The Neglect of Classical American Culture

For most people, the phrase “American culture” denotes such things as rock music, fast food, and Hollywood movies—the pop culture we consume daily and which has been amply exported abroad.  Yet the United States also has an honorable tradition of high culture that is largely unknown even within our borders. Perhaps we got a dose of American literature in school: Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, or the poetry of Poe or Whitman. But how many of us are familiar with the great American painters and composers? The landscapes of the Hudson River School are some of the most beautiful paintings in Western art. American symphonic music is studded with masterpieces; how many of us have listened to it, aside from a handful of popular favorites by Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber?

The sad fact is that most Americans are unaware of classical American culture. It is tacitly assumed that high culture is exclusive to Europe, and that such American culture as exists must be a second-rate knockoff. Our educational and cultural institutions are partly to blame for this. While U.S. history is taught in school, cultural history, which has been such an integral part of the American experience, is barely covered. So while we memorize the key points of the Federalist Papers and the causes of the Civil War, we don't necessarily learn about how the ideas of Transcendentalism influenced American poets and painters, or how Antonin Dvořák's sojourn inspired our composers to draw upon Negro and American Indian melodies.

Several years ago the educational DVD company ‎The Great Courses released a series of lectures entitled Masterworks of American Art. Art historian William Kloss' survey went from the colonial period to the turn of the 20th century, showing how historical events like the Revolutionary War and themes like the settlement of the western frontier and the abolition of slavery were reflected in the paintings of Benjamin West, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, and many others. The lectures were eye-opening, and many viewers commented that they were being exposed to this art for the first time.  When most Americans think of “great art” they immediately think of Paris and the Louvre. It doesn't occur to them that there were masterpieces produced on our soil accessible by a short car trip!

Another reason our cultural heritage is neglected is that our society promotes the popular and the new at the expense of the classic. Timeless culture is not relevant, not youthful, not hip. What sells is what's popular, and what's popular is all we see or think about on a daily basis.

A third factor is an overproduction of cultural products in general, endlessly disseminated through modern media and creating a glut on our attention. The mediocre and the great are thrown together without distinction. There is simply too much culture around us, and it is overwhelming.  

But there is a hidden blessing here: the easy availability of culture also means that, with a little effort, we can seek out and learn about the best of American culture, both classical and popular.

Visual art has played a key role in the history of American culture. The beauty of our scenery inspired painters in the 19th century and helped form our sense of national identity, while architects created buildings that are symbols of our country and its ideals. In addition to making their full American collections available for view, art museums should feature programs that teach the public about the Hudson River School, the American Impressionists, 20th-Century Realists like John Sloan and Edward Hopper, and other art movements that started in America.   

Along with art, most of the public is unaware that American classical music exists. This is partly because American orchestras rarely perform it, apart from a few warhorses like Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Barber's Adagio for Strings. There is a rich history of concert music from the late 19th century to the present. We should have opportunities to hear the works of George W. Chadwick, Howard Hanson and Walter Piston on a weekly basis, alongside Beethoven and Mahler. Until there are regular occurrences of American Classical Music in the concert hall, we should task ourselves with discovering these masterpieces through the plethora of recordings available.

If we want to rise above the cultural wasteland that surrounds us, we need to acquaint ourselves with the best culture—some of which, would you believe, happens to be American! Acquiring an appreciation of our cultural contributions will in turn instill pride in our nation's traditions and values. It will give us an idea of how the culture of America fits in with the larger culture of the West.

American culture is so much more than Coca Cola and McDonald's.  Learn it, own it, and love it!