The Economic Mind in America: Essays in the History of American Economics

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

2

REMARKS ON “AMERICAN-NESS” IN AMERICAN ECONOMIC THOUGHT

William J. Barber

In the summer of 1995, the Whitney Museum in New York staged what was billed as a “blockbuster” exhibition of the works of Edward Hopper. Those responsible for preparing the exhibition notes and videos proclaimed Hopper to be the quintessential American artist. His canvases, they maintained, were distinctively American by virtue of their stark depiction of space—a phenomenon which allegedly reflected the openness and land abundance of the American experience. Similarly—the commentaries asserted—his representations of lonely people in his interior scenes should be understood as an expression of American “rugged individualism.” To an amateur like myself, what the professional art critics had to say about all this had at least a surface plausibility. I thus found the review of this show that appeared in The Economist of London to be particularly arresting. The Economist’s art critic totally rejected the interpretation provided by the management of the Whitney Museum. There was no denying Hopper’s central preoccupation with space—but, it was argued, there was nothing peculiarly American about that. The problem of the treatment of space was one that all artists were obliged to confront, whatever their geographical situation or national origin. In short, space was a universal category and not one to which any distinctive national characteristics could be assigned. I recount this episode as a reminder of pitfalls awaiting anyone who rushes into ascribing special national attributes to artistic and/or intellectual productions. The search for “exceptionalism”—as Bob Coats has observed—can be a snare and a delusion.

I too reviewed Dorothy Ross’s book on The Origins of American Social Science and found it necessary to criticize her attempt to locate “exceptionalism” without exception. At the same time, it seems to me that it would be a mistake to suppress this category altogether. At various times in American history, the flow of economic discourse has been heavily conditioned by

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