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What is “American” in American art?
Thoughts on the Whitney Biennial

by Barbara Novak

The Whitney Biennial has been notably challenged lately for including European artists in a show at a Museum of American Art. But such critiques misunderstand the nature of the question “What is American in American Art?”

“American” is not a nationally distilled “ingredient” injected into our art by virtue of birth or citizenship, but a culturally complex manner of thinking and doing that is recognizable throughout the development of American Art. The properties that can be denoted as “European” within the context of American art works ebb and flow depending on how internationally involved America and its artists are at any given time. For 50 years or so American artists have been part of larger international movements, often leading the way. The recent global aspects of our economy, our politics, and our media, with world-wide television and internet access have also affected the international art scene.

Beyond this, there is no country in the world as multicultural – at least in our urban areas where most of the significant art is produced – as America with its immigrant forbears and inhabitants. Though the more rural American heartland holds strongly to some so-called “American” aspects developed in the nineteenth century, our urban areas have embraced multiculturalism and stopped worrying about “what is American.”

Having said this, one familiar with the history of American art, and with the properties in that art that have formed continuing patterns over time, can discover even in this Whitney Biennial works that are clear products of American art and culture. When they reappear in European guise it is sometimes, though not always, a matter of American influence going the other way, as well as a testament to the present global aspects of cultural interaction. There is a fluidity between cultures here, that would seem to make the question of “what is American” even more irrelevant, were it not for some continued need – worth investigating in itself – to understand the history of our cultural identity, with all its paradoxes and contradictions.

If we were to isolate one work that proclaims its “Americanness” most potently, it is the Peace Tower by Mark di Suvero and Rikrit Tiravanija, and about 200 other artists, a sculptural recreation of an earlier 1966 Vietnam protest tower, appropriately updated to deal with the war in Iraq. This aggregation of roughly 2 foot squares gridded upon the back wall of the Whitney courtyard and on the steel tower itself, is comprised mostly of anti-war protests, but also includes poetry (Elizabeth Bishop) and a comment on the nature of self (Eli Siegel), as well as collaged objects offered among graffiti-like messages from various individuals. Leaving aside any national claims to priority of protest, now spread across the globe, the manner of presentation of the tower recalls properties found throughout the American tradition. The concern with objectness can be tracked from colonial times (Copley) to the collaged sculptures of a Cornell or a Rauschenberg. The use of words in visual arts tracks from Heade and Eakins in the nineteenth century into the modernism of Stuart Davis, and the more recent conceptual works of Kosuth or Holzer.

Michael Kimmelman, in his review of the show in The New York Times, called the Peace Tower “ad hoc. The whole ethos of the show is provisional…” (He also rightly called it messy, half-baked, cantankerous, insular..) But his comment about the ad hoc, provisional nature of the show is of primary interest here. Because that is the property that is perhaps the most American of all. The ad hoc, provisional, pragmatic process codified by William James a century ago distinguishes American art and American thinking from European and other cultures that place larger emphasis on chains of tradition passing ideas and attitudes carefully from one generation to the next. American artists often start fresh from the beginning, as Eakins did in the nineteenth century, functioning as an inventor and investigating anatomy like Leonardo centuries earlier. Even when some older critics recognize American art that derives from the 1960’s and ‘70’s, our younger artists, with little sense of history, start fresh, literally re-inventing the artistic wheel. Perhaps with Whitman we might say, that as Americans, we are all “Adamic.” Unfortunately, with its emphasis on the baser aspects of popular American entertainment culture, from tabloids, to daytime television to Hollywood celebrity, the Whitney Biennial’s Adam is not in Eden, but in Disneyland.


Barbara Novak is the Altschul Professor of Art History Emerita at Barnard College and Columbia University. Her latest book and the third part of her trilogy on American art, Visions of the Self, will be published in December.

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