American Art and National Identity
In this essay on cultural nationalism in the 1920s, Matthew Baigell demonstrates that the quest for national identity in American art, which defined the spirit of the interwar decades, was to be drastically altered by the nativist Propaganda of the 1930s. Responding to what was perceived as a crisis in the nation's cultural identity, American art and literature of the 1920s was more focused on self-discovery than self-definition. Notions of national expression were expansive and flexible, rooted in complex understandings of American character and experience, rather than narrowly conceived nativism.
But with the onslaught of the Depression and the ascendence of the so-called American Scene Movement--the name given to the preference among American artists for subjects drawn from American life-- many critics became increasingly chauvinistic and intolerant in their demands for cultural nationalism. Baigell describes the process whereby an ambivalent search for national identity characteristic of the 1920s was transformed in the 1930s into the hardening of a particular kind of identity, one far less open to the diversity of American heritage and experience.
Beginning in 1916 and continuing for the next five or six years, a major s hift occurred in American art comparable to the change that took place in the mid-1940s with the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. At that earlier time artists grew increasingly aware of themselves as American artists and wanted to reveal in their art an American presence. For the next twenty odd years the exploration and revelation of their American qualities served as a major animating force, culminating in the American Scene Movement of the 1930s. But the American Scene Movement as interpreted through the voices of chauvinistic critics, such as Thomas Craven and through the various governmental art projects, betrayed the original intentions of those searching for a national identity in American art. For the search that had once seemed free and open in the early twenties became institutionalized, the search for recognition and definition of the American self had turned nativist, toward a particular kind of American self. The several American selves that began to be revealed by artists (such as Stuart Davis, Charles Burchfield, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper and the early Thomas Hart Benton) were closeted. Description replaced examination. Programmatic notions of American art replaced what just a few years before had seemed to be a sense of free inquiry and personal exploration.