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1783-1815: The Arts: Overview

1783-1815: The Arts: Overview

National Identity. As inhabitants of a new nation, Americans faced a particularly daunting task. Devoting much of their energy and most of their resources to survival, they had little time or money for cultural pursuits. As John Adams put it in 1780, It is not indeed the fine Arts, which our Country requires. The Usefull, the mechanic Arts, are those which We have occasion for in a young Country. He added that the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts.I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. While Adams and many other Americans believed that the nation had to establish itself as a political entity before turning its attention to art and literature, others considered culture an integral part of any nations identity. These Americans hoped the establishment of a vital national culture would contribute to a stronger sense of American nationality that would counteract the forces threatening to drive Americans apart. For them the achievement of true political independence required America to free itself from the models of British art and literature. As Noah Webster put it in 1783, America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics.

Cultural Independence. Before the American Revolution, colonists had viewed themselves as Englishmen, looking to England for cultural standards. As a result, citizens of the new United States lacked a strong indigenous cultural tradition that could provide a starting point for a national culture. Indeed, a sense of cultural inferiority persisted throughout the postrevolutionary period, and Americans continued to defer to the cultural achievements of the Old World. Although Americans still depended on European models, however, they also sought cultural independence from Europe. A powerful sense of nationalism, which began to materialize in the early years of the new republic, was expressed Ámericans artistic and literary endeavors.

Translatio Studii. Americans had long believed in the potential of the New World for cultural greatness. They based their belief on the idea of the translatio studii, or translatio imperii the idea that civilization inevitably moves from east to west. This theory had a long lineage, and Enlightenment thinkers had given it renewed vigor in the eighteenth century. The most eloquent exponent of this theory was Anglican bishop George Berkeley, who summed it up in Verses by the Author on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America (1752):

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
   The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
   Times noblest offspring is the last.

Americans took this doctrine to mean that the New World would eventually be a center of cultural greatness.

Republican Ideology. Further complicating American cultural development was the complex relationship between the arts and Americans republican ideals. Rooted in classical political theory and the ideas of eighteenth-century British opposition thinkers, republicanism was a central ingredient in the ideology of the American Revolution and continued to exert a powerful influence on citizens of the new nation. According to this ideology the ultimate goal of government was to preserve liberty, which was most threatened by luxury and corruption. Believing that the fine arts were a form of luxury that could thrive only in a wealthy society, republican thinkers considered the arts antithetical to republican virtue, the willingness to sacrifice individual interests for the public good. John Adams demanded of Thomas Jefferson, Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance and folly? It is vain to think of restraining the fine arts. Luxury will follow riches and the fine arts will come with luxury in spite of all that wisdom can do. Republican theorists warned against the development of the fine arts as both a sign and a cause of social degeneracy. They feared that the fine arts would encourage a taste for sensual pleasures and would weaken the spirit and vigilance necessary to maintain liberty. Yet, as an extension of their belief that liberty was conducive to social and political prosperity, republican thinkers also argued that liberty was favorable to artistic achievement. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, two of the most influential exponents of British opposition ideology, made this link when they declared, Polite Arts and Learning [are] naturally produced in Free States, and marred by such as are not free.

Liberal Capitalism. Republican ideology was itself undergoing modification in this period as Americans began to turn to a liberal capitalistic ethos that stressed private profit rather than public good. According to liberal ideology, a social order arose unintentionally from the interaction of individuals who pursued their own private interests. This emerging ideology reflected and furthered the rise of a capitalist economy in the United States. Liberal capitalism coexisted uneasily with republicanism and posed its own problems for artistic development. In one sense liberal capitalism was favorable to the arts, for it viewed luxury and wealth as beneficial and natural results of the pursuit of private interest, rather than as enemies to virtue. Consequently, the liberal capitalist did not regard art and luxury as signs of degeneracy. Yet, as contemporary commentators recognized, liberal capitalism threatened the arts in another way. By placing such a premium on profit, it encouraged a sense of materialism that endangered an appreciation for aesthetic and intellectual pursuits.

Democracy. Republican and liberal ideologies both encouraged a belief in equality, which elevated the status of the people and gave primacy to popular judgment. Republicanism was based on the idea of equality, as virtue was only possible in a society of independent and equal individuals. Liberal capitalism emphasized the centrality of self-interest, which it portrayed as a universal trait, discrediting a belief in inherent differences based on birth or social status. As a result, a democratic spirit increasingly took hold in the new nation, a development that had dual implications for American arts and letters.

Democratic Art. Artists and writers of the new republic embraced and drew inspiration from these democratic currents, seeing themselves as pioneers. Just as the Revolution had established popular government, they would establish a popular foundation for art. Consistent with democratic ideals, they hoped to free the arts from their traditional reliance on aristocratic patrons. Instead of depending on wealthy individuals to sponsor them and commission their works, artists and writers would rely on public support. Yet the trend toward democracy also posed problems for cultural development. Artists who were freed from aristocratic patrons became subject to the vicissitudes of popular opinion, which could deprive them of their means of support and endanger their creative independence. Democracy therefore created a quandary for artists, who wondered how to preserve their artistic integrity while accommodating popular tastes. Furthermore, with popular preference as the ultimate standard of judgment, a democratic culture threatened the possibility of higher aesthetic standards and values. In his well-known analysis of American democracy Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville ascribed American artistic mediocrity to democratic society. He argued that while the productions of artists are more numerous, the merit of each production is diminished, concluding, No longer able to soar to what is great, they cultivate what is pretty and elegant, and appearance is more attended to than reality.

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