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Can Popular Art Help Revive American Identity?

Alexandra Hudson

This past Friday evening, I sat in a room of more than fifty reds and blues—Tea Partiers, Black Lives Matters supporters, and everything in between—from across the country as part of the Better Angels national convention in St. Louis, Missouri. I was asked to speak on a question of great importance today: Is there an American identity?

This is a question that has many much concerned, for fear the answer is “no longer.” Faith in our government institutions and our fellow Americans is at record low, while partisanship and polarization are at all-time highs. And further threatening Americans’ sense of identity are those that question the American project itself. On the political left, many claim that America’s failure to live up to its ideals, past and present, undermines the legitimacy of those ideals, as Ta-Nehisi Coates did in his Congressional testimony on reparations this past week. Meanwhile, some on the right, such as Patrick Deneen, argue that America’s liberal order was doomed to fail from the beginning.

These claims are incorrect. As I explained at the Better Angels convention, American identity is grounded in our country’s commitment to the liberal ideals of human freedom and equality. These ideals have sometimes been perverted or gone unheeded, but that is no reason to dismiss them. They are our birthright as Americans, and they are what unite us as participants in a grand project of self-governance.

Many public intellectuals today think that the solution to our current social divisions lies in reviving our shared sense of identity—though these thinkers differ  on precisely how to do so. Historian and author Jill Lepore, for example, argues we need a new, shared American history to unite us. Political theorist and writer Francis Fukuyama thinks that a new national service program is the answer to achieving a more perfect union.

Maybe so; but I think a new popular art could do a lot of good. 

Here in Indianapolis this July, an art gallery and platform for local artists, Indianapolis’s Harrison Center, and Indiana’s premier think tank, the Sagamore Institute, are partnering to host an exhibition of both art and original manuscripts from The Remnant Trust rare books collection that will hopefully spark a conversation about what it means to be a citizen of this great country. The exhibit will reflect on what it means to be an American, celebrating different experiences in America’s past while beginning a conversation about the future of citizenship. We’ve commissioned local artists to interpret the themes of the manuscripts with the aim of giving visitors a multidimensional and multi-sensory experience to begin a dialogue about American identity.

A rich tradition of using of art to forge unity and national identity precedes my humble effort. Across time and place, poets, artists, writers, musicians have used their craft to tell stories that illuminate national ideals. These artists have helped their countrymen make sense of the world and understand who they are as a nation and people. Homer did this with his tales of the lives of Achilles and Odysseus in The Iliad and The Odyssey—stories that helped readers and listeners define and understand what it meant to be Greek. Virgil accomplished the same thing with his Aeneid, inspiring Romans to follow the example of his eponymous protagonist. It is widely known that the great operas of Verdi served an integral role in developing support for a unified Italy by capturing a specifically Italian imagination.

Here in America, Parson Weems followed in this tradition with his biography of George Washington. Published in 1800, just after Washington’s death and amid the extraordinarily divisive Adams-Jefferson presidential election, Weems’s biography spun inspiring tales of Washington’s virtues. These stories were often grounded in nothing but Weems’s imagination; there is no historical evidence supporting, for example, the famed tale of Washington’s felling a cherry tree. Yet his stories led Americans to look to Washington as the embodiment of America’s ideals—ideals for which all Americans should strive.

We must revive this tradition of using art to inspire and unite. It is important to criticize the evils in America’s past, but guilt and shame neither motivate nor unify. The use of biography for moral instruction means celebrating the good in our past alongside the bad, as Plutarch did in his Parallel Lives, searching for virtue to celebrate and vice to condemn among the prominent figures of Greek and Roman history.

To confront the wrongs while appreciating the good in America’s past, our exhibit will highlight different experiences of citizenship in both Indiana’s and America’s history. We are pairing an original printing of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with a local artist’s depiction of Madame C.J. Walker—an African-American entrepreneur who became the one of the wealthiest self-made female millionaires in American history, as well as an influential activist for racial equality and women’s rights. Similarly, a portrait of young Abe Lincoln, who spend part of his childhood in Indiana, will be paired with an original printing of the Emancipation Proclamation.