The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick



Since the early 1990s, significant new thinking and abundant academic posturing have brought forward some fresh, not always entirely palatable insights into the subject of America's western art. What was traditionally perceived of in proud, often hyperbolic terms as the art most representative of America's cultural and historical essence became transformed almost overnight into a hapless sociocultural pariah. Painters who had portrayed some of America's most spectacular scenery were suddenly considered suspect for "beautifying" a region whose splendors thus revealed were said to disguise reality and serve little more than mercenary interests. Artists who had focused on the historical genres of the cowboy, the pioneer woman, and Indian life and who had been celebrated as recorders of lifeways previously considered compelling and unique were now reviled for sexist, racist, and imperialist persuasions. What as a discipline had been rather sleepy and self-satisfied -- in fact, generally dismissed as a discipline at all -- now heaved under the weight of unprecedented analytical pressure and convulsed from the agonies of unwelcome and unrelenting reinterpretation. In short, the mythic dust from the long western cultural trail that had settled peacefully over several generations of popular elucidation was now kicked up as a malevolent haze, a cloud of cultural pollutants that shamed and defamed American cultural traditions. "Cowboy art;" as it is sometimes referred to pejoratively, was no longer allowed to claim a range devoid of discouraging words.

So what is this suddenly transmogrified enigma called "western art;" and who were its practitioners? Why was it fixed for so long in the public perception as an esteemed, quintessentially national expression only to be dislodged and cast into the quagmire of revisionist doubt and ignominy?

Western art is, in reality, a relatively simple thing to define: it is art that portrays scenes of the region that lies west of the Mississippi River and within the continental United States. The height of its practice occurred over four generations from about 1825 until 1925, coinciding roughly with the region's frontier years. It is typically art produced by European Americans, although Native American practitioners have made important contributions, as have Hispanic artists. As a tradition, western art tends strongly toward the narrative, often endeavoring to recount visually the elements of western history. In fact, the discipline has suffered profoundly because its early students espoused the notion that the validity of the works as art somehow equated with the historicity of the images -- that is, the more accurate the portrayal, the better the art. Such thinking created a controversy that continues to arouse contrasting opinions and has tended to marginalize the discipline, separating it from the larger body of American art history. More recently, western art has undergone vigorous scrutiny for its social, political, and psychological contexts, creating a healthy although sometimes contentious debate among critics and aficionados. It has also enjoyed some recognition for unique aesthetic contributions, many of which boldly transcend historical analogue and ideological context to expose purely pictorial or sculptural dimensions.


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