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Americana - The Cultural Phenomenon

  • americana
July 3, 2016
Deeply invested in modern and contemporary art, the Widewalls magazine aims at providing a unique experience for its readers in the form of in-depth and quality journalism.

It is considered that the famous saying “ Mom, apple pie, hot dogs, baseball, and Chevrolet ” sums up the feel of America’s charm. The artifacts of America’s history and the reference to the cultural heart and traditional roots of the United States, be it in folk art, pop culture, music, literature, even tattoo art, all of this makes up the Americana spirit. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that Americana stands only for patriotic flags or Uncle Sam figurines.

This term is wide-ranging, and once put into an art category will comprise different images that reflect the charm, nostalgia, and even some of the harsh criticism towards America’s past and culture today. The quintessential of the U.S.A culture and tradition is at the root of what we understand today to be Americana, and this phenomenon is not just referenced in the field of visual art, but we can find the term related to music, film, fashion, interior design, and an overall style of living.

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Original American Rosebud Diner – via wikicommons.org

What Can Be Americana ?

Think Johnny Cash; remember the silkscreen images produced by Andy Warhol; think about prints, iconic images and major figures of America’s film; of America’s music; think about jazz, blues, country, and bluegrass; recall the colorful images of Folk  art; and yes, think about the dessert and know, that all of this and much more can be viewed as an inspiration for the cultural phenomenon that is Americana. The simple definition would state that Americana describes artworks featuring objects or imagery associated with the United States. More often than not, artists have used Americana less to promote the values of America than as a means for cultural criticism. The star-struck consumerism society was used and appropriated in some of the most celebrated works of art by majorPop artists, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. Yet, there is also a different stream, the one that uses this term to suggest a certain way of living, and a certain value system that for some is considered lost.

The Nostalgic Aspect of Americana

From the mid through late 20th-century, the term was largely associated with nostalgia for an idealized life in small towns and small cities in America, popularly considered “ The Good Old Days”. Especially revered in Americana nostalgia are small town institutions, like the barbershop, restaurant, ice-cream parlor, diners, and corner stores. There is a strong current of treasuring collectibles and memorabilia, from different items found in different stores, to vintage advertisements, records, toys, instruments, old car licence plates, and retro clothes. This need to preserve the look of the past is extremely strong in the Americana music industry, where we witness a similar look of the artists, in terms of the fashion and even the sound. We must realize that Americana is, in fact, a cultural phenomenon that is extremely inspirational to artists who wish to express and explore that, which is quintessentially American.

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The 1904 postcard suggests that even little black children are inclined toward violent behavior (From Understanding Jim Crow) via collectorsweekly.com

The Diversity of Americana Artists

The term “Americana” is often linked to the music. However, Americana is more than pure traditional, folk music of the United States, encompassing a broader cultural symbology. Still, when it comes to the music, so many different music genres are incorporated in it. Folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll – all of these American roots music styles shape both Americana art and Americana culture, from which the most celebrated festivals, such as the one in Nashville sprung. And all of the genres were born within a specific cultural and social context. It’s impossible to write about blues without mentioning the conditions in which African Americans in the Deep South of the United States lived around the end of the 19th century. That is why it’s very a challenge to make a complete list of Americana artists – there are so many of them, from a number of artistic spheres. The same challenge we meet in researching the contemporary visual artists whose works were influenced by Americana.

Nevertheless, it is possible to mention few artists whose work can easily be linked with the most American cultural label, perhaps even more than a few. Bob Dylan, the walking legend, the man whose very presence emanates energy so often associated with guru-like nature, is most definitely one of the greatest figures of Americana. His famous songs from 1960s revived the American folk music, and today, he is considered to be one of the greatest musicians of all times. Dylan would not have become what he is today had he not been influenced by Woodie Guthrie years earlier, while his own influence stretches across decades. Moreover, the Grateful Dead left a legacy of their own, while the line-walker Johnnie Cash inspired more than music.

John Prine, another succesfull name of American music, brought folk to big cities, such as Chicago. During the post baby-boom happiness followed by the Vietnam war craze, bringing the sound of the American country to big cities meant something. Since the 1970s, American folk inspired art has slowly entered the mainstream, standing alongside the traditionally rebellious rock n’ roll. Ever since, the music style widely referred to as Americana today shaped up to be one of the most artistically diverse and liberal expressions we know, painting pictures of the West, dreaming about love or the better tomorrow.

Today, all of the lovers of the distinctive Americana sound, seasoned with the wailing vocals, nostalgic echoes and acoustic guitars have a wide pool of artists to pick from and listen to. From Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Ry Cooder, to Neko Case or Wilco, the doors to the idealistic dream filled with nostalgia stay the same, although the visions, naturally, differ.

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Peter Tunney – Forever Young (courtesy of sinergios.com)

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave – Americana and Contemporary Art

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave; O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? – These are the rhymes of the American national anthem.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – This is a part of the Preamble of the American Declaration of Independence from 1776.

The anthem, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution – they represent political framework for the emergence of Americana. But, political legislation is one thing; the reality is something else. That is why America inspired contemporary art can be divided in two big sections: the practices that celebrate the American way of life; and the practices that criticize the idealized image of the Land of the Free, and the myth of the American Dream. When Bruce Springsteen performed his mega-hit song Born in the USA, everybody was thinking that it was a patriotic song, celebrating all that means to be an American. But, this is not so. This song is about working class living in small towns in the countryside, obliged to go to wars (Vietnam). Similarly, contemporary artists are inspired by America, using symbols to create art glorifying America or criticizing its politics, social policies or consumerist culture. The message of their works is never solely the aesthetical one. Think about the thought-provoking art of Robert Longo, Ai Weiwei, Shepard Fairey, Peter Tunney, John Outterbridge, Andy Warhol, Tony Cox, and many others. Editors’ Tip: FOR WHICH IT STANDS: Americana in Contemporary Art

Although not all of us might agree that certain group identities can be formed solely through visual symbols, namely visual arts, it is challenging to dispute this. Make no mistake about it, art is such a potent concept and it can rethink, remember but also construct a reality of a certain community. When we think about the culture of the United States in the last century or so, we cannot but construct the idea through imagery that was deliberated by contemporary American artists. These extraordinary individuals had such significant response to the rapidly changing world around them, creating iconic works which became timeless objects of inspiration. Do you know all of them?

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Robert Longo – Black Flag (courtesy of artspace.com)

Brightest Stars of Americana Art

Of course, we cannot talk about the American identity and cultural heritage without art and those who celebrate the country’s unique spirit through Americana artwork, within and beyond the United States borders. From the patriotic and crafty art of the 19th century and the many seminal movements that shaped Modern, Post-Modern and Contemporary art of the 20th century, to the creative notions of the new millennium, American art has always played a vital part on the international scene. Drawing inspiration from history, politics, tradition, geography, celebrity culture and the simple, everyday life, the artists depicted America in all its glory, often inspired by the European style in painting. The vast legacy of these artworks is significant, as it guides younger generations into expanding its reach every day.

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Georgia O’Keeffe in the American Desert

Norman Rockwell – Saturday Evening Post

A writer, painter, illustrator and author of many iconic images such as the one of Rosie the Riveter, which became a feminist symbol, or the Four Freedom series of paintings, Norman Rockwell was the nation’s true legend. Known for his numerous, spot-on reflections on culture and current events, he was perhaps best known for his 323 original cover illustrations of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, which he came to create for over five decades between the 1910s and the 1960s. His scenery from practically every sphere of the American life became historical, their own kind of a cult, an observant, accurate and consistent visual diary of the people and their country loved and celebrated by all. Norman Rockwell was also a regular illustrator for other seminal magazines, such as LIFE and Popular Science.

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Left: Norman Rockwell – Liberty Girl, 1943 / Right: Norman Rockwell – Home from Camp, 1940

James Whistler – Portrait of the Painter’s Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, or much better known as Whistler’s Mother, this painting is considered to be a Victorian Mona Lisa – which could actually be appropriate, given that it is held by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Painted by James McNeill Whistler in 1871, it depicts the painter’s mother, and ever since it was created, during the Victorian era, it was used as the symbol of motherhood and family values; eventually, it even ended up on a stamp used in the US in 1934. James Whistler’s painting had had an immense influence, and many attribute its success to the fact that it is able to communicate a specific meaning to almost every viewer, something that very few other artworks in the history of art managed as well. Interestingly enough, the painter himself did not seem to be attached to the portrait, as he had it pawned soon after it was brought to life.

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James Whistler – Portrait of the Painter’s Mother, 1871

Grant Wood – American Gothic

One of the most familiar paintings of the 20th century American art, Grant Wood’s American Gothic is also probably the most reproduced and parodied Americana artwork, or at least one of them. Created in 1930, it portrays a rather grumpy couple standing outside what is now known as the American Gothic House; the woman is wearing a colonial print apron evoking 19th century Americana, while the man is holding a pitchfork. It is believed that the couple actually represents a father and a daughter, rather than a man and wife. Grant Wood’s initial intention was to paint the house along with ”the kind of people I fancied should live in that house”, and he recruited his sister Nan to pose as the woman, while the man was based on the artist’s dentist. Many critics described the painting as a satire of rural small-town life.

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Grant Wood – American Gothic, 1930

Georgia O’Keeffe – Landscapes of New Mexico

Yes, Georgia O’Keeffe was known for her mesmerizing flowers, but for some two decades, between 1929 and 1949, the artist lived and worked in the state of New Mexico, capturing its landscape and traditions. “Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’. It is a place I have painted before… even now I must do it again,” she once famously said in 1943, and so she did. One of her most notable paintings, depicting a deer’s skull adorned with various wildflowers against a desert background, is a valuable part of the American art history and an artwork that marked the peek in Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic career. During the 1940s, she became the most successful female artist in the country, with two grand retrospectives at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s MoMA, a title she still carries, thirty years after her death.

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Georgia O’Keeffe – Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills, 1935

Edward Hopper – Nighthawks

Three lonely figures and a bartender in a downtown diner late at night. Who would have thought that such simple, yet frequent sight in almost any US city would become an Americana artwork so legendary? Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks is his most brilliant piece, both literally and figuratively, as it oozes in night lights, the atmosphere of a cheap restaurant, dark suits and lonely streets. The painting became so recognizable that its scenery continues to be recreated in a large number of movies, tv shows, books, songs, even entire literary works – Joyce Carol Oates wrote a novel giving each of the pictured characters a background story. And for Gottfried Helnwein, for example, the four people in the painter were Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Elvis. Can it get any more American than that?

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Edward Hopper – Nighthawks, 1942

Jackson Pollock – One, Number 51

What he depicted may not have been related to anything Americana – or anything realistic, for that matter, but the artwork and the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock surely were glorious and grand, just like America itself. In was three years before this particular painting was created, in 1947, that Jackson Pollock started “dancing” around the canvases laid on the floor in order to pour, dribble and flick enamel paint onto their surface, thus constructing a massive explosion of color, gestures and an original way of expression. It was all abstract yet somehow familiar, as it transformed the medium of painting into a tool for the portrayal of pure thought. Jackson Pollock was a painter and a performer who introduced a fresh chapter in the history of the arts that continues to inspire entire generations of artists even today.

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Jackson Pollock – One, Number 51

Jasper Johns – Three Flags

One of the ways to express patriotism and the love of one’s own country is, of course, to wave its flag. For Jasper Johns, who was known for his many Flags, it simply meant painting ”things the mind already knows”, this boringly familiar imagery like flags, targets, stenciled numbers and maps of the United States. For the artist, it was less about patriotism and more about re-interpretation of what we encounter on a daily basis, a fresh way of seeing and re-seeing. And because a flag is such a flat object, Jasper Johns wanted to give it depth, using his remarkable technique and skill. In this case, he created three versions of it, varying in size, and placed them one on top of the other. Add to this the richness and the substance of the artist’s painting and you have a familiar object turning into an artwork before your very eyes.

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Jasper Johns – Three Flags, 1958

Keith Haring and Andy Warhol – Untitled (Madonna, I’m Not Ashamed)

It’s no secret that America is also the land of the celebrity culture, and it was only a matter of time when a movement like Pop art would rose to prominence by celebrating its influence. In 1985, “Papa Pop” Andy Warhol and one of his admirers, Keith Haring, painted several canvases together that featured headlines about their friend, Madonna. Based on the cover of the New York Post, they refer to the media frenzy which erupted after nude photographs of the singer emerged in Penthouse and Playboy magazines. Mixing Keith Haring’s signature playful characters with Andy Warhol’s flat colors and pop mood, the artworks call out and praise consumerist culture at the same time. From the same collaboration between the two American giants, we have paintings that feature the tabloid’s late edition headline: “Madonna on Nude Pix: So What!”

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Keith Haring and Andy Warhol – Untitled (Madonna – I’m Not Ashamed!)

Shepard Fairey – Hope

During the 2008 Presidential election campaign, Shepard Fairey created his most recognized artwork to date – the Barack Obama HOPE poster. The stylized stenciled portrait of the President, executed with only three colors, was accompanied by words “progress”, “hope” and “change” and eventually became endorsed by the official Obama campaign. In the manner of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara poster, the HOPE poster quickly spread out to inhabit nearly every aspect of the everyday life of the Americans, particularly after Obama eventually became president. The poster was accompanied by a few incidents: in 2009, Shepard Fairey was accused of an unfair use of a photograph that the poster was based on, taken by former Associated Press photographer Mannie Garcia, and in 2015, the artist himself declared he was disappointed by Obama as President.

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Shepard Fairey – The Barack Obama HOPE Poster, 2008

Americana Collectibles and Memorabilia

“It occurs to me that I am America.” – Allen Ginsberg

Sleazy motels, vintage Chevrolet Impala, Coke in one hand, Bob Dylan playing on the radio while you cruise down the Route 66, your bandana flitting on the wind as the road stretches on for miles ahead of you. That is the dream, right? This American dream could be a reality with the Americana collectibles and memorabilia available in the vintage shops and online stores. The records, posters, magazines, toys, books, cars, clothes, and basically any Americana item you can think of can be obtained and appreciated if you just look closely. If you are obsessed with Kerouac’s On the Road and wish to live the adventures of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, if you worship bluegrass, bop, folk, classic rock ’n’ roll, if you find vintage ads and posters utterly beautiful, if the star-spangled banner is your go-to pattern, then, my friend, you’re in for a treat.

Americana collectibles and memorabilia are artifacts related to the history, folklore, cultural heritage, and geography of the United States. They include a vast variety of objects such as paintings, drawings, prints, posters, license plates, cars, tools, weapons, flags, plaques, records, toys, books, Coca-Cola bottles, and statues. Infused with nostalgia and patriotism, these items do not have to be old per se, but they do have to be associated with the appropriate aesthetic qualities. The romanticized representations of the turn of the century small town life, considered “The Good Old Days” by the public, were firstly associated with the term Americana. The alluring appeal of bluegrass music playing while the lonesome travelers make their way from the East coast to the West, the Civil War daguerreotypes, the Fourth of July banners from the days past, the iconic Levi’s 501s, the small town shops and institutions – the barber shops, drug stores, soda fountains, and ice cream parlors – the nostalgic imagery of ye olde America remains popular to this day.

memorabilia
Left: Levi’s 501 via ebay.com / Right: Converse Chuck Taylors via etsy.com

Clothing Items

So, what are some of the items easy to obtain today? Let’s start with the obvious one – Levi’s 501s. As we know, the blue jeans are the most representative clothing item related to Americana, Levi’s 501 is the definition of Americana. These denim jeans are not only present on the scene for over a century, but nearly every person in the USA (and the world) have sported a pair of red tab jeans at least once in their life. Vintage 501s can be bought on e-Bay, although there are some pairs that cost well over $8000! How to spot the real deal? Look for the signature red tab on the back pocket of the jeans. If the tab says LEVI’S in all capital letters (known as “Big E”) that mean that the jeans were produced before 1971. Also, look for care tags (added in the 1970s), and the single stitch inseam down the inner thigh, that indicates that the Levi’s were made before the mid-1980s.

While we’re on the subject of clothing items and accessories, keep an eye out for vintage Converse All Star Chuck Taylor high tops. These sneakers started out as basketball must-have and became the official sneaker of American soldiers in the World War II. By the 1960s, Chuck Taylors were everywhere. Also, the iconic Ray Ban Wayfarers are as Americana as apple pie! The famous sunglasses were first created in 1956, rising to new heights of popularity in the 1960s. The Wayfarers, famous for their appearance in the classic film The Blues Brothers, are still popular today, although some of the earlier versions are quite hard to obtain by the collectors today. When buying, watch for Ray Ban stamp on the inside of the frames, or on one of the lenses, and the silver disc on each side of the front frame.

 memorabilia
Left: Black memorabilia poster via icollector.com / Right: Ceramic Aunt Jemima cookie jar reproduction of the original tgldirect.com

Black Memorabilia

Black Memorabilia (Black Americana) are the objects and ephemera related to the African American history. Most of the items were made in the period from the 18th to the 20th century. Often, these artifacts reflect racist views about black people through the caricatures of offensive and dehumanizing nature. However, black memorabilia also includes artifacts with a positive connotation, usually those commemorating civil rights achievements by the important members of the black community – artists, scholars, musicians, politicians, and athletes. The first items related to the black memorabilia were referred to as blackamoors and were produced in Europe. The stereotypical portrayals of Africans, Arabs, and other Oriental attributes often featured dark-skinned heads or busts, colorful turbans, and gold jewelry. Blackamoor objects appropriated the slave culture, entrenched in the American life. After the Jim Crow laws became one of the means of overpowering black Americans, and the advances in printing allowed for more widespread caricatures of black people, often depicted as smiling cooks, simple-minded louts eating watermelons or being attacked by alligators. Their skin color was used as an advertising punchline for toothpaste, shoe polish, ink, and washing powder.

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Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’, Columbia Records, stereo via pinterest.com

Paper Collectibles, Sports Memorabilia, Records

Americana paper collectibles include documents of the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and slavery. They also include early Americana photography, advertising campaigns, posters, and sports related items. There are many choices a collector can make. The slavery documents, animation cells, tobacco, and fruit crate labels, advertising art calendars, various prints, and civil war memorabilia are all available online for the lovers of all things Americana.

Probably the most popular among these items are the sports collectibles. For example, for about $1200 you can get Academy of Sport Laurel cards signed by the legendary baseball player Lou Gehrig. If you have more money to spare, the bid for Babe Ruth’s signed baseball starts at $5000.

As for toys and other miscellaneous trinkets, there is a wide variety of items you can purchase online. From Davy Crockett hats to American Civil War playsets, the figurines of Abraham Lincoln, Black Union infantrymen, and U.S. Naval captains, all the way to the toy replicas of the weapons of the times past, all of them are readily available on e-Bay, Amazon, and other Americana dedicated websites.

“’I think I’ll call it America’ I said as we hit the land I took a deep breath I fell down, I could not stand” – Bob Dylan

The father of Americana music, the first person you think of when you say it, the icon, the one and only Bob Dylan is the face of Americana music and the collectibles and memorabilia related to the famous Robert Allen Zimmerman are the most sought after in this category. According to the PFC40 Autograph Index, the value of a photo signed by the famous artist grew by 117.9% over the past 10 years. The withdrawn version of Dylan’s 1963 album The Freewheelin’ is valued to over $35,000.

Understanding Americana…

What we brought forward to you all today was the vast and wide-ranging phenomenon that celebrates America yet at the same time it provides some of the harshest criticisms towards the United States. The questions one asks while attempting to understand what Americana is in most cases remain rhetorical ones… The answers might be found deep down in the heart, in that small part that explains the love for the country and the need to preserve its identity and history. This cultural phenomenon needs to be viewed as a vehicle bringing forward the cultural identity filled up with different metaphors and memorabilia that speaks about the path of America’s history and all the amazing, beautiful, both low- and highbrow things the entire world recoginzes and loves.

Editors’ Tip: Americana: Readings in Popular Culture: Third Edition

When it comes to Americana, popular culture can be perceived through four distinct cultural spaces: 1) music and the symbology it creates, 2) television, film, video games, 3) literature with its specific impact on the entire 20th century and 4) public spaces, where we perceive identities through various roles, social laws and locations. Therefore, Americana: Readings in Popular Culture: Third Edition allows readers to follow this kind of thought structure through collection of essays divided into four parts, “What We Hear”, “What We Watch”, “What We Read” and “Where We Go.” It is an approach spanning beyond art, reaching deeply into social and cultural discourses. The article is written by Silka P, Lorenzo Perreira, Angie Kordic and Ana Moriarty.

Feature images: Americana sign; Vintage Coke bottles