works of Jackson Pollock that I’ve linked to, think of Pollock’s abstract art.  My own sense is that, yes, it is certainly colorful – but so is the work of the chimpanzees Bakhari and Mwami and Cheeta.

I’ve even ventured into doing my own version of abstract art which, although neither as large nor as famous as those of Pollock (or the chimps!), does strike me as at least (almost) equally colorful, and was done with (I would urge) at least as much careful execution as Pollock’s splatter art (see ad loc. my comments on the origin of my own piece).

Are the paintings of these chimps ‘art’?  If not, why should the paintings of Pollock like those linked to above be deemed art?  Do a thought experience:  if the ‘critics’ who spun Pollock’s swirls and dribbled drippings into artist’s gold today worth millions had run the same verbal con game in the art journals and public as well as academic venues on the ‘art’ of Bakhair and Mwami and Cheeta without knowledge on the part of either the critics themselves or their readers that the ‘artists’ were chimpanzees, would these chimps have left estates worth millions?  Like Pollock, for whose painting No. 5, 1948 (cf. the similar No. 8, (1949)), for example, somebody in 2006 actually paid something in the neighborhood of 140 million dollars – yes U.S. $ 140,000,000!

And some people actually think I am crazy?

How about Feld 83/84 ‘Nails and Acrylic’ [1981/1984] by one Günther Uecker that on 24 May 2013 sold for $1,025,000 (see ARTnews Sep 2013 ad for Lempertz)?  Again, I’m crazy?

My crazy conclusion, then, is that Pollock, for all the delight one certainly may have in viewing his colorist free-associating, is famous and his art is great because ‘influential’ critics of one ilk or another have declared that his art is great and he is famous.  Personally – and it is just that, a very personal opinion, with no ad hominem implications at all – this all strikes me as a kind of pseudo-intellectual hucksterism with roots in mass-market advertising psychology that has elevated him and his art to the lofty fantasy status they currently enjoy.  He is “famous because he is famous” (as the scholar Boorstin roughly speaking had it in another context), just like that other cunning master of art-world spin, Andy Warhol.

Finally, ask yourself if Bakhair or Mwami or Cheeta – whose oeuvre seems, without written guidance, perhaps indistinguishable from that of Pollock and others in that vein (e.g., Shea Holliman, Janet Sobel, Ronnie Landfield, et al.) — could also have done paintings indistinguishable from the kind to which I call attention below in the case of Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell?

Even before getting to Norman Rockwell, I believe, upon reflection, that my initial characterization of his art as ‘sentimental/romanticizing’ is as unfair as it is inaccurate. It is a lazy assessment — one could perhaps see how it could come about – and unwarranted.  For his thinking was in a very real sense as much in a tradition of realism as was his art: unlike so many sophisticates then as now he was not hesitant about stating openly (and, in his case, doing so visually) the core values that he held – belief in God, belief in a bedrock decency of America, and a belief in American values (like, for example, Freedom of Speech [1943]).  Not only was he among the most technically competent of any American artist I can think of, but he also is a true celebrator of America and all that is good and bright about America.  Nor, for all that, did he ignore or gloss over the nation’s problems, as, perhaps most compellingly, in the famous painting known as The Problem We All Live With (1964), or, for that matter, the sorry state of the world’s mutual animosities, as in the ecumenical Golden Rule (1961).  America’s freedoms (e.g., Freedom from Want [1943]), Thanksgiving gratitude (Refugee Thanksgiving [1943]), our grade-school ‘teach’ (Teacher’s Birthday [1956]), the pick-me-up games (The Toss [1950]), first love (The Soda-Jerk [1953]), teen romance (Before the Date [1949]), marriage (The Marriage License [1955]) and family (Going and Coming [1947]), the friendly cop (The Runaway [1958]), baseball (Game Called Because of Rain [1949]), and on and on for some 47 years – yes all those warm and fuzzy centralities of American life, idealized, yes, but there they are.  And nobody before or since has captured them the way Rockwell did on some 322 covers of the Saturday Evening Post.

It is not an oeuvre to be mocked or scorned, even by distinguished university professors of art history, and I admit that I am quite profoundly moved when looking at and thinking about some of these works – for example, Refugee Thanksgiving (1943)!

Edward Hopper has been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember being more than just superficially interested in art.  If I had to pick one American artist that I (and this is just ‘me’) think best articulates on canvas what might be thought of as our unhappier side as Americans, it is Edward Hopper – just as I pick Norman Rockwell as doing the same for our happier side.  I thus reiterate here my strong sense that nobody (including David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd [1950]) has to my way of thinking ever captured our American loneliness as poignantly and pregnantly as Hopper – and that loneliness is indeed our peculiarly American loneliness that I think of as the loneliness of togetherness.  Since I have already talked about Hopper at some length elsewhere, if you are so inclined let me just send you there (“Edward Hopper and Loneliness”) to read my comments and look at many of his paintings.

One of his earlier paintings, Road in Maine (1914), kind of lays it right out near the start.  Has there ever been a lonelier road than this one winding through the green landscape, bare and bereft of any human presence? Nor is there much human closeness in the architectural paintings, like the strikingly isolated House by the Railroad (1925) or the forlorn Corn Hill (1930).  And any human presence is itself rather chillingly lonesome in its own right, as in the sad Automat  (1927), nor, it would seem, is the actual presence of another human being that much of a bulwark against loneliness, as is poignantly suggested in the spare Room in New York (1932) and his famous, iconic and unforgettable masterpiece Nighthawks (1942).

One wants to call a friend, be with someone.

Post Scriptum: The literature on these three artists is, as one might well imagine, truly enormous, and I here merely point the interested reader in a general online direction for further study of Hopper, Rockwell and Pollock – each in my view, for different but defensible reasons, truly deserving of one’s time and interest.

Post Post Scriptum:  Do have a look at “Chimpanzee shines in art competition” from The Guardian Weekly of 13 September 2013 p. 42 here!  And from “The Economist” for 21 Sep 2013 p. 12 check ‘The Emperor’s new pictures’ here!

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2 Responses to American-ness through Art

  1. julie601 says:

    Uninformed as I am about art, this post offers me one microscope in which to view it and I thank you for that. It also raises a question in my mind. Can we look at contemporary literature in the same manner? Can you name three authors on the current literary stage who portray America through those same three lenses: hucksterism, romanticism and loneliness? I wonder who they would be. The question is complicated by the fact that most writers are not free to write independent of their own heritage. Are artists? Another issue worth some consideration. juliespeaks.

  2. Bob M. says:

    Thank You Jack for this referral to your Blog and the suggested article. The human cannot keep up with his brain’s ability to apply the same thought to many subjects.

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