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  • A Complex Parade: Problems and Prospects for Picturing the Nation
  • Wilfred M. McClay (bio)

On October 23, 2008, representatives from the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the United States’ National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) met for a day-long conference at the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., entitled “Picturing the Nation.” The inspiration behind the conference was the remarkable popular success of the NEH’s “Picturing America” program, which made available to schools and libraries across the United States a selection of forty high-quality reproductions of masterworks of American art depicting characteristic American scenes and themes.1 The AHRC was interested in exploring how a similar set of masterworks might beassembled for the UK, allowing for its very different history and culture.

The images in “Picturing America,” which range from a portrait of Paul Revere to a photograph of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and from Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” to Joseph Stella’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” made no claim to be canonical. They were not Ten Commandments but Forty Suggestions. And yet the point was to draw together a collection of images that are common and familiar, but also rich and complex; illustrative of American life, but also worth knowing in their own right.

The goal of a project like “Picturing America” can be defined in various ways. Partly it is a matter of establishing cultural literacy, identifying images and referents that every one should know. But it is also a matter of providing mental furniture, i.e., furnishing the essential preconditions for other kinds of cultural reflection, conversation, citizenship, and shared memory. These works of art are civilizational markers, points of general reference, tools for cultural orientation. Such images also are often polyvalent in meaning—rich, full, and many-faceted, incapable of being contained or controlled by any interpreter or community of interpretation.

It is useful to think of our experience of public buildings and public spaces as a point of comparison. To carry around in one’s head the knowledge of a familiar public building or street is to gain entrée into a cultural meaning that helps us transcend our sense of individuality. But we are not only talking about the places that are seen as consciously memorializing the past. We are talking about everything, down to the names of streets and buildings and bridges and airports and neighborhood landmarks. These mark the places where many thousands of people who came before us have walked, and fallen in love, and grieved, and died, and gone about the ordinary and pluriform business of life. It is one of the public uses of art to connect us in just this way with the lives of those others, to usher us out of the caves of our limited experience into a common public world by providing a number of shared and worthy objects of contemplation. So, to put it in a word: a collection like “Picturing America” is about commonality, rather than canonicity.

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From The Arts (October 1921).

Our memories play tricks on us, and they are full of idiosyncrasy. That is why we so profoundly need landmarks, the tangible and visible things that we measure ourselves against: for their permanence. Not that we measure all aspects of our lives against such public landmarks; that would be both ghastly and inappropriate. (In this connection, I think of W. H. Auden’s famous words: “private faces in public places are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places.”) In our private lives we have other and better ways to remember, ones more suitable to such lives’ untranslatable [End Page 2] particularities and intimacies.

And yet there is confluence. The best and least conflict-ridden of all secular American holidays, Thanksgiving, is a moment in which private and idiosyncratic markers receive a rare kind of public visibility and endorsement. Small wonder that Norman Rockwell (one of the “Picturing America” artists) made it the subject of some of his most memorable work.

Commonly acknowledged landmarks, then, serve to lift us out of our idiosyncrasy and isolation into a world of common experience. It...