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In this provocative, newly revised, and expanded survey, David Bjelajac punctures the idea of a uniquely American way of seeing or representation. Instead, he sifts painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and contemporary new media within a broader material culture, documenting a visual history characterized by conflict and diversity—from European colonial settlement to the themed environments of Disney and art exhibitions in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in America.
Though broadly chronological, the book is structured around various themes, such as the animating power of religious imagery in the seventeenth century, the cultivation of republican virtue in the eighteenth century, and a split national identity in the Civil War era. Later chapters document the rise of a conflicted Avant-Garde, the populism and public art of the Depression years, and Modernist art and Postmodernist pluralism during the Cold War. The book concludes with a new chapter on globalization and the culture wars from the 1980s to 2003. Famous works by established names such as John Singleton Copley, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Mathew Brady, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Georgia C)'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Judy Chicago, and Robert Gober are freshly interpreted next to vernacular imagery—a Masonic apron, an earthenware mug, a Quaker sampler, a satirical cartoon, or a labor union poster.
Dismissing the idea of art as a stately evolution of styles or "-isms", the author sees America's visual culture as an arena in which conflicting notions of class, gender, race, and regional allegiance are fought. Stepping outside traditional art-historical discourse, he launches boldly into the realms of politics, religion, science, literature, and popular culture in order to analyze individual art works within their specific historical contexts. Throughout, using generous quotations from primary sources, Bjelajac pays close attention to how contemporary artists, audiences, and beholders from different backgrounds have talked about specific works, the nature of art, and the artist's role in American society.
Bjelajac (art and human sciences, George Washington Univ.) abandons the quest for "American-ness" in favor of a contextual history of art in American society. Basically chronological, his book is also arranged around themes (e.g., 17th-century religious imagery, populism and public art in the Depression). Maps, Masonic symbols, and folk art are brought into the mix in sometimes illuminating relationships with the more traditional fine arts. Neither traditional art history nor a social history, this book is an attempt to view aspects of the latter through the testimony of the objects the author discusses. Much of this will not be news to scholars in the field, and though the text is selective, the scope of the book means that nothing is covered in great depth. Chapters are subdivided into sections that can be read independently of an overall narrative or argument--they might almost be web pages or sound bites in other media. The color illustrations are oleaginous and horrible. Not an essential purchase.--Jack Perry Brown, Art Inst. of Chicago Libs. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
David Bjelajac is professor of art and the human sciences at The George Washington University. He is the author of two monographs on Washington Allston, including Washington Allston, Secret Societies, and the Alchemy of Anglo-American Painting. He has contributed a chapter on "William Sidney Mount and the Hermetic Tradition in American Art" to The Visual Culture of American Religions (eds. David Morgan and Sally M. Promey).