"WHAT, THEN, is this American, this new man?" asked the visiting Frenchman Hector St. John de Crevecoeur some time in the 1780s.
The answer to that riddle is rich and complicated, and it has been told and retold in our art, literature and music since the country's earliest days.
"American art tells the American story," wrote the critic Robert Hughes. "Americans, like any other people, inscribe their histories, beliefs, attitudes, desires and dreams in the images they make."
Hughes presented his ideas in a recent book, "American Visions," which also served as the basis of a popular television series and a special edition of Time magazine earlier this year.
In it, he explored recurring themes in American art, from the impulse to create meanings out of the unfamiliar American landscape to the growth of cities and "the obsession with their heroic technology."
Yet, as Hughes admits, not all of America's story appears in its art. "There's very little visual art, for instance, that directly deals with slavery," he writes.
It is an omission that gave me pause when I read it. It reminded me of the novelist Toni Morrison's puzzlement over the conventional wisdom that African-Americans played little role in shaping the character of American literature.
"For some time I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions conventionally accepted among literary historians and critics," she wrote in a groundbreaking collection of essays titled "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination."
"This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed and unshaped by the 400-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States.
"It assumes that this presence -- which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture -- has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture's literature.
"Moreover, [it] assumes that the characteristics of our national literature emanate from a particular 'Americanness' that is separate from and unaccountable to this presence. There seems to be a more or less tacit agreement among literary scholars that, because American literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius and power, those views, genius and power are without relationship to and removed from the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States."
Morrison goes on to argue a contrary view, that the African presence in America lies at the core of American literary expression.
"The very manner by which American literature distinguishes itself as a coherent entity exists because of this unsettled and unsettling population," she writes.
"Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence -- one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americanness."
In Morrison's view, the creation of literary blackness was inextricably tied up with the creation of literary whiteness. To be an American was literally to be a white person, but such a construction could have no meaning unless there was a corresponding black identity against which whiteness could be contrasted and defined.
So Morrison came to the conclusion that an understanding of American literary identity was impossible without a recognition of the unacknowledged African presence that lay behind it and gave it meaning.
"What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination is of paramount interest because it may be possible to discover, through a close look at literary 'blackness,' the nature -- even the cause -- of literary 'whiteness.' What is it for?
"If such an inquiry ever comes to maturity, it may provide access to a deeper reading of American literature -- a reading not completely available now, not least, I suspect, because of the studied indifference of most literary criticism."
When I read these lines, it reminded me that a similar myopia afflicts criticism in the visual arts as well. That is why the neat thematic analysis of Hughes' "American Visions" seems so unsatisfying.
Criticism of American visual arts today stands at about the same point that literary criticism occupied a few years ago, before Morrison's pathfinding study.
There have been some notable museum shows that explored this theme. In 1989 the Corcoran Gallery in Washington mounted an important exhibition on the image of African-Americans in American art, "Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940." And there was the brilliant 1992 "Mining the Museum" exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society. Still, art criticism has lagged behind its literary counterpart in acknowledging the influence of an African presence in shaping the country's visual culture.
This strikes me as a pity, not least because much American art is as richly imagined and as finely executed as anything produced by the Old World.
Critical indifference to the Africanist presence in American art, the effort to ignore or disguise the strategies artists employed to signify that presence, can only impoverish our understanding of our art and history.
Pub Date: 7/06/97