What was once a burning question in the 1930s and 1940s--"What is American about American art?"--is not asked or answered very often in these days of airport internationalism, when McDonald's can open in Moscow, maple syrup can turn up on the breakfast table of a hotel in Kyoto, and another Disneyland is scheduled to open northeast of Paris. That old question, in fact, seems to have had to do with the cultural inferiority complexes of the Roosevelt era, when it was clear to almost everybody that the best art of the century was coming from across the Atlantic and landing at the Museum of Modern Art and that the native product, if obviously not the equal of Matisse, Picasso, and Mondrian, might be defended by claiming that it had distinctive qualities that could only be found on these shores and that ought to be cherished and preserved against the aesthetic onslaught from alien territories. But with what was to be called in the title of Irving Sandler's important study of Abstract Expressionism The Triumph of American Painting, it became equally clear that American artists in the post-Roosevelt era had miraculously emerged as the torchbearers of not only the best and most inventive of modern art, but also of an art that was universal in character, an art so surprisingly cosmic in scope that issues of nationalism seemed piddling. Not only had the once uneven competition between European and American art apparently and unexpectedly been won by the 1950s, but it had been won on so grandiosely abstract a level that the search for an American identity seemed an embarrassing memory of a parochial past.
Nevertheless, that heroic myth, in which a provincial grass-roots patriotism is conquered by a language of international breadth that can be understood around the planet, is, like most myths, both true and false. If it is true that the pictorial worlds of Pollock or Still seemed to leap from American earth to timeless nature and emotions, it is also true that when such paintings were first seen in Europe in the 1950s, foreign critics often commented upon what they felt were peculiarly American qualities--a more expansive sense of scale consonant with the vastness of the American continent; a toughness and crudity of paint handling that spoke of traditions less suave and hedonistic than those familiar to French painting; a rejection, either through intention or incompetence, of the more harmonious compositional conventions common to European painting. Although it was and still is difficult to articulate intuitions about why we feel that something, whether it be an oil painting, the taste of butter, or the cut of a suit, belongs to one country and not another, such efforts to characterize these responses suggest that the question of national character is a very real one. In