Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 29, 2003
Frances Pohl Framing America: A Social History of American Art New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002. 560 pp.; 337 color ills.; 328 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0500237921)
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Textbooks are lightning rods for criticism. The purpose of a textbook is to distill the latest scholarship in a wide array of fields for a nonspecialist, usually undergraduate audience. But because it must sacrifice depth for breadth, the textbook is easily criticized by area specialists. Therefore, in an effort to appease as many scholars as possible, it ends up presenting a bricolage of perspectives and thus loses any sense of a single authorial intent. Moreover, no matter how hard the revisionist author might try, the textbook usually remains conservative, muting the impact of new scholarship and, in trying to please professors, publishers, and, lastly, undergraduate students, it ends up frustrating all.

There are perhaps no better examples of these problems than American art textbooks, which have been dominated by establishment scholarship and politics. But things seem to be changing with David Bjelajac’s American Art: A Cultural History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001); Erika Doss’s Twentieth-Century American Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Barbara Haskell’s The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900–1950 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999); and Lisa Phillips’s The American Century: Art and Culture, 1950–2000 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999).

Frances K. Pohl’s Framing America: A Social History of American Art is an important contribution to this emerging body of revisionist scholarship. Pohl’s volume is not your usual textbook. It retains the perspective of a single authorial perspective, wrought from years of classroom teaching as well as careful and patient scholarship. At the outset Pohl admits that hers is not a comprehensive thesis; this admission allows—perhaps even forces—those teachers who use this text to insert their own perspectives in order to supplement, complement, or critique it. Moreover, the book deftly incorporates and acknowledges (by name) recent Americanist scholarship.

Framing America is an unapologetic social history of art; that is, Pohl is interested in the “material conditions of production” (10) and is “concerned with the place of art within struggles for power in both public and private realms, and with rethinking the category ‘art’ itself” (11). Pohl’s textbook forces us to rethink the concept of “American” art and to consider seriously the multiple cultural heritages that make up this nation. In reality, it is this that is the organizing principle for the author. (The title is, after all, Framing America, not Framing American Art.) Fine art plays an important role in “framing America” because it, like other forms of visual culture, is the material means by which power is manifest. Also, it is through visual culture that the diversity of cultural heritages can be embodied and experienced.

This historical perspective means that her textbook is not organized according to art-historical periods, mediums, or other, more traditional ways, ways that start with the American masters and masterpieces first and then provide cultural and historical “background.” She writes:

I have integrated this material into a single central narrative rather than isolating each medium or category of art into a separate section. I have done this to convey the interconnectedness of what have been variously described as fine art, folk art, popular art, and mass culture, and the built environment within which these cultural products circulate. (9)

Pohl’s concise and insightful preface lays out clearly and powerfully her intentions, the intellectual and methodological foundations for her perspective, as well as her limitations. (It is also a fine introduction to the problems and challenges of contemporary art-historical scholarship.) Pohl sees her textbook not as the summa of American art, but as simply a “starting point, not an end point” (9).

As a Canadian teaching at a liberal-arts college in southern California, Pohl is ideally suited to offer a more thick description of American art, one that integrates non-Anglo cultural and visual traditions, thus avoiding much of the “whiggish” tendencies of histories of American art that have marginalized the important contributions of Spanish, Native American, and Mexican cultures to American politics, society, art, and culture.

There is not sufficient space here to treat each of Pohl’s chapters, even briefly, so one example will have to suffice. Framing America begins with a chapter entitled “Art and Conquest,” which focuses not on the Colonies in the Northeast but on the other side of the continent, with the Southwest and Spanish, Mexican, and Native American interactions. Pohl does not simply introduce this material and forget about it, as a kind of nod to political correctness; it is fundamental to her entire narrative. The nation’s art, politics, social structure, and culture are very much the product of Spanish, Mexican, and Native North and South American folk traditions, from political and social structure to artistic forms. Because her narrative is not one that exists to glorify European high-art traditions and the “triumph” of U.S. art as an expression of these traditions, Pohl’s story makes the inclusion of folk art forms such as retablos, quilts, and posters not only appropriate, but necessary. Moreover, it makes her discussion of “noncanonical” artists such as Celia Beaux (1855–1942), Joshua Johnston (1765–1830), and Gerald Nailor (1917–1952) not merely a gratuitous gesture to recent “diversity” discourse, but a treatment of important actors in her narrative. Pohl’s point is that the diversity of American culture has always been a product of multiple cultural heritages and voices and that to overlook it or give it short shrift is to risk misunderstanding American society and culture.

