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Art Themes Throughout America’s History

If you were to wander into a class at an arts academy high school, you might be surprised to see the emphasis on art themes throughout America’s history.

Creative folks shining a spotlight on what’s happening in the world isn’t just a modern phenomenon. Artists have had their fingers on the pulse of cultural shifts and changes since time immemorial. 

And many of them refused to shy away from bringing attention to some of the more shameful missteps throughout the country’s history. (A pattern that seems to be threatening to repeat itself right now.)

Art Themes Throughout America’s History

It’s not hard finding inspiration to create art in the current social and political climate. There’s no shortage of strife and struggle. 

Here are some of the themes throughout history that artists have tackled and continue to do so today.

1. Environment

If you’ve spent any time in a national park, you may not realize the role that artists, authors, and philosophical pundits had in their establishment. As modern society encouraged opportunistic land grabbing, creative folks were among those bringing awareness to the need for preserving the wilderness. 

By the middle of the century, there were fiercely differing opinions on what should be done with vast swaths of land. In the eternal battle of man vs. nature, there were those who wanted to defeat it and use it for economic gains. Scientists wanted to study it. Those who advocated religion saw the spiritual aspects that needed to be preserved. These varied interests went the distance in establishing a new school of landscape painting. 

Several artists came from this school who made significant contributions to the national-park movement. One artist was Thomas Moran. His painting, The Grand Canyon, was key in influencing public opinion to favor the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.

2. Adversity/Conflict

Adversity and conflict often take center stage throughout American history. The forced segregation of Japanese people during World War II is a perfect example of adversity. And the Civil War between the Union and the Confederate states is the epitome of conflict. 

There are (sadly) many other examples.

Both adversity and conflict provide healthy fodder for artists though.  In fact, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection demonstrates this all too clearly. Some of their earliest pieces address the adversity experienced during the American Revolution in the late 1700s, while more recent pieces look at what happened on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers fell. 

Every piece in the collection explores the ways in which artists responded to these themes of adversity and conflict. 

3. Immigration/Migration

For a long time, America was known as a melting pot. There was once pride in this notion as the country was supposed to be a safe haven for those in search of more opportunities and a better life.

Artwork from the early days of immigration demonstrates the artist’s attempt to convey what attracted these diverse populations. What did they hope to gain in pursuing the American dream? Depending on the reasons for their move (cultural, environmental, economic, political) and whether it was voluntary or involuntary played heavily into their work. 

One work that is particularly impactful on this theme is Electronic Superhighway. It’s a towering bank of TVs that simultaneously screens multiple video clips that illuminate the immigrant and migrant experience from a wide variety of experiences. 

Immigration and migration continue to be relevant themes for artists today – as the climate and viewpoints around allowing people into the country are, unfortunately, widely varied.

4. Freedom/Social Change

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out the four essential human freedoms in his first State of the Union. They were freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt felt that civilized society was built on these freedoms and upholding them in the face of strife was job #1 for the U.S.

American history demonstrates, time and again, how we have failed as a nation in doing this. Not entirely surprising given that the nation was founded by slaughtering Native Americans and then later denying freedom to enslaved Africa Americans. It wouldn’t stop there though. 

The twentieth century was fraught with the stripping of civil liberties to more than a couple of groups: European immigrants in the early 1900s, Japanese Americans during World War II, and Mexican Americans in the 1960s. 

This denial of basic freedoms was a steady theme for artists who were looking to illustrate the dangers of this sort of thinking. Innovative and creative thinkers were certainly behind the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964. 

They continue to this day to rise up against the darkness that threatens our current democracy. It’s a formidable job and we need artists more than ever. 

Could Your Child Positively Shape the Future?

If you have a creative child who is longing to make a change through art, then an arts academy middle school or high school is the perfect place for him/her/them.

Along with a deep understanding of the art themes throughout America’s history, they’ll gain a comprehensive education with a full curriculum that will prepare them for any possibility. 

So if this sounds like a good fit, then contact us today to take a tour of our school. We look forward to meeting future renegades.  


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