With the launching of the NEH’s Picturing America, our public schools and libraries will have in their collections poster reproductions of 40 of America’s significant artworks. These posters are tools to be used in the classroom to help enhance core curricula as well as introduce students to America’s art history. Author, John Updike has been at the forefront of this project to bring a visual history to our classrooms. The project is unveiled to obvious criticism of the selection. While diverse in its inclusion of artists like Mary Cassatt, Romare Bearden and Joseph Stella, Picturing America is backboned by 18th and 19th Century American artists or the “dead white men” who helped architect our patriotic image. Updike’s response to criticism is, "in this age of diversity and historical revision," these "thin-lipped patriarchal persons" cannot be ignored by anyone who seeks to appreciate how artists have shaped the United States, from Colonial times to the present day.”
Updike is right. We cannot ignore John Singleton Copley, Grant Wood or Norman Rockwell. These artists play an incredibly important role in how we see ourselves and how we interpret our American history. The problem with the collection is the omission of an acknowledgment of the biased representations of a self-glorified American idealism.
Without the benefit of a critical eye for looking at art, Picturing America undermines learning rather than enhancing it. Presenting Grant Wood’s American Gothic as an example or worse proof of what the Great Depression looked like risks propagandistic results. Students must be keen to an historical context of the 18th and 19th centuries that includes celebrated colonial themes, such as “Manifest Destiny” before looking to art for answers to their questions. Our school teachers must be aware of the influences and motivations for the success of many of the works in Picturing America before employing the collection as a teaching tool.
As a former college art history instructor, I am a strong advocate for introducing art to students well before their first year in college. A more visually literate culture has always been a desire of mine. But I must admit that I am a bit conspiratorially suspicious of the unveiling of Picturing America by the NEH at a time in our history when the American image may need some airbrushing.