Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

Afterword

I wrote this essay ten years ago as a part of a commissioned series in the Art Bulletin on the state of scholarship in various fields. Rereading it in March 1997, I am surprised (and pleased) that it still describes what I take to be the recent history and state of scholarship in my field. This is not to say that there have not been important additions to scholarship over the past decade, but only that the basic structures and patterns of thinking in the field of American art--and this really was the focus of my essay--have not undergone any right turns or paradigmatic leaps. In the name of revisionism, there continues to be a steady infusion of monographs about forgotten figures and a host of new regional studies to remind us that New York and New England were not the only art-producing centers in the country. Study of art during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is on the rise, whereas attention to antebellum visual culture seems to have abated. Interdisciplinary incursions from other fields have continued, as have the debates around "high" and "low" culture: The Luce Foundation continues to support the field, both in the university and in the museum.

The changes I detect have to do with a shift in the nature of revisionism. Scholars today revise more often in the name of race, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality rather than gender, class, and marginality, emphases that dominated the earlier moment. In the past decade, new work has prominently featured monographs on artists of color, both past and present, along with more comprehensive studies that look across time at the history of the African-American artist, the Chicano art movement, and, most recently, the contributions of Asian Americans and Native Americans to art making. Along with race, issues of sexuality--homosexuality in particular--have prominently surfaced, bringing into focus the interface of art and sexuality as manifest in the work and lives of artists such as Romaine Brooks, Charles Demuth, Paul Cadmus, and Jared French, as well as influential figures like Gertrude Stein. In tandem with these investigations, there are new studies on the construction of masculinity in American art, especially at the end of the nineteenth century. Another pressing interest is the examination of the tensions between ethnicity and assimilation, and in this vein immigrant artists, many of them Jewish, are now receiving renewed attention. Not far behind are studies of artists, both fine and popular, whose religious imagery constructed mainstream Christianity in the American past.

There also seems to be an increased tendency, barely perceptible a decade ago, for art historians to take their skills as visual analysts into new domains. It is now an everyday occasion to find scholars who once confined themselves to art in museums looking at Hollywood films, advertisements, cartoons, popular illustrations--by Norman Rockwell or N. C. Wyeth, for example-- and at images of cult figures such as Josephine Baker, Elvis Presley, Rock Hudson, and Marilyn Monroe. Although it is too early to assess whether this move will unhinge the hold that the fine arts have traditionally had on historians of the visual, it is noteworthy--and quite understandable--that art historians dealing with American culture have shown greater flexibility and curiosity about the circulation of popular images than scholars dealing with other nations and cultures.

When this essay first appeared, I received a lot of mail about its formulations, including a few letters pointing out errors of fact; I have corrected these in this reprinting. Never has anything I have written stimulated such an outpouring, particularly from outsiders to the American field. These letters were, in the main, grateful, although there were those who wanted a name added to the record: Why had I not mentioned this or that scholar or a particular title? One person--a name still unfamiliar to me--wrote to complain about my not according him a place of

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