Un/American

November 2017–July 2018

There is no consensus on what the words “America” and “American” mean. Their meanings change depending on where and when they are used. America can mean both the country also known as the United States and the two continents—North and South—that comprise the western hemisphere. There are American dreams and American oppression. To ask “What is America?” requires considering not only where is America and who is American, but also, most importantly, who gets to decide and whose decisions are heard.

The stakes of asking who, what, and where is America have always been high. Between 1938 and 1975, the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, investigated and intimidated people it decided were “un-American” because of their political activities and alleged ties to communism. Spurred by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, HUAC blacklisted artists, filmmakers, writers, and performers, effectively preventing them from practicing their art and making a living. Among those affected were Lena Horne, Charlie Chaplin, and Paul Robeson.

This installation features works from the SCMA permanent collection by five artists whose “Americanness” was questioned by the United States government during these years: Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Rockwell Kent, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Ben Shahn. That these artists now epitomize American art in many museums and classrooms suggests that what defines America is multiple, not singular; shifting, not fixed; and always up for vigorous debate.

 

Image: Rockwell Kent. American, born in the United States, (1882–1971). Figure Study, undated. Pen, India ink, and graphite on paper. Gift of Mrs. Henry Tomlinson Curtiss (Mina Kirstein, class of 1918).