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Sewell's Note

All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.

– Grant Wood, American regionalist painter

When people of the Western world think about art, they typically think about Europe. Whether it is Michelangelo or Da Vinci of the Italian Renaissance, or the Dutch master, Rembrandt, or even the 20th century’s most famous artist the Spaniard, Picasso, they are almost always Europeans. America has never been renowned for its art. The most iconic work of American art worldwide is probably “American Gothic,” a stiff, dour Iowan farmer and his wife. Remarkably boring in subject and style, a perfect reflection of the traditional image of Americans as rural and unsophisticated, more focused on work and making money than on pursuing the intellectual or artistic. This view seems to be confirmed by the words of the very painter of that famous work of art, Grant Wood, who is still anonymous to most of those who are familiar with the picture.

Whereas a classic course in World History is infused with Renaissance, Baroque, Romanticism, and Impressionism, the traditional teaching of American History has no requisite artistic component. There is some truth in this perception. Up to the end of the 19th century, in spite of the rise of a distinctively national literature such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick, artistic movements like the Hudson River School, and the stirring marches from John Phillip Sousa, these contributions to art had little impact beyond the American shores. The twentieth century, as publisher Henry Luce said in 1941, would be the “American Century,” and as it was politically, it was artistically. American authors, architects, and artists would take their place alongside the best that Europe could produce. It was, however, in the realm of music and mass media that American artists would dominate and change the world. Aided by a technological revolution that would bring music and movies into the homes and now into the pockets of people throughout the planet, American musicians and filmmakers would begin to influence a global audience and put to rest the notion that Americans were uncultured and better suited to the barn.

To make up for the misperception of art in the United States and to compensate for the Eurocentric bias of most textbooks, the A.P.U.S. History classes of 2012 at Irvine High School have endeavored to create a broad, but by no means complete look at what my editors have called “All-American Art.”

Rather than resting after the APUSH test in May, I directed the considerable talents of my students to creating a book. Essentially it is a series of student research papers, based on a particular book that they have chosen to read and analyze. After selecting a crack group of editors, we decided to compile a list of topics that might encompass our chosen theme of American art. Student writers got to select the topic that they were most interested in, and then had to find a serious historical work on the topic. After reading their book they were asked to write a substantial summary of it. In the second half of their paper they were asked to interpret the author’s thesis and point of view, and bring both professional and individual analysis of the work. Finally each paper had to address a pair of common questions looking into the uniquely American aspects and the international influence of this art.

This is a completely student created book, a tribute to the individual efforts of my student authors, and the tireless dedication of my editing team led by the amazing Claire Chen. They not only created the structure and visual look of the book and scrutinized each paper through three rounds of editing, they collected student contributions and published the work in time for distribution on our last day of class.

Steve Sewell