What Is American About American Art?

John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), "Portrait of Eleazer Tyng," 1772. All images courtesy of the National Gallery.

In seven paintings in the National Gallery, we can see the primacy of the individual in the national character.

I’m an art historian specializing in American art. I also directed a museum that focused entirely on the art of our country. After the election, a friend with lots of political connections asked me to write a memo to Donald Trump addressing a single topic: what’s American about American art.

Understanding American art doesn’t necessarily require special training. There’s lots of insider baseball and tons of nuance, to be sure. It’s a big, complex country well into its third century. More than the art of most countries, though, it’s accessible by instinct. Basically, it’s about what makes Americans tick.

From a few great paintings from the National Gallery in Washington, it’s easy to construct a succinct, jargon-free survey of American art. This essay doesn’t cover every zig or zag or every tangent. Rather, it considers core themes that occur again and again.

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Keep It Real
American painting was slow to ripen in the colonial days. Artists produced exquisite silver and furniture early in the 18th century. The first American art was gravestone sculpture. Like silver and furniture, carved gravestone epitaphs and death symbols addressed practical need. Everyone died and was buried, and well-off people could afford markers. Silver teapots, spoons, and tankards were used to eat and drink. Their material, precious metal, was a store of value in an age when savings banks and IRAs didn’t exist. Furniture was used for storage. All of these things had a function.

AmericanA painting merely decorated a wall. Not essential. As wealth and discernment grew, so did an attraction to painting, especially portrait painting. It handily expressed emerging codes denoting status and belief. In John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Eleazer Tyng, from 1772, we see basic features of an American aesthetic. Here, Copley recorded the empirical reality of the man and his things as clearly and accurately as possible. To do otherwise, to embellish, to fudge, to alter, or to flatter was a flashy, dishonest trick. Someone, after all, paid for a good likeness.

Tyne was certainly a spartan guy. Plain-weave, homespun clothing, simple ornaments, and a simple setting didn’t mean a man was poor. They expressed political values. Tyng lived near Boston. Copley painted him on the eve of the American Revolution, when Boston was Ground Zero in America’s most famous Resistance. On the eve of revolution, Tyng’s attire evoked independence from English luxury and, by extension, London’s decadence and the sense of entitlement and hierarchy bred by aristocracy. Tyng disavowed foreign pretensions by wearing American-made. It was virtue-signaling.

In painting his portrait, Copley helped to create a convention for portraits of self-made men. Tyng has a nice, big head, filled with intricate crevices and framed by his wig. The head’s where ideas start and percolate. The hands, through work, and that can include writing as well as physical labor, make the abstract ideas into tangible things or actions with consequences.

And Tyng’s hands show dirt under his nails. Tyng was rich enough to commission a Copley portrait, but his wealth was earned. A central irritant among Patriots was aristocratic privilege, which distributed wealth and opportunity based on lineage and connections. Given the choice between an aristocrat and an up-by-the-bootstraps hustler, Americans will usually prefer the hustler. Tyng made things, which is a cause for recognition and celebration in almost all American art. He combined mind work and manual work, thought and action, an ideal revered from the time of Aristotle.

There’s a compelling frankness in this aesthetic. It demands a respect for the evident, the direct, and the known over the disguised, immaterial, subjective, or contrived. In Copley, we can hear the click of an American style snapping into place.

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God’s Gift to Americans: The Land
Copley’s portraits concerned a state of being. They’re static both in pose and character. That’s why they look hermetically sealed. American landscape addresses the world of becoming. Thomas Cole’s “Notch of the White Mountains,” from 1839, belongs to what is called the Hudson River School, a broad term for American landscapes and seascapes from the 1830s stretching into the early 1890s.

Thomas Cole (1801–1848), “Notch of the White Mountains,” 1839.

Scarlett O’Hara’s father explained his devotion to Tara when he said, “Land’s the only thing that matters, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” For Americans, a new people in a new country, the land gave us a history and heritage older than Europe’s cathedrals and colosseums. Our virgin hills and valleys, our mountains, and our rivers and oceans were older than time or humanity but, unlike anything in Europe, new and fresh.

