“If That’s Art Then I’m a Hottentot!”: American art’s divorce from the American people

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Southern New Hampshire University
In the second half of the twentieth-century American Art experienced significant changes. Despite the rapid development of modernism in Europe, American Artists continued in a very representative style of painting. After World War II and with the advent of the Cold War came the rise of the Abstract Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. These artists painted in a new style that was not at all representative and was not understood by large segments of the American population. This new style of American Art was called Abstract Expressionism and it came to dominate the international art scene and change the direction of American Art. During the Great Depression many American were out of work and the WPA’s Federal Arts Project, paid many artists just to paint. These WPA artists benefitted from the opportunity to be paid by the government to work without regard to marketability, patron expectations or even personal financial needs. Following World War II America was left with significant wealth while Europe was struggling to recover physically and economically. Paris was unable to maintain its reputation as the artistic cultural center, relinquishing that status to New York City which had become a vibrant and supportive artistic community that the Abstract Expressionist could continue benefit from. Additionally, Abstract Expressionism enjoyed the unique benefit of the political situation created by the Cold War years following WWII. Abstract Expressionism was covertly supported by the Central Intelligence Agency to be used as a Cold War weapon to combat communist ideology and demonstrate the freedom of expression possible under democracy. Yet despite these advantages, many Americans did not exhibit an appreciation for the work of these new artists. There were protests to exhibitions, public sculptures and government funding of the arts. There was also much criticism, both from recognized scholars and the general public. These changes in American Art produced a significant shift in the public’s attention away from contemporary art and towards more traditional styles of painting. This shift resulted in a dramatic split in the culture of the American people that remains to this day. (Author abstract)