- The Origin of the American Work of Art
(For Wanda Corn)
1. American Art?
This essay revisits a topic of conversation from the last century—the question of how to characterize American art as distinctly American. That conversation itself was effectively reenacting (in the mode of criticism, on the one hand, and historiography, on the other) conversations from the century before. But the question—what is American about American art?—has made no sense for a few decades now in the face of other questions: just what do you mean by American? (What about José Marti’s America, for example?) And what do you mean by art? (What about quilts, baskets, pewter cups, billboards, &c.?) My title thus aims to prompt a slightly different question.1
That question could be: where and when does American art begin? And you could provide two quite good, quite simple answers (at least with regard to one medium): American art begins with the eighth-millennium Toquepala cave paintings (in modern Peru). Or it begins with Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943), the so-called breakthrough painting that helped to catalyze abstract expressionism, a body of work appropriated (within the decade) by postwar liberalism and deployed by the US government to wage the cultural Cold War.2 Still, those good answers (among others) respond to a question that is not quite the question I aim to prompt.3
For I want to pry open the query with the help of Martin Heidegger’s lecture on “The Origin of the Work of Art,” [End Page 772] which begins by asking his audience just where the artwork may be said to have its source. Does the work emerge from the artist’s activity? Yes and no. More convincingly, you could say that the artwork originates in and out of art itself. But such an answer provokes questions about the character of art itself—about its origin—which prove no less elusive, prompting a series of possible yet ultimately unsatisfying answers. This is because these initial questions have obscured the central fact that, as Heidegger puts it, “art is by nature an origin” (75). You should not be asking where or how art originates. You should be asking what art originates. And what art originates, we learn in the lecture’s denouement, is history. Art History 101, as taught by Professor Heidegger, makes it clear that art may have a history, but, more fundamentally, art “grounds history” (75). And the history it grounds is predictably—he delivered the lecture in 1936—saturated with cultural nationalism: “Whenever art happens . . . history either begins or starts over again. History means here not a sequence in time of events of whatever sort, however important. History is the transporting of a people into its appointed task” (74). Mediated by this denouement, my title aims to prompt the question of where, in art, America might be said to originate.
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To this question, as well, there are two good answers. For America first appears—in art—in 1507, in a woodcut print that serves as the lower left-hand segment of Martin Waldseemüller’s Universalis cosmographia (Figure 1). The wall map (the surviving copy of which hangs in the Library of Congress) is the first published cartographic effort to distinguish a continent identified as America. But you might argue, too, that America first appears—in art—when [End Page 773] the “people of the United States . . . ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”4 Yet, however patently originating, can that act and text be understood as art? Eric Slauter has shown the extent to which it can and should be. For the framers worked from the intersection of “political thought and aesthetic theory” (98) that enabled a newly imagined scene of consensus and a “routinely” deployed strategy for appealing to the “beauty of the document” (88). This is why Noah Webster, writing...