Photographic book

Cultural life in USA introduction


Art institute Chicago
Art institute Chicago

The great art historian Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich once wrote that there is really no such thing as “art”; there are only artists. This is a useful reminder to anyone studying, much less setting out to try to define, anything as big and varied as the culture of the United States. For the culture that endures in any country is made not by vast impersonal forces or by unfolding historical necessities but by uniquely talented men and women, one-of-a-kind people doing one thing at a time—doing what they can, or must. In the United States, particularly, where there is no more a truly “established” art than an established religion—no real academies, no real official art—culture is where one finds it, and many of the most gifted artists have chosen to make their art far from the parades and rallies of worldly life. Some of the keenest students of the American arts have even come to dislike the word culture as a catchall for the plastic and literary arts, since it is a term borrowed from anthropology, with its implication that there is any kind of seamless unity to the things that writers and poets and painters have made. The art of some of the greatest American artists and writers, after all, has been made in deliberate seclusion and has taken as its material the interior life of the mind and heart that shapes and precedes shared “national” experience. It is American art before it is the culture of the United States. Even if it is true that these habits of retreat are, in turn, themselves in part traditions, and culturally shaped, it is also true that the least illuminating way to approach the poems of Emily Dickinson or the paintings of Winslow Homer, to take only two imposing instances, is as the consequence of large-scale mass sociological phenomenon.

Still, many, perhaps even most, American culture-makers have not only found themselves, as all Americans do, caught in the common life of their country—they have chosen to make the common catch their common subject. Their involvement with the problems they share with their neighbours, near and far, has given their art a common shape and often a common substance.

And if one quarrel has absorbed American artists and thinkers more than any other, it has been that one between the values of a mass, democratic, popular culture and those of a refined elite culture accessible only to the few—the quarrel between “low” and “high.”

From the very beginnings of American art, the “top down” model of all European civilization, with a fine art made for an elite class of patrons by a specialized class of artists, was in doubt, in part because many Americans did not want that kind of art, in part because, even if they wanted it, the social institutions—a court or a cathedral—just were not there to produce and welcome it. What came in its place was a commercial culture, a marketplace of the arts, which sometimes degraded art into mere commerce and at other times raised the common voice of the people to the level of high art. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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