It’s “the only thing that lasts” not because it was changeless but because of the endless wealth and opportunity it provided. We believed that the land and sea were meant by God to be used by Americans. After all, we thought we were the new Chosen People.

There’s not lots of history painting in American art in part because it was a new country but more precisely because Americans lived in the moment. Often there is a visceral “now” theme. As idyllic as Cole’s picture looks to us today, it’s about a real-estate development gone bad. It’s a real-life story. In 1826, the Willey family, new wilderness settlers, built a home on land prone to get hit by avalanches. Before long, amid the worst rainstorms in memory, the entire family and their farmhands were crushed in an avalanche.

The picture is site-specific, a distinctly recognizable, real scene. American artists tweaked a landscape or seascape but felt a strong pull toward topographical accuracy. Here’s a story with a made-for-TV-news vibe. On a dark and stormy night, a pioneer family hears and feels the earth rumble. They flee their home in terror and rush for safety in the woods. They don’t make it. They’re crushed. Then it makes the front page. It was a national story. Sudden, arbitrary disaster, whether it’s an avalanche, a tornado, or a plane crash, rivets our attention. It’s human nature but particularly American and informs our love of disaster movies. It’s true also that, from colonial times, no place in the world was more obsessed with the news than America. In a constantly changing country, where everything was up for grabs, with people far flung and on the move, the news provided order to chaos. This hasn’t changed.

The land and sea can be friends and they can be foes. Nature is limitless in its bounty but arbitrary and cruel, as the Willeys discovered. It’s so vast it can leave people isolated and lonely. We can abuse it and make it ugly. It’s endless and eternal and often makes us look puny and our everyday doings petty.

Art centered on land and sea elided neatly with an egalitarian, democratic culture. They were elements of nearly everyone’s daily experience. They existed in abundance, and access through use and ownership were easily obtained. Whenever supply ran low, Horace Greeley advised, “Go west, young man,” and so millions did.

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The Primacy of Now
Winslow Homer and George Bellows provide the heavy lift from Cole in the 1830s to the 20th century. “Right and Left,” from 1909, is one of Homer’s last pictures. “Both Members of This Club,” also from 1909, is one of Bellows’s earliest. Their subject is the present moment, action conveyed in snapshot style.

One of the words that appeared often in contemporary criticism of Homer’s work is “rough” — rough of surface, rough in subject matter. Copley’s patrons prized finish, a precise set of final steps taken, much as in painting a room, to make the painted surface look nice. It evoked refinement. It showed respect for detail. Copley called on finish to convey accuracy, the kind of truth he sought. Homer and Bellows use a different finish, the fast, slashing application of paint, to deliver a different kind of truth.

George Bellows (1882–1925), “Both Members of This Club,” 1909.

Bellows’s use of materials is visibly physical, with long, freely applied sweeps of thick paint flying across the canvas. It’s action painting, expressing the decisiveness and authority of the artist. This technique suits the subject, also fast-moving and rough. This, in turn, suggests speed and change. Americans have always been obsessed with speed. For us, change is a given.

Of all turn-of-the-century sports, prizefighting was the most controversial as well as the most broadly popular. Moralists saw it as entertainment for drunks, gamblers, and bums. Hedonistic and vulgar, it was untethered to social improvement. It was tabloid fare. It starred men who had more than a bit of the jungle in them.

“Both Members of This Club” showed what was happening in NYC’s alleys, bars, and halls. In an instant, a blow is thrown with the immediacy and power of a bullet. Bellows makes it easy for us to imagine we’re part of the crowd. There, the air was thick with smoke and the smell of booze, sweat, and money.

