In interpreting visual culture, including American art, we face an irritating dilemma: On the one hand, we value visual culture because it can create the impression of an immediate experience that the written word cannot provide. But when we want to describe this experience and the artistic means by which it has been produced, we have to resort that which it promised to transcend, namely language. In fact, not only do we need language, we also need to come up with a narrative to link single impressions and observations in a meaningful way. From this perspective, art history is really the history of changing narratives about art. In American art history, we usually encounter two dominant narratives: an aesthetic narrative and a national narrative, or, to put it differently, narratives about artistic progress in America and narratives about American art’s national characteristics. For discussions of American art, an awareness of these narratives is crucial, because they have played a major role in justifying an interpretive focus on the history of American art. But these narratives can easily get into each other’s way. My lecture, in drawing on a variety of examples from American art history, ranging from American landscape pointing to Abstract Expressionism, will analyse the dominant narratives, describe the impact they have had on the development of our understanding of American painting, and trace the competition between the two narratives.
Winfried Fluck is Professor em. of American Culture at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies of Freie Universität Berlin, a founder of its Graduate School, and Co-Director of the “Futures of American Studies”-Institute at Dartmouth College. His work in American studies includes essays on American history painting, American landscape painting, Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, Edward Curtis, Walker Evans, the Family of Man-exhibition, and on “Transatlantic Narratives About American Art: A Chapter in the Story of Art History’s Hegelian Unconscious,” published in Art History. He has cooperated with the Terra Foundation on many occasions and in many ways, including the establishment of the Terra Visiting Professorship in American Art at the Kennedy-Institute.
Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld)