AMS 100: Introduction To American Identity and Culture

IV. American Culture

    A. American Arts & Media

                 Art encompasses a variety of human activities and artifacts that usually include literary, visual and musical medias.  There are generally two basic categories of artistic expression that really is a construct of  European thought. Both categories can become popularized and commercialized.

Fine Art Folk Art
Art that is produced for the aesthetic, emotional or metaphysical reasons. The artists are considered trained or schooled Art that is a traditional 'craft' for utilitarian use that may also have h function in the socio-political  or religion. The artists are considered naive or unschooled.


Medium: Substance or form of the art Genre: Origins or convention used Style: Method of executing form


Historical Timelines for American Art


Pre- Columbian 15,000-500 years ago Native American arts with different regions and Paleo-Indian, Archaic and Formative Periods
Colonial 1607/1763  - 1810 In the 13 colonies this is usually listed as starting after the French and Indian Wars to the American Republic
Romantic 1810- 1865  
Realism 1865-1914 This includes regional developments with the later Transcendentalism Movement
Modernism 1914-1960 Begins with the Armory Show in 1913
Post-Modernism 1960-  

          1. American Literature

American literature is based on the folklore traditions (oral stories and songs) from Native American and early pioneers of European , African and Asian/Oceanic. The American Folklore Society was started in 1888 to record and preserve these traditions. These stories gave us ghost stories or characters like the 'Boogie Man'; and later backwoods heroes like Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill. They even continue with such oral traditions in "Urban Tales" like the Hook, Deadman's Curve or La Llorona. Much of this folklore is very regional in content and form.

Written literature is generally divided into fiction and non-fiction. Early print in America included many non-fiction almanacs (Farmer's Almanac), travel logs, tracts, sermons and biography/ autobiography (memoirs). Fiction includes poetry and prose, such as  novels and short stories. The American Novel is derived from the British traditions of serial romances (novella) often published in magazines or tracts. Worldwide the novel probably dates back into earlier Greek, Middle Eastern and Asian traditions. The American novel begins with Gothic and Romance styles and by the middle of the 19th century the novels tend to be more realistic and sometimes regional. In New England there was more radical movement of art and philosophy referred to as American Transcendentalism with writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. They advocated the a spiritual state that transcends the physical or empirical could be achieved via individual intuition. Other authors like Mark Twain produced realistic and regional works with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has been lauded as the Great American Novel.

         2. American Visual Arts and Film

American folk art traditions again were based on Native American traditions and utilitarian art (crafts) of early pioneers. The visual folk arts included adornment, painting, wood carving, pottery, textiles, metal, etc. Some of these combined Native American styles and techniques such as basket making, wood work and quilts. Weather vanes, ship figureheads, duck decoys, toys, etc. were initially done by untrained artisans. More complex work included things like the Kentucky rifle, made by Pennsylvania Dutch artisan/machinists, but used and favored by Scot-Irish frontiersmen from Kentucky and Tennessee.

Early amateur painters, often called Limners, became more commercial as they travel the countryside painting portraits on wood planks. They were like today's portrait photographer at Sears.

The fine art in America was derived from American's going to schools in Europe initially and then institutes of art were established in the US, like the Philadelphia Academy of  Fine Arts. Early easel art medias, such as pen and ink, oils, and watercolor were followed by print making. Woodblock, lithograph and later silk-screening were precursors to technologies that used photo and digital techniques today. This allowed an artist greater exposure and distribution of an arduously created original. The same is true of sculpture and the process of creating bronzes. Other visual arts shifted to schooled artist in various media including ceramics, architecture, furniture, metal and glass. Dance and drama were early visual art forms that began as folk forms such as street theatre, minstrel shows, wild west shows and vaudeville. Later, professional schools came into being. Photography began in the mid 19th century and in early scientific expeditions into the frontier painters and photographers were taken to document events. Film or moving pictures followed, first as very short b/w silent films followed by full length and epic feature like D.W. Griffith's Birth of A Nation (1915). In the 1920s talking pictures arrived. Some stars were unable to make the transition, but some like Will Rogers were able to go from vaudeville to silent film to taking pictures. The film industry started in New York but  the Western and cost initiated relocation to Hollywood, California. In 1939 color came into film with Gone With the Wind and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Black and White continued well past WWII into the 1950s but was soon taken over by large screen color (Cinemascope and Technicolor) to compete with television. Recently new sound (Lucas) and digital is beginning to be a standard in film at the theatre and in the home.

            3. American Music

American music begins with Native American, Scot-Irish ballads and African musical forms in an oral tradition. These folk music forms with many other immigrant culture's music persist in America and became highly popularized in early sheet music and later recordings (aural). Classical (fine) instrumental and voiced are based on European notation (written) and also stands alone on sheet music and recorded music. By the end of the 19th century there begins a process where classical music and folk music crossover into a myriad of popular forms like patriotic marching bands, ragtime and show tunes that become mainstream popular musical recordings. Folk music evolves into blues and bluegrass into jazz and country. After WWII R&B and Country and Western fuse into Rock n Roll and spreads like jazz, but well beyond to become huge popular industry which also moved to California in the 1960s. We will draw from an American Songbook of songs that had a major influence in a particular time in American history and are still influential.

    B. Native America

         1. Native American People

Native Americans are very diverse and adapted to American landscapes for 20,000- 40,000 years. Thus they became far more routed in the land than recent immigrants who have had less than 500 years in America. Before Columbus, A.D. 1492 there 102,000,000 or more people that we refer to as Native American. There were more than 700 language groups and people varied from very short people of the Amazon 4'5''- 5'2'' to very tall people of the Southeast and Plains 6'1''-6'8"+. Other physical traits were equally varied, yet most Non Native people adhere to general stereotypes continuing in the media and popular culture. Most popular is the image of the Plains Indian dressed in a full war bonnet hunting bison out on the Plains.

        2. Native American Culture and Arts

Native American culture and arts are as varied as the people that settled the Americas in the Far North of North America to Terra del Fuego of South America. The First Americans lived for over 20,000 years in the Americas and reached a population of around 110,000,000 at the time Columbus invaded in A.D. 1492. Hunting and Gathering, Horticulture and Agriculture and the development of cities and empires were all part of differing Native American cultures. In North America there were different geographic regions with differing lifestyles that resulted in many traditional art forms. Native Americans included Yupik, Inuit, Aleut and American Indians. Language groups reveal the origins and relationships among the different groups.

Traditional arts were rooted in the religious myths, beliefs and ritual with individual, clan or tribal owned songs being the most important. The songs reiterated the importance of ritual and utilitarian objects and their connection to the myths and stories.

Art Form Culture/Date Use

Southwest: Hopi Tithu/Kachina 1900 Child's Doll depicting Kachina Spirit/Dancer

California: Miwok 1920 Coiled basket w/ feather designs

 Southwest: San Ildefonso Pueblo1930 Water jar w/ Water Serpent design

Northwest Coast: Tlingit 1800 Chlikat Blanket used in Winter Ceremonials Dances

Plains: Cheyenne 1880 War shirt  elkskin w/ quill and beadwork

Eastern Woodlands: Iroquois  1950 False Face Mask: 'Old Broken Nose', Medicine Society


Native Americans produced contemporary art that initially emulated European American art and then went through a process of decolonization that basically returned to more traditionally or Native American points of view.

Contemporary Native American Arts Artists Recent Trends
Literature: began with autobiography, novels, poetry Charles Eastman, Oliver LaFarge, Leslie Marmon Silko, Scott Momaday Metafiction, traditional stories
Visual: Santa Fe School painting and sculpture; tourist carving, baskets and weaving Kiowa 5, Pablito Velarde, Fred Kabotie, Allan Houser Performance and multimedia like James Luna (Palomar College)
Music: Emulation of Western; Traditional continued James Ballard Pow Wow revival

Charles Eastman 1897Charles Eastman 1920 'Sioux' outfit

Next Notes: IV. C.

Copyright S. J. Crouthamel