Bellows depicts a white and a black fighter. This does not mean the picture is about race or about oppressors and victims. In boxing, unlike other sports, a white fighter couldn’t draw a color line to skip a bout with a black fighter. It was unmanly. As seedy as the sport might have been, for its fans “May the best man win” was the golden rule, though the best man was usually the one who hit the hardest and could endure the most pain and fatigue. Bellows depicts his fighters using no conventional boxing moves. He wasn’t showing good boxing technique but, as he said, “two guys trying to kill each other.” It’s a perfect display of Darwinian survivalism.

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In “Right and Left,” we see another moment. One duck, already shot, falls to the water. For the other, it’s the instant he’s been shot, the split second of realization before oblivion. His beady, panicked eyes tell us he’s thinking, “Oh, sh**.”

Both Homer and Bellows give us a wonderful documentarian sense of “You are there.” Our viewpoint in Homer’s work is in the air, as if we’re flying with the ducks. Bellows seats us among the engaged, loutish spectators. Both privilege the tight close-up. Much as Jim McKay told us at the beginning of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, we’re seeing things “up close and personal.”

Winslow Homer (1836–1910), “Right and Left,” 1909.

Homer certainly, and to a lesser extent Bellows, were creatures of the mass media. Many American artists came not from formal, degreed art-school programs but from the newspaper and advertising worlds. Through the 1860s and 1870s, Homer was the foremost newspaper illustrator in the country. Bellows was a magazine and newspaper illustrator off and on throughout his life.

Homer, as a newspaper illustrator, was his era’s newspaper photographer or today’s television cameraman. He was a newsman. And what is the raw material of news? Things that change from second to second. That’s why we buy a newspaper each day, watch cable news, or check online news sites. The lure of live action, of experiencing things as they happen, is hard wired in the American character. Homer was attuned to the news cycle and the American addiction to the high of fresh news. He gives us a moment in time, the instant rendered by a red spot of paint, a gun firing. Small and distant as it is, it catches our eye. It draws us to the men in the boat and links action to reaction.

Homer also takes something happening to unimportant specks in the chain of life — two ducks — and makes it universal. It’s about violent, arbitrary, sudden death. We might not all get shot by hunters but none of us gets out of here alive. The picture presents a moment in time, and for those ducks it’s the end of time.

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America as Brand
Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” from 1950 is, first of all, about paint, thick paint, sometimes metallic paint, dripped on a canvas. Paint is a material much as brick, stucco, marble, or granite. It’s used to make something. The picture is about Pollock, too. In Copley’s portraits, we can see no physical evidence of the artist. In Pollock’s work, his aggressive, controlling gesture is front and center.

Pollock became famous in 1945 in part because his persona reinforced his work. He was from Wyoming, coming to NYC with the swagger of a cowboy. He was art’s macho man, a surly, sexy, take-charge, hard-drinking, hard-living guy.

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), “Lavender Mist,” 1950.

And this picture, painted after the Second World War, expresses the mood of the times. Much as Pollock’s work is all over the canvas, America after 1945 was at the peak of power, all over the world and the last man standing after years of destruction and turmoil. Like Pollock deploying his drips, America could go anywhere it wanted. He’s taking charge and bending raw materials to his will and physical power. It’s no surprise he used metallic paint, house paint, syringes, and hardened brushes. These materials help suggest both the gleam of metal and the creative mess of a construction site.

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How do we get from Pollock to Roy Lichtenstein’s “Look, Mickey”? Pollock’s work is all materials, energy, making things, power, and the authority of the individual man. Lichtenstein draws from the mass media and the smooth surfaces, clear contours, and primary colors of the Sunday comics.

Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1967), “Look, Mickey,” 1961.

Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were staples of American mass entertainment, especially in the Baby Boom era, when the young and fresh were more privileged than ever. Lichtenstein takes these figures, normally seen printed on cheap paper or film, and painstakingly conveys them in paint and in a finished, large-scale studio work of art suitable for a museum or high-style private collection. He blows up what is usually a small image in a comic strip so its cheapness and banality shout. He uses primary colors, the colors commercial printers use for widely distributed print jobs. There are no pastels and little shading. These would suggest equivocation and uncertainty. And there’s no green, since green is the color of nature. Like a billboard, it’s bright with big shapes and thick black contours to make it easily recognized and digested.

