The end of the American Century: current scholarship on the art of the United States.

Author:Davis, John
 
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In cribbing my title from Henry R. Luce's famous Life magazine essay of 1941, I begin with more than one paradox. Luce wrote of an "American Century" that had not fully taken place. Frustrated by isolationist political sentiment and what he perceived as a socialist trend in federal governance, he diagnosed a widespread malaise, a preoccupation with the problem of national identity: "We Americans are unhappy," he began. "We are not happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America. We are nervous--or gloomy--or apathetic." In what amounted to an early salvo in the Cold War, Luce prescribed action to cure the nation's ills. Most immediately, that meant entering the European conflict in defense of England, but more broadly, he argued that the destiny of the United States demanded that "the most powerful and vital nation in the world" step up to the international stage and assume the position of global leader. In a curious mix of American exceptionalism and one-world homogenization, he declared, "It must be an internationalism of the people, by the people and for the people." Looking to the future, he confidently predicted, "The 20th Century must be to a significant degree an American Century." (1)

Essentially, Luce sought to define what it might mean to be American in the modern world, and in many ways, the core concepts of identity and modernity have never been absent from writing on American art. As Wanda Corn outlined it in her review essay published in these pages fifteen years ago, the first several generations of American art historians--necessarily adopting a defensive posture when presenting their material to a skeptical audience--concerned themselves largely with the question of the "Americanness" of American art; they valorized American difference as a means of circumventing the usually unflattering (and often uninteresting) comparisons with European art. In the process, they isolated formal and conceptual strains in historic American art that seemed to foreshadow the modernist triumphs of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Consciously or not, writers on art contributed to a general narrative that buttressed both the exceptionalisn and the missionary boosterism that Luce's "American Century" represented. By the 1980s, Corn nevertheless noted a shift among Americanists away from concerns of national identity and toward greater attention to methodological issues, with younger scholars deriving their intellectual approaches from and airing their theories in a wider (occasionally international) community of scholars and ideas. (2) Yet if only for historiographical reasons, Luce's formulation has continued to set tire parameters of the debate. Indeed, it became the organizing principle, at least nominally, of the two-part survey of twentieth-century art in the United States recently undertaken by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. (3)

Luce's essay heralded a period of triumphal expansionism in the later twentieth century, and in an odd way, recent scholarship in American art can also be characterized as expansionist. The "infrastructure" of American art history--its institutional foundation, its number of practitioners, its permeation of the academy--has grown remarkably. However, the nature of most work in the American field has tended to undercut Luce's implied themes of nationalism, imperialism, cultural dominance, and a single worldview. What has expanded in American art history is the number and kinds of voices, to say nothing of the bewildering range of specialized topics and concerns they articulate, In the aggregate, this proliferation of voices has moved from the margins inward, bringing consideration of issues and populations outside the mainstream into the center, where they can be examined alongside the dominant modes. A univocal, monolithic narrative of American art is now a relative impossibility, and the greatest challenge for today's historians is to keep track of the various strands of complementary and competing scholarship--some newly introduced and some recently unraveled from the formerly seamless cloth of the "consensus" model of history.

Academics and curators with an American specialty, in short, have been inclined to disparage the ideology behind Luce's "American Century," even as they operate on a public stage that is in many ways its creation. In one crucial respect, they nevertheless embrace its purport: it is important to take American things seriously, especially in a global context. Until recently, the larger discipline of art history did not agree, and here one arrives at another paradox. While the United States became an undisputed superpower in the late twentieth century, it would be laughable to assert that the same was true of scholarship on historical American art within the institutional corridors of art history. Americanist scholarship, in the past, was by no means trendsetting; it did not greatly influence the broad, disciplinary discourse. Given its limited number of specialists, it would have been scarcely fair to expect otherwise. However, if economies of scale make a difference, then perhaps we have turned a corner. In the United States, the number of prestigious but still recalcitrant graduate programs that have never appointed a historian of American art can be counted on one hand. Where once it might have been logical to make a list or institutions with demonstrated commitments to American art, it is now simpler to ask which has not. Despite these gains, any consideration of the present state of American art history must take into account its historiography--the marginal place it has long occupied in the discipline. Such a review offers more than an opportunity for self-pity or complaint of the neglect American art has received. For as I will indicate below, the particular conditions of the formation and development of the American field continue to mark it methodologically. They may also hold the promise for whatever future interest the field will have for scholars of other national traditions.

In 1988 Corn visualized this field--the community of Americanists--as an inverted pyramid, with the founding pioneers, Atlas-like, forming a narrow point of support at the bottom, a slightly larger group of scholars who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s in the still quite circumscribed middle layer, and a much broader section of younger scholars at the wide, flattened top. With the pyramid always growing upward and outward, the area covered by its inverted base has increased exponentially, and as a result, we find this last layer of scholars being spread more and more thinly across its vast surface. Imagine tiny teams of art historians setting out from the center to explore this complex, ever expanding territory atop the pyramid; like early European voyagers of the flat-Earth variety, they are never quite sure when, if ever, they will reach the final, retreating edge of the unknown.

I am a member of this generation of scholars. My group of peers entered graduate school in the early 1980s and began publishing and seeking an institutional home in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We came on the scene at the beginning of the boom period of American art history, and as a result we constitute something of a bridge generation. We are probably the last group of students who glimpsed (and even experienced) the quaint era when one could undertake preparation for Ph.D. orals in American art, surveying much of the relevant literature, in an intense six-month period of reading. Our teachers were the small cadre of scholars who, against all odds, became the first university-trained and university-housed historians of American art. In the present, flourishing climate of American art history, it is difficult to remember just how intimate the field was even fifteen to twenty years ago. Gatherings of Americanists had the feeling of a far-flung family meeting at a reunion: the "adults," who all knew one another quite well, would usually be drawn together in conversation through the bond of their shared history as lonely practitioners in a "fringe field," while the "kids" would eagerly swap stories, comparing life at Stanford, the City University of New York, Delaware, or Columbia under this or that mentor.

We were formed by these scholars, but at the same time we almost immediately found ourselves participating in the project to revise their work: to question the validity of the received narratives, to overturn the hierarchy of valorized or unacceptable genres and periods, to fill in absences and interrogate silences. The situation is further complicated by the field's telescoped institutional life, for with just a few lamented exceptions--such as the late David Huntington--the "first generation" is very much with us as innovative and productive scholars (many of whom have, themselves, participated in the revisionist project). Nevertheless, the last few years have seen an extraordinary number of retirements in the American field, creating a mini-upheaval and a game of musical academic chairs that still has not played itself out. There is, in brief, a palpable feeling of having arrived at a crossroads. Recently, the journal American Art signaled this sea change with a series oh short reflections from these retirees, collected under the title "Passing the Torch." (4)

This metaphor is an accurate distillation of the prevailing sentiment in the American field, although it is not at all clear what, exactly, that torch will illuminate in the future. In 1988 Corn ended her essay somewhat optimistically, confident that American art history had "come of age." At present, I still discern a prevailing climate of optimism, even if in the intervening years the polysemous and unsettled nature of the discourse has only increased. Political historians have already dubbed this period the "post-Cold War era," heralded by the fall of the Berlin Wall...

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