This is an exhibition about what American artists did with where they had been: it is about context – historical, cultural, geographical, political – and it brings that context to life with great elegance and economy. It is an exhibition in active dialogue with modern American history.
In his 1918 essay On Creating a Usable Past, the American critic Van Wyck Brooks argued that America should view its past not from the perspective “of the successful fact but of the creative impulse”. For Brooks and his colleagues in the Seven Arts movement, this was an American project, a nation’s encounter with its spiritual heritage. Lewis Mumford later wrote that artists and writers in the 1920s were the “scouts and prospectors in a new enterprise, the bringing to the surface of America’s buried cultural past.”
By 1930, this influential lesson had been absorbed by painters like Grant Wood, whose Daughters of Revolution (1932, above) is a commentary on the historical irony of reactionary genealogical societies creating aristocracies out of revolution. Three prim, old, white women stand in old-fashioned dress, their expressions exuding self-satisfaction and superiority. They are positioned in front of a representation of Emanuel Leutze’s famous historical painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851); the revolutionaries’ radicalism and daring is counterpointed, pointedly, against the women’s conservative complacency, but Wood is also implicitly attacking the hypocrisies embedded in American mythologies. One of the women is holding an heirloom tea cup, drinking tea instead of dumping it in Boston Harbour, while all of the women would have despised the German-born immigrant Leutze, despite revering his painting. Wood slyly implies the Anglo-Saxon racial superiority being celebrated: “I don’t like to have anyone try to set up an aristocracy of birth in a Republic,” he declared, calling the women three “tory gals”. Similarly, American Gothic was an ironic commentary on the state of the Jeffersonian agrarian idyll during the onset of the Great Depression, a moment when many American artists and critics were declaring, flatly, that the American experiment had failed.
It was in 1931 that the phrase “American Dream” was first coined as a way to describe the American experiment, its hope that the nation might create a land of opportunity and promise for all, in a book called The Epic of America. Its author, James Truslow Adams, like so many Americans, was seeking to explain the failures of the nation, how it could have been brought so low. He argued that the country had lost sight of its values by merely chasing material prosperity, whereas the American Dream was properly a dream of a higher purpose, a spiritual vision of a nation in which humanity could better itself. The phrase instantly caught America’s imagination, appearing throughout the decade in debates and discussions about how the country could right its course. That sense of dreams and nightmares, of surrealism and the uncanny, of history recurring in a mythopoeic landscape, would recur throughout the art of the period as well. A widespread sense that the national iconography needed to be reclaimed and reimagined took hold of artists and thinkers across the country, as people began to question what the American Dream might mean in reality. They did not ask, as we have done during our own downturn, why the American Dream had failed; they thought they had failed, and wondered if the nation might be saved by an American Dream of a higher purpose than merely creating material prosperity.
Confronted with the stark failure of unregulated capitalism, America began in the 1930s seriously to consider socialism and communism for the only time in its history. American artists in particular were attracted to the promises of an entirely new social and political system, given the manifest failures of the old ones. The so-called Popular Front and the WPA – the Works Progress Administration – both sought to put artists to work creating explicitly political art, even propaganda. The government encouraged artists to discover, or create, an “American Scene” that addressed native arts and culture. They were seeking great statements of American public life, history and identity that would uplift the people and help revitalise and regenerate American society; the Public Works of Art Project particularly emphasised uplifting treatments of local places and the common people.