In American art, the land and sea are presented with religious fervor in the 19th century, but that fervor was directly tied to God’s order to use and develop them, creating wealth and opportunity. Lichtenstein did several things. After Pollock, he helped orient American art back to the discernible object. He drew from popular culture and everyday life for subjects much as Bellows used the prize fight. Like Cole, whose subject was the land, Lichtenstein used subjects everybody could recognize and experience, giving instant accessibility. He also gave us a very modern kind of religious painting in which the object of worship wasn’t a dead saint but a commercial brand.

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Who Am I? Who Are We?
It’s challenging to find art that is both great and new. A great painting has many characteristics: technical inventiveness, clarity and complexity of message, incisiveness, riskiness, and relevance over time. Beauty isn’t a marker of deep significance. It’s too squishy.

Resonance is important. A great painting speaks with authority. A great painting speaks to different people in different ways. It has layers of meaning. Its meaning can shift with the viewer’s mood. And elasticity. Its meaning can change over time as people and society change. Taken together, all of this makes for quality. It’s hard to find great art by living artists. The art hasn’t been tested. In the first place, most art isn’t good. It’s derivative. It’s one-dimensional. It’s intellectually lazy or sloppy. When the subject of a work of art can be described in one word — oppression, race, sexuality, gender, class, Trump — usually that means the art isn’t that good. I think Glenn Ligon’s “I Am a Man” is a great painting.

Inspiring Ligon was a black-and-white, mass-produced poster from 1968 with the words “I am a man.” Then, hundreds of striking sanitation workers carried it during a march in Memphis and on the picket line. Martin Luther King, Jr., traveled to Memphis to support the strikers. There, on Apr. 4, he was killed. Before the shooting, Ernest Withers, a newspaper photographer, snapped a picture of scores of strikers hoisting the poster. The photo appeared in hundreds of newspapers.

“I Am a Man” draws on a mass-produced sign, a piece of ephemera, for its raw material. Neither kings nor saints carried it. Striking garbage men used it. Printed on cheap cardboard, almost all the signs were in the trash by day’s end, ironically collected and delivered to the dump by scabs. It started as a sign and evolved into a unique, individually crafted painting in a museum. Its black-and-white palette teases us. “Black and white” can mean “open and shut.” Anything but.

Glenn Ligon (1960-), “I Am a Man,” 1988.

The sign’s renown lies in the realm of a day’s news. Its subject is a moment that saturated the news media landscape on a specific day in 1968. It shouts, “look at me.” Blacks are often invisible. They’re often ignored. White people sometimes can’t tell them apart.

“I Am a Man” raises the question “What is a man?” The simple statement and underlying question make the object accessible, since everyone has an opinion. Striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 probably would have said, “A man provides for his family,” a role poor wages and working conditions thwart. Expanding this, we would say that the heart of racism is that a black man is neither man nor human. A man, each of these black sanitation workers, deserved dignity, the dignity of a living wage.

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What is a man? This is a question about gender roles, too. Pollock’s painting posits qualities of men to which, in 1968, almost everyone would agree: strength, authority, power, energy, acquisitiveness, and expansiveness come to mind. A man is independent in thinking and acts with freedom. A man rules. After all, men made the rules. Calling black men, even octogenarians, “boy” is a tried and true dig.

A man makes himself. That America is filled with self-made men isn’t a myth. It’s been a reality for hundreds of millions of people over our history. As an icon of civic identity, the American self-made man is unique. It doesn’t exist anywhere else, and never has. Today it’s gender neutral. To make yourself, though, you need to be seen as a person and an individual. Racism denies black men each of the qualities that makes a man. It goes one better. It denies humanity. It assaults our founding concept of equality, which means the acceptance of the humanity each of us shares.

