Smoke pranced in curlicues off the end of a cigarette as a Norwegian girl gestured with the hand holding it. “You don’t smoke at all?” she asked with a squint of her eyes, her accent quietly revealing itself. I said I didn’t. She looked up beyond the wooden awning we were sitting under, toward the moon glistening a few degrees to the right. She took a drag of her cigarette and then declared with the swish of her wrist, “The culture here — it’s so different.” I shrugged, then retorted, “Or lack thereof.”
I believed it when I said it. I was amid a dozen or so international students at a party. I met some Londoners and a Spaniard in addition to the Norwegian. I mused about how culturally advanced these foreigners seemed in comparison to Americans as they delved into their extensive travels, rich histories and intriguing lifestyles. Their art culture especially is seen as superior — Europeans have Milton and Monet! Mozart and Rodin! Van Gogh and Dickens!
My cynicism toward my own culture gradually receded over the course of these conversations, however. Americans have art. Americans have legendary figures that have shifted the entire cultural landscape. Americans have their own artistic tradition and identity. Perhaps my skepticism was due to the fact that this tradition is too recent and is built through more modern mediums that don’t have the same level of respectability yet.
Even though arguably the most important poem in literature, “Paradise Lost,” was published over a century before the founding of the United States and Petrarch scribed sonnets before Columbus landed on American shores, the young nature of our literary tradition should not discredit its existence. In the late 1800s, Walt Whitman with “Leaves of Grass” and Mark Twain with “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” both established the foundation for a unique American style and voice that writers in the next century expanded upon.
Writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Eliot cemented American literature as influential and respectable during the 1920s. Even though most of them were known for moving to Europe in order to write their most famous works — creating a detachment from the country they were representing — their writing exemplified the American mindset and culture. “The Great Gatsby” commented on the changing social dynamics of New York, “The Sound and the Fury” discussed the decay of values in the South and “The Sun Also Rises” was self-reflectively critical of the “Lost Generation” ideals: “You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil … Fake European standards have ruined you.”
Furthermore, American art is noticeably superior in modern forms of expression that don’t have the same high-brow reputability. Europeans have artistic greats in the realms of sculpture and painting, which have a higher status than the newer mediums of film and the current visual art methods.
American film masters are artists who have a vast influence in our culture and beyond. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino produce masterpieces vital to the American identity. They create moving paintings with the same kind of expertise as classical artists. People rarely view them as being on the same level due to film’s infancy as a medium — but we should be extremely proud of cultivating this cultural production within our borders.
Andy Warhol’s iconic pop art depictions of Marilyn Monroe or Shepard Fairey’s street art are also not yet seen on the same level as renderings from centuries past. It is discounted as lowly, rather than elite and regal. But they, along with several other American artists, have cultivated a culture of innovation that is leading the current art scene, instead of being stuck in admiration of past accomplishments.
There is an American art culture. Its only drawback is that it hasn’t had enough time to completely catch up to the prolific-ness of that of Europe. The literary, cinematic and visual art figures that have established a unique American identity within the past century should be just as much a source of pride as those other artistic greats are to Europeans.
Taran Moriates is the arts columnist. Contact him at [email protected].