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10.4: Conclusion

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    The new cosmopolitanism of trade exchange, tourism, and World's Fairs-and a new fluency in an international range of design vocabularies-offered vastly expanded resources for American artists, architects, and designers. Rarely before or since have the American arts been as unified by a common impulse to refine and reform the material and visual environment. The global market and circulation of styles, the appropriation of other cultural forms, and the eclectic range of taste that we see today are not new: fueled by global consumerism and a shrinking world, today's transnational flow of goods had its origins in the later nineteenth century. At that time, many American artists found their identity in a new freedom to range throughout history, in the company of the great artists of the past, while opening up their curiosity to non-Western influences. These influences catalyzed the careers of all the distinctive personalities of the age: Louis Comfort Tiffany, James McNeill Whistler, Louis Sullivan, H. H. Richardson, and many others. Although American culture would alternate between nationalism and internationalism over the next century-and at times be accused of "provincialism" - America's artistic and cultural innovators never again broke their ties to the rest of the world.

    American culture's expansion beyond its national boundaries entailed both gain and loss. If the gains are obvious, the losses are perhaps less so. The dizzying array of consumer choices now permitted the invention of a social self, determined merely by the particular impression one wished to make. A person's identity derived less and less from experience, background, and moral character, and more from superficialities such as style and appearance; the connections between things and their meanings came to seem increasingly arbitrary and less reliable. The novelist Edith Wharton, writing about wealthy New Yorkers at the end of the nineteenth century, identified a new "hieroglyphic world," in which things stood not for themselves but for social pretensions. While people, objects, styles, and motifs have always been mobile- even across continents-what changed in the late nineteenth century was the speed of this movement. Such rapid social mobility challenged the older ways of knowing the world, ways based on local custom, social tradition, moralistic values, and historical association. These values countered the challenges of mobility by attempting to reassert stable boundaries, as we shall see in the next chapter.

    This page titled 10.4: Conclusion is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.