The assertion “I am a man” and the question ”What is a man?” mean both different things and the same thing to a gay man like Ligon. Ligon’s teenage years and early manhood came at a time when homosexuality was widely believed antithetical to true manhood. It was an aberration, a mental illness, or a threat. Effeminacy was a crippling burden. Carried at a gay-rights rally, an “I am a man” sign asserts that homosexuality is no longer invisible. “I am a man” can evoke toxic masculinity, too. It’s a slur. “I am a man” today means you’re more likely to be unemployed, poorly educated, confused, hesitant, shiftless, and lost. For many, it proclaims thousands of years of patriarchal oppression.

The picture pinpoints more than one day’s news. The poster dates to 1968. Ligon grew up in Harlem and saw it, framed, on the wall of Rep. Charles Rangel’s office on a class field trip in 1976, when he was 16. He never forgot it. He painted it in 1988. It stayed in his studio until 2012, when the National Gallery got it. It has its own history, and that’s not finished.

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Here we return to the painting’s manufacture as part of its story, much as Pollock’s physical action of pouring thick paint is part of “Lavender Mist”’s story or Bellows’ slashing application of paint reinforces the violence he depicts. Ligon used both oil and enamel paint. They don’t play well together. Enamel paint is liquid. It runs. Oil paint is dense and immobile. They dry at different rates. When they are mixed, fissures quickly occur. One passage will change hue differently from another. These obdurate materials point to truths that are absolute. Chemistry allows no space for relativism. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is not a cliché. It’s a philosophy. Some things are unalterable truths. The tangible has a privileged place.

From 1988 to 2012, when it left Ligon’s studio for the National Gallery, incompatible materials gradually led to a changing surface, with cracking, roughening in parts, discoloration, fossil-like drips and impasto tensely juxtaposed. Ligon used a stencil to paint his letters. Because the surface wasn’t entirely smooth, and given his choice of paints, the letter edges are fuzzy. They’re not smooth and even and perfect, unlike the printed sign. Ligon is skeptical of perfection, and that skepticism applies to the perfectibility of people. Left to their own devices, people screw up. History, too, is imprecise.

Its history as a made object gives us a contested surface that changes much as our ideas about race change. The painting isn’t static, and neither is history. Ligon’s canvas was a used one. He covered an old painting with a layer of black paint and then painted his picture. As history teaches us, some things just disappear.

“Who am I?” is a simple but tricky question. It’s an unusually frequent topic in American art. Individuality is precious. We have an unparalleled freedom to make and unmake ourselves. Privacy is precious. Copley is silent on what is happening behind another sign, Eleazer Tyng’s face. It’s a mystery. In privileging the façade, both Ligon’s and Copley’s paintings propose the existence of two realms, one public, civic, heterogeneous, and shared, the other private, as various as there are individual men and women, and sometimes inscrutable. It’s a dichotomy at the heart of an American sense of citizenship.

The sign Withers photographed, carried by striking garbage men read, “I am a man,” not “We are men,” as did the painting. The self and the collective might vie, but the primacy of the individual still rules the American idea. Until recently, little American art concerned group identity, much less group thought and grievance based on race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, or language. When these define a civic identity, they are naturally destructive in a country with as much difference as ours. They marginalize common characteristics. Dangerous, too, is civic identity driven by a division of people into oppressors and victims. It’s the thinking of lazy people. Life’s never that simple.

Where group identity matters most in American culture, in a unifying sense, it tends to reference ideas, primarily freedom of faith, speech, movement, association, and enterprise. Freedom and individuality occupy one side of a coin; the other side features personal responsibility, self-reliance, self-realization; a hearty embrace of reason, logic, and work; respect for difference, and respect for the law.

Buying into this entire package, more or less, is the one inalienable duty of American citizenship. These ideas, taken together, created what G.K. Chesterton called “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles.” You get some wiggle room, but accept it Americans must. Beyond that, each American makes of his life what he will. The assertion “I am a man” evokes the first man, Adam. He’s unburdened by the past and signifies all that is new, fresh, and possible.

This piece first appeared in The National Review on Sept. 2. We are grateful to National Review and Mr. Allen for offering this story to share with our readers.