American Culture and the American Identity

The United States of America has always been somewhat of an enigma to many. Rising from a British colony, it successfully fought the War of Independence and gained its sovereignty in 1776, starting with its initial 13 states and eventually progressing to 54 which currently make up the union. With its involvement in the two World Wars, its influence and power internationally increased as it added the much needed financial, industrial and military might necessary for Allied victory. As it came hurtling to the international stage, many would now go on to accept the fact that It was now a formidable force to be reckoned with and soon gained the Superpower status. With this new found status, it was important for this country to now define itself, what it stood for, its ideals and the spirit of its people (Gannon 28). From it lengthy history and it being the melting pot of cultures and ideas, it was not long until notable figures in this society went ahead to depict these  ideas; be it on canvas, film, newspapers and even comics. The purpose of these individual’s unrelenting attitudes was to affirm to the rest of the world that the United States of America was a force to be reckoned with, especially in the post-World War period. The new threat was the “Iron Curtain”, as Winston Churchill put it during his Fulton address, that later saw the United States engage in conflict in the Korean peninsula and Vietnam fighting Communist proxies. There was a need during this period for the United States to also present its ideals to the world and especially to its people to avert the “red threat” from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R) and most importantly to fully entrench its popular culture in its citizenry.  An example of one of the pioneers who was hell-bent on presenting popular American culture to the rest of the world was the artist Norman Rockwell. For the purpose of this essay, the analysis will solely focus on his Saying Grace  1951 painting and what message it communicate about American popular culture.

In terms of the most influential artists to ever come out of the United States of America, Rockwell definitely tops the list. He is remembered for his poignant, touching and nostalgic paintings that more often than not gave depictions of simple everyday scenes from the typical American life. Steven Spielberg, one of the most celebrated Hollywood movies directors, also hails Rockwell as one of the American greats as he ostensibly painted the American dream on canvas (Halpern and Rockwell 179). American popular culture had gone ahead to coin the popular phrase, “The American Dream” , to elucidate their country as one that was full of opportunities where every citizen, regardless of race could pursue their dreams and watch them come to fruition (Rockwell and Marker 40). It was once believed that if all Americans came together in unity, no force was able to defeat them. Such sentiments were the backdrop of Rockwell’s painting career as the spirit of the American people was at an all-time high after their victory of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Emperor Hirohito’s Imperial Army in the Pacific War (Holsinger 40). With these decisive victories came responsibility, especially to influential individuals in the country (Rockwell included) to depict the ideals of this great nation and to ensure that they are firmly entrenched in every American.  Rockwell was exceptional in telling unique American experiences of values and culture using print media as his means of disseminating his profound message. It was these timeless scenes that were eventually distribute around the nation and became treasured collections. He was showing the America he knew to those who did not know it.

One of his most popular paintings is Saying Grace, painted in 1951. It is a painting that often evokes a string of emotions among many Americans. The painting depicts a young boy and a woman (most probably his mother) saying grace at their table in a crowded diner. It was the vivid imagery with which he painted this picture that often moves many (Stoltz 105). The theme of the painting from the picture is that of reverence. The boy and his mother are pictured deep in prayer with reverence also exuding from all the other members of the public that had gathered in the diner during this day. It was a direct depiction of an American family, one which is always thankful for what it has while acknowledging that this providence is by the grace of a higher power, God. In all the hustle and bustle that a 1950s typical American family would go through, giving thanks was also part of the regimen in this part of the world and could never be forgotten. It is true that the first people to settle in the Northern America from Europe wee Puritans seeking a safe haven where they could be free to practice their pure form of Christianity as they saw fit (Crothers 56). The persecution that they had experienced in Britain had forced them to travel across the high sea to this new land where they where they were now able to have the freedom of worship as they wished. It was from these first pilgrims that the Christian tradition was entrenched in the American culture together with Thanks Giving, as did the first pilgrims when they had their first bountiful harvest in the New World wrought with many seen and unforeseen dangers. All those present in the diner have their focus on the pair deep in prayer, depicting popular American culture and the ideals that were at the core of every single American.

In Saying Grace, Rockwell was successful in giving an elaborate insight into the perfect idyllic American family. Respect for authority was prevalent, especially in close-knit family units. Rockwell’s painting thus captures the image of the intricacies that exist within family life that was well-functioning and pronounced.  A central theme in the picture is the adoration of family and religion as the two most important things in the life of every American. The picture can be contrasted with the situation that was presently being experienced in the Soviet Union where the ideology present then was geared towards the elimination of religion while spreading atheistic propaganda that in most cases ridiculed the Orthodox Christians that were present in the country and also going to the extent of confiscating church property as a means to harass believers. Most notable of them all was the Marxist- Leninist policy of teaching atheistic principals in schools while consistently suppressing, controlling and outlawing all religions that were popular at the time (Luehrmann 47).  These religions were seen as “backward” by the state and were to be eliminated with immediate effect using all means possible. The Communist Party, in particular, was notorious for supporting these activities which create a controlled society where the hearts and minds of the citizens were controlled.  Rockwell’s painting was an accurate depiction of life in the United States. All the ideals depicted by the subjects in the picture mirror those of an ideal American family in its purest form and not stereotypical in any sense. Rockwell was simply depicting life as he knew it in this intriguing country that had come a long way to establish itself in the global high table.

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