What is “American Art”? Thin-Lipped Gravitas

In an essay by John Updike, in The New York Review of Books titled “The Clarity of Things” (Vol. 55, No. 11, June 26, 2008), he asks what is American in American art? He quotes a 1958 essay by Lloyd Goodrich who wrote:

One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American. This search for a self-image is a result of our relative youth as a civilization, our years of partial dependence on Europe. But it is also a vital part of the process of growth.

(This alone is interesting, because it reminds me of almost identical statements made by C.L.R. James, who argued that the West Indian search for an identity, is the West Indian identity, and who was one of a series of writers to cast the Caribbean as part of the Western cultural experience.)

Updike continues his piece by observing:

My impression is that inquiries into an essential Americanness are less fashionable than they were fifty years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent. These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or Founding Fathers, as western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them.

But far from turning his back on “dead white guys,” Updike takes us to revisit them, in a piece that is of interest for much more than its art history. Updike ends his article by essentially positioning the roots of “American art” in colonial terms, in relation to “nature” and “civilization”:

The American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principle study. A bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of its being, leads to a certain lininess, as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness.