Every other year since 1895, the Venice Biennale has served as an international stage for some of the most interesting, daring artists working today. You might expect the Biennale to be a place where signs of nationalism abound in some form or another: After all, artists undergo a rigorous selection process by their respective countries before they’re sent to essentially compete against their foreign counterparts. (A jury awards a gold medal, the Golden Lion, to the best artist at the fair.)
The event, often referred to colloquially as the “Art Olympics,” is coming to a close this week, but not before making it abundantly clear how little nationalism matters anymore to one pavilion: the American one. Since 2000, the U.S. pavilion has largely featured apolitical works, with many artists finding burdensome implications in the association of their work with their home country. This raises the question: In 2015, what makes art distinctly American?
Indeed, the Biennale reflects a long-simmering shift in contemporary art. Many curators of American museums say they’re moving away from traditional definitions: In the past, the label has been more actively used to decide who does and doesn’t belong in the country’s cultural history. But art reflects identity, and the U.S. national identity has only grown more pluralized in recent decades, thanks to immigration and globalization. As a result, U.S. art museums today are embracing a new, more inclusive use of the “American art” label—one that better captures the rich, cross-cultural influences shaping the country’s artistic output in the 21st century.
“We open our doors very wide,” says Virginia Mecklenburg, the chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.—the closest thing the U.S. has to an art museum of national record. “There are many people who remain citizens of their home country, but have an enormous impact on American art and culture.” She points to a forthcoming fall 2017 exhibition of the Mexican semi-abstract painter Rufino Tamayo, who represented his home country at the 1950 Biennale but who worked and taught in New York for 14 years as well. Sixty-five years later, the American Art Museum, Mecklenburg says, is recognizing how “the influences he absorbed and projected played an important [role] in the art history of this country.”
Recent shows at the American Art Museum also illustrate the art world’s firming grasp on how much the Americas as a whole have influenced U.S. culture. As the curator and architectural historian Barry Bergdoll notes, there’s long been a notion that ideas are generated in the north and trickle down. But museums are finally taking Latin American art and U.S. Latino artists more seriously. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 data, Latinos are the largest American ethnic minority, representing 17 percent of the population, and art institutions are making a concerted effort to better reflect the people they serve.
Museums, too, are increasingly using the American label to acknowledge the country’s ugly past—even celebrating the role artists from abroad have played in capturing that uncomfortable history. Earlier this year, the American Art Museum displayed 70 paintings and drawings by the Japanese-born modernist Yasuo Kuniyoshi. He came to the United States in 1906 as a teenager but was barred from becoming a citizen under immigration laws, and the government classified him as an “enemy alien” after Pearl Harbor. He had a complicated relationship with his own identity: During World War II, Kuniyoshi created anti-Japan posters for the Office of War Information and participated in propagandizing radio broadcasts. Reviewing the American Art Museum’s current show, the Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott reflected on how Kuniyoshi’s most productive years coincided with “an ugly age of racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration sentiment,” in which the artist himself played a role. Yet Kennicott describes Kuniyoshi’s art as “deeply American, or at least as American as it is anything else.”
Adapted from http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/11/the-end-of-the-american-artist/408064/