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15: Searching for Roots, 1918-1940

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    • 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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    "I wanted ... to belong ... [t]o an America alive, an America that was no longer a despised cultural foster child of Europe ... to an America that had begun to be conscious of itself as a living home-making folk .... " Sherwood Anderson, ''A Story Teller's Story."

    During the rapid modernization of the 1920s and 1930s, Americans experienced a powerful desire to renew ties to a past they felt to be slipping away. The Great Depression of the 1930s-the focus of the next chapter-further propelled such desires for imaginary homelands far from the difficulties of the moment. Unlike the ''American Scene" artists considered in the last chapter, other artists turned away from the nation's cities and the culture of mass consumption and entertainment, toward older ways of life. This impulse pointed both modernists and traditionalists toward folk, Native, and colonial arts, and it impelled various artists to take up their ethnic heritages as part of a "usable past" (see box, page 486). A range of artists and writers turned to regions such as New England, Appalachia, and the Southwest-where rural ways of life, preindustrial crafts, and older patterns of community were still intact as well as toward periods in the nation's history when aesthetics were still part of the fabric of the everyday.

    This "usable past" was put to a variety of different uses. The search for roots ranged from the modernist recontextualization of earlier forms to the revival of older traditions, the "invention" of new traditions, and the romance with "folk. " The search for roots also compelled Native, Hispanic, Appalachian, and "outsider" artists. These regional and ethnic subcultures, themselves experiencing the pressures of modernization, renewed and reinvented older craft traditions through their encounters with new patrons and new markets. Commercial interests as well appropriated aspects of the "usable past," contributing to the commodification of history. The roots industry- now a mainstay of contemporary culture-had its origins in these decades and in the craving for more "authentic" modes of existence.

    Creative expansion and renewal were only one side of the coin, however. Internationally as well as at home, rapid modernization produced reactionary social movements that defined identity along racially and ethnically exclusionary lines. The displacements of modernization engendered xenophobic impulses to rid the community of "outsiders." For those uneasy with modernization, the concept of the folk offered a comforting point of reference . But different "folks" traced their ancestry to different origins. Laying claim to roots necessarily excluded other groups who arrived later, or were not part of the same ethnic culture. Material and visual culture played a role in embodying ethnically exclusive identities. Shadowing the search for roots was an anxious craving for self-affirmation that fueled disastrous hatred and bigotry on both the national and the international stages.

    Thumbnail: WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, Going to Church (detail), c.1940-1. Oil on burlap, 38⅛ x 45½ in (96.8 x n5.6 cm). National Museum of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

    This page titled 15: Searching for Roots, 1918-1940 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.

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