“American Art Really Exists”

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This unexpected and phenomenal reversal of America’s traditional role produced a fresh examination of American art. Questions were raised, not for the first time but with new insistence, as to what was especially American about it. The celebrated expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler would probably have dismissed the whole matter with a quip, as he once did when he scoffed at the notion of “English art.” “You might as well talk of English Mathematics,” he once remarked. “Art is Art and Mathematics is Mathematics.” Nevertheless, it was reasonable to conclude that such a robust, variegated outgrowth of art as was evident in this mid-century development must have had firm roots and a past period of healthy development. To be sure, a sizable influx of artistic refugees from the wartime chaos of Europe contributed to this ferment in America. But over long years, since the planting of the first tiny imported seedling in the seventeenth century, American art had been constantly invigorated by grafts of alien strains, while its roots were sinking deeper into the native soil and putting forth fresh hybrids.

In spite of a rash of articles and exhibitions that broke out addressing the question of what is American about American art, no single or conclusive answer was forthcoming. It was about that time that the museum’s plans to reorganize and enlarge its facilities for showing this country’s art in all its forms were beeing seriously considered. Those collections were growing at an accelerating pace and the public was coming to the museum in ever greater numbers to view such of the material that could be shown. Some important new acquisitions could not be displayed at all, or at best in provisional and transient settings.

When the rehabilitation and new construction was undertaken, a time-consuming operation of considerable magnitude, virtually all the American art was perforce put into storage. Now, with the May reopening of the Wing, the long-deprived public will have its chance to take a good look at these enlarged and extraordinary holdings.

Not all of them just yet, for next year another suite of later period rooms that have not before been exhibited, including an interior from a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, will be opened. The passage of time has led to a more understanding appraisal of the accomplishments in the decorative arts of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, years excluded from the scheme of the original American Wing, than was easily possible fifty-odd years ago. As becomes increasingly clear, that part of the past has quite as much to do with the present as the earlier periods. In its new emphasis on this point, the museum rebalances the scales of history In the end, every effort to interpret the arts of the past from the changing points of view of the present enlarges and deepens their significance.

Aside from those subsequent additions, which will also include examples of Shaker and folk art in general, the cream of the museum s extensive holdings will soon tie on view. No magazine has space between its covers for a detailed account of these holdings. Some suggestion of their breadth, depth, and quality is suggested by the accompanying illustrations. A number of the paintings and objects shown are recent accessions on permanent display for the first time; others are treasures acquired in earlier days, now released from their long confinement in storage rooms and presented perhaps for a fresh appraisal.

If there is any plausible answer to the question of what is singularly American about American art, it should be found in the rich variety of evidence that the American wing will provide as it reopens. But perhaps it is better not to put the question at all. To paraphrase Gustave Flaubert, the function of art is not to supply answers to questions, but rather to extend the imagination, to provide illuminating experiences, to give pleasure, and to prompt reflection. The arts are in the long run half of history, and the exhibits of the Wing are a more intimate record of the American past, remote and recent, than any history look can give us.