Perhaps the only thing more unfair than covering nearly eight hundred years of American art in a five-hundred-page textbook is to critique it in a 1,500-word review. To my mind, Pohl’s shortcomings are few and no doubt have to do with the obligations and limitations of a textbook. I have just two cavils. First, in her preface, she observes, “Often not only the objects themselves must be analyzed, but also the very processes by which they have been acquired by cultural institutions and come to be considered ‘art’ ” (11). However, Pohl does not seem to address in her narrative the institutional role that museums played, a role that was key in aestheticizing and marginalizing non-European aesthetic forms. The impact of the exhibitions at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the founding of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York receive scant attention, given the importance that display institutions held in the very establishment of “American art” as a respectable scholarly discipline.

Second, although she addresses the religious practices of the Spanish, Native Americans, and Mexicans, Pohl also fails to give, at least to my mind, proper attention to the defining role that Protestant religion, including anti-Catholicism, played in Anglo-European art, culture, and politics, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She mentions briefly the Second Great Awakening without mentioning the First, and her view of Protestantism resembles a thinner version of Max Weber’s now-discredited Protestant work ethic.

Of course, there are those who will dismiss her text simply because they are critical of Pohl’s liberal politics, as evidenced in her adherence to a “social history” of American art. Some will criticize her refusal to affirm art’s autonomy. Others will argue that such forays into material and visual culture, folk art, and advertising is acceptable for “advanced” students, but not for those presumably first encountering the subject. I heartily disagree with both of these objections. For in the last analysis, why teach inexperienced students something that is, to put it baldly, wrong—or at least incomplete—in the first place?

As a curator of a university art museum that focuses on the history and development of American art from the nineteenth century to the present, I understand some of Pohl’s challenges, most particularly the need to communicate to multiple and even mutually exclusive audiences, as well as having to fight the continual temptation to play it safe and follow paths of the least possible resistance. In addition, I have been frustrated by the tremendous disparity between conventional American art textbooks and the work in our permanent collection, not to mention the work of contemporary artists. Quite plainly, the permanent-collection installation at my institution bears more resemblance to the history of art that Pohl tells than the one Wayne Craven or Matthew Baigell do in their standard American art textbooks. Perhaps the “diversity” of our collection can be chalked up to institutionalized bad taste on the Great Plains. But Framing America sketches out a narrative that allows the noncanonical and marginally canonical artists in our collection to step into a more important role. Moreover, Pohl’s book provides a useful context in which the undergraduate student can understand contemporary work on display, such as Enrique Chagoya’s codices, Lesley Dill’s installations, and Martin Puryear’s sculpture. Craven, Baigell, and the other standard texts do not.

The argument from formalist critics that social histories of art have no useful place in an art museum or in academe ignores the diverse aesthetic practices and vocabularies that contemporary artists employ. In large part, American art-historical scholarship, spurred on by the “rediscovery” of the Hudson River landscape painters, emerged in the 1950s as a means to contextualize Abstract Expressionism. Unfortunately, the reigning canonical narratives found in most textbooks remain an apology for midcentury American art and can speak neither directly nor indirectly to the multiple aesthetic languages and cultural contexts in play in the contemporary art world.

Unapologetically, Pohl’s textbook seeks to simultaneously create a useful past to contextualize the work of contemporary artists, while at the same time offering a more accurate—though more complicated and messy—historical frame through which to view America and American art.

Daniel A. Siedell
Curator, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.