The eighteenth century can look remarkably modern to contemporary eyes. It marks the beginning of consumerism in American culture, that penchant for measuring status and identity by the objects that surround us. Consumerism, then as now, was underwritten by an international-what we today call a "global"-economy. The tea consumed in delicate porcelain cups on elegantly crafted wooden tea tables by increasing numbers of eighteenth-century colonials came from Asia, and it required the machinery of empire to arrive in British North America, where it steeped in silver pots in Georgiaµ houses up and down the eastern seaboard. Those teapots, like the buildings that housed them, employed elements of symmetry and order that were understood by their makers to · express nature's larger harmonies.
The Southwest represented a different kind of empire. Life in missions across Texas, Arizona, and California drew on memories from the metropolitan centers of Spain and New Spain. These centers, in turn, wove together influences from medieval Europe, from Muslim Spain and Northern Africa, from Native American life in the Southwest, and, by the end of the century, from the neoclassical forms emanating from Europe. The international flow of goods and styles that we take as a hallmark of early-twenty-first-century life really began three centuries ago, despite all the differences in systems of transportation, exchange, and dissemination.
None of this would have been possible without the labor of slavery and the enforced servitude of Native workers in the Southwest. Colonial painting tends to make visible what otherwise would go unremarked: the way that cultures of consumption rely on economies of cheap labor. Sometimes the laborer is shown as a loyal servant; sometimes he appears, as in Copley's Watson and the Shark, as co-contributor to the larger social good. Only occasionally does the laborer's view of the world make its way into the historical record.
The unexpected part of this story is what happens next: revolution. As the economy prospered, American colonists came to chafe at the restrictions placed on them by their peers on the other side of the Atlantic. Britain needed to find a way to finance what had become a very expensive war: the French and Indian War, depicted in West's Death of General Wolfe. Parliament turned to the colonies for relief, and the colonies, in turn, grew resistant to what felt like restrictions on their pockets and their liberties.
As we shall see in the following chapter, artists plunged headlong into the debate: justifying rebellion, imagining a new nation, and, when the Revolution began to look a bit more radical than many had expected, trying to limit the social upheaval they themselves had helped foment.