What is American about American art? The first time I posed this question, I discovered it was forbidden. I had used it at the conclusion of a graduate student’s examination, giving her an opportunity to comment on broad trends over the course of American art history. I thought it a nice catch-all, letting the student expand on what she knew about art education, patronage, subject matter, and so forth. Through sheer coincidence, the question came up at a dinner party several days later. A colleague mentioned in passing that we were better off for no longer worrying about things such as “what is American about American art?” Having used just this exact wording, I was genuinely surprised, and asked why this was wrong. The answer was that it was unacceptable to search for national characteristics in art, that it was jingoistic, ominously close to the Volksgeist that Nazi artists sought to celebrate. “We ...


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