The purpose of this anthology is to encourage the formation of a critical perspective on the history of American art through a selection of diverse readings on a wide range of issues, artists, and objects of material culture. It has been created in response to the need for a collection of readings in American art that exemplifies scholarship of the past two decades, during which the discipline of art history in general--and the study of American visual culture in particular--have undergone significant growth. Although directed toward an undergraduate audience, the selection should be of interest to any serious student or devotee of American art and culture.
Like all areas of humanistic study, the history of American art has been greatly enriched (and to a certain extent muddled) by an infusion of theoretical and interpretive approaches to the study of art that have undermined the hegemony of traditional methodologies and modes of inquiry. Recent scholarship suggests that the understanding of art can be grounded in visual analysis; biography and historical documents; intellectual, political, and social history; the circumstances of patronage; theoretical systems such as marxism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and feminism; or the personal subjectivity of the viewer. What was once a rather tidy narrative of stylistic development and general historical context has become an exciting but intractable array of discursive possibilities.
In assembling this collection, I sought to provide students and teachers with varied examples of recent historical scholarship unified by a common vision of American art as encoded with a complex fusion of individual and cultural values that have sustained and shaped its production. Wanda Corn's seminal essay on the historiography of American art supplies the intellectual frame and rationale for the selections. As a whole, the collection can be understood as an implicit endorsement of the methodological diversification Corn describes, the kind of lively inquiry that has come to characterize a field that has finally "come of age."
Although the articles are arranged chronologically, no effort has been made to present an exhaustive "survey" of American art. The responsibility of the teaching scholar (as I understand it) is to acquaint undergraduate students with the dynamic state of the field while, at the same time, giving them a solid basis of information and grasp of fundamentals. This collection is meant to supplement, complicate, and deepen the kind of general history that emerges in textbooks and in the classroom. Each article raises a specific set of questions about some notable aspect of American art, about the work of a particular artist, or about historiography and criticism. Brief editorial comments on the author's methodology and conclusions precede each selection.
The large number of essays devoted to nineteenth-century art is indicative of the tremendous expansion of scholarship on this era. American visual culture of the nineteenth century is increasingly understood in terms of the subtle merging of aesthetics and ideology, whereby works of art serve the interests of nation building. A number of these articles examine the consequences of economic development and territorial expansion as well as the subsequent interaction of cultures as borders are dissolved and realigned.