American Art and National Identity

The Council of War

Fig 2. John Rogers, 1829-1904
The Council of War, 1868,

cast plater, 24-1/4 x 16-3/4 inches
Brauer Museum of Art, 75.16

Houdon's sculpture became the prototype for thousands of public monuments placed in parks, museums, libraries, and schools. It even ended up on the quarter. The bronze bust in the Brauer Museum carries on its verso a "certificate and oath" from the New York bronze founder who cast it in 1898, indicating that the work is a "perfect reproduction of the Life-Cast" by Houdon. This assurance of authenticity mattered to patriotic Americans because they wanted "the real thing," an icon of their country's father. This image, like no other, has been the official symbol of American identity for generations because it symbolizes the ideal of heroic self-denial that many Americans have historically wished to serve as the origin of the nation. Washington avoids any expression of emotion because he represents a fusion of individual and type into the single figure of the archetypal national hero. He does not call attention to himself, but to the nobility of virtuous deeds, those that create the national character that John F. Kennedy had in mind when he urged Americans not to ask what the country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.
Even if many Americans today are unmoved by the call for republican selflessness symbolized by the neoclassical severity of Houdon's portrait, Washington remains the most familiar president in part because his image has presided over so many of the national rituals and ceremonies in which Americans have participated. The Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Presidents Day, and any pilgrimage to the Mall in Washington, DC, is incomplete without the face of Washington. His portrait was used in the early editions of Noah Webster's American Speller and by a host of American primers, the basic school books for generations of American youth from the late eighteenth century throughout the nineteenth century. This very public portrait, joined by others such as Abraham Lincoln's (see John Rogers sculpture group, fig. 2), quickly became the core of an American civil religion, a set of images, rites, places, and documents (such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) that all Americans were thought to hold in common. In fact, of course, African Americans and Native Americans did not enjoy equality in this national cult. It took the national travail of the Civil War to begin the march toward freedom, a development consecrated by the carnage of the war and commemorated by Rogers' ceramic sculptural group of President Lincoln, General Grant, and Secretary of War Stanton holding a council of war (fig. 2). Violence and suffering often establish the sacred spaces and saints of civil religion such as battle grounds or heros like Lincoln and Martin Luther King. The power of civil religion is its broad public recognition and its centrality in government and government-sponsored activities such as public school (think of the Pledge of Allegiance), national holidays, and the court room (where Washington's, Lincoln's, or King's portraits are likely to hang). Civil religion is a public and formal construction of memory through an apparatus of rituals that rely on images, music, and other art forms to organize national consciousness. Many of the basic elements of organized religion such as rituals of sacrifice, redemption, and commemoration inform civil religion, which has been very important in American life where a careful separation of church and state has avoided the establishment of any religion as the official faith of the nation. Civil religion has bridged the different religions and made a single public space in which Americans join one another for a spiritual observation of their national identity. [2]

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2. A recent study of American civil religion is Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Studies of the role of American art in the formation of American collective memory are Barry Schwartz, "The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory," Social Forces 61, no. 2 (December 1982), 374-402; and Michael Kammen, Meadows of Memory: Images of Time and Tradition in American Art and Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).


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