Art in Colonial/Frontier American Society

At this beginning of the Spring 2018 semester, we choose to cast our gaze into the distant past and look at our ancestors struggling to establish a better way of life in the New World!  It is a choice that we make to pause from the pace and pressures of contemporary 21st century life and look back on the struggles of those who came before us.  Our gaze is focused on our ancestor’s desire to leave something of themselves for us to consider through the creative activities of making Art objects.  Citizens of 21st century American acknowledge the role Art has made in life but do not generally give widespread national credence to the role or importance of Art in shaping our presence.  Andy Warhol famously said “People in America think Art is a person’s first name!”    The American artist John Sloan, an early 20th century New York realist painter (member of the Ashcan School) made the following observation of the role of he American artist in colonial/frontier life:  “The American Artist—the unwanted cockroach in the kitchen of a frontier society.”

What are our thoughts of our colonial/frontier ancestors who chose a pathway of Art making?  How do you see Art defining or playing a role in your daily life as we wind down the second decade of the 21st century?

Portrait of Robert Gibbs

The Freake-Gibbs Limner, Portrait of Robert Gibbs

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


12 thoughts on “Art in Colonial/Frontier American Society”

  1. I think our colonial/frontier ancestors were very brave to choose a pathway that was different than what was the norm. American painters embraced an unprecedented abstract expressionism which depicted views of every day life. This expanded beyond the individual and the family to encompass a wider horizon as discussed in class. 

With technology advancing day by day, it already offers different ways of animating—giving life and form to shapes and objects—and yet it is only in its early stages. I understand this as my background in computer science gives me the fundamental tools for programing which some would say is an art form and I would agree. Art is still just as important today than it was during Colonial times and will always play a vital role in our existence.


  2. I believe that Elham raised a very interesting point in his comment above – one that I agree with. The courage of our ancestors to “embrace an unprecedented … expressionism” is one that we all benefit from today. It couldn’t have been easy to make a conscious decision to choose to direct their art in that manner – departing from the cultural status quo. But it provides and inspirational model to follow when attempting to break out of a certain mold.
    In my personal life, art plays a large role in my daily life – both because I am privileged enough to study art and design every day and because I am passionate about it personally. I think I share a similar sentiment with a lot of people – art is a way of expression for me, something I use as an outlet.
    It has been so interesting to see the progression of the art that we have been studying in class, then comparing it to what I see now. It’s exciting to imagine how art and expression will evolve over the next fe centuries.


  3. I think our colonial/frontier ancestors who chose a pathway of artmaking are quite admirable. Life as an artist can and is a struggle even in today’s day and age. Wanting to make a mark in the world is everyone’s dream, but to be a part of a new beginning is remarkable. As a graphic designer/artist, art definitely plays a huge role in my daily life. Being able to work and think creatively because of art has opened up more opportunities. I think art in general has made me more open-minded to new and different things.


  4. What separates Americans, especially in the early decades, from our counterparts Europe is that we do not have a tradition of aristocracy, of landed gentry. From the get-go it was about making your own through hard work. American culture is one that does not give a lot of credence to leisure time. That’s what makes the early artists so unique in their perseverance, they did not have the free time and money to indulge in the arts. It was only through a true passion and love of arts that drove them in that direction.

    Towards the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, America has come to the forefront of art in the world. I’m very happy about this, and I take as many opportunities as I can to visit museums across the country. However, aside from “high art,” graphic design, set design, movies, TV shows, interior decorating, these are all artistic endeavors that influence us on a daily basis, and that America has a distinctive style in.


  5. Since America was still so underdeveloped, (by Europe’s standards), it was much harder to choose the profession of fine artists in the colonies. There were no art schools, not many, if any, mentors to teach the skills needed to become a successful artist. The early artists that did become artists like Copely ended up moving to Europe to further their learnings. It was not until Pollock and the abstract expressionists that America gained its own, unique art movement that was accepted by artists around the world. I think to choose to be an artist in colonial times was only possible for the merchant or upper class because they had enough time and money to not be struggling to make a living. On the other hand it gave inspiration to those among the colonies to continue to make art which would eventually lead to the great American artists of the twentieth century. Art plays a role every single day in my life. I am constantly inspired by my surroundings, my friends, and artists that came before me. There are so many ideas, mediums and media that are accessible that everything around me seems to have the possibility of being a new art piece.


  6. Art has made many strides today in America thanks to our colonial ancestors, even though colonials are demonized in the present day. Art saved and helped preserve so many national parks, and it really shows how important art can be. Colonials really did pave the way in a sense, they let us Americans get more into art and construct our own theories and movements. We probably would not have abstract art, or minimal art if it weren’t for colonials.


  7. I think that they were heroes in many aspects. Firstly, they were in a career that had/has no apparent value. Especially in Colonial America where people are fighting every day to survive, feed themselves, and build their homes. Secondly, they had enough fortitude and foresight to know that painting people and still lives and landscapes were important ways to capture what life, culture, and society were like back then. In terms of my own daily life, art is critical to me. My house is decorated with plaques and signs and pictures of my family and every single piece is important to me. I bought or made each one at a certain time in my life and so I have special memories with them all. Nowadays with social media and instant gratification and the ability to take 1000 photographs on our phones, it seems like art has been downgraded. Less appreciated. I can scroll through my instagram in 3 minutes and be inundated with over 50 images. Because of those reasons, I try to only take photos of particularly special moments. I make every piece of art for a specific reason and not just because I can. I think it adds more value to something when you take a deliberate action to create it.


  8. One of the cornerstones of building a civilization is the creation of art. I commend our colonial ancestors for taking up a huge task to start a new life in a far off land and pursuing artmaking. I believe that these colonial ancestors were influential in establishing a culture for Colonial America. Even in the 21st century, art still plays a huge role.Whenever you look around, you can see the importance art has on society. In my personal life, art has a huge part on my major and future line of work. As a graphic designer, I need to think artistically and creatively when I work.


  9. I think that it took lots of guts and forward thinking because art, although it is a powerful tool, it doesn’t seem like the most fruitful and smart investment when starting a new nation or when supporting a family in a society where many social aspects weren’t fully stablished. I think the colonist that painted or sculpted were thinking in a broader sense and thought of the future and those who were to come after them. Art more than an aesthetic tool, I believed served as and index of life and record keeping of this new world– because of such, it contradicted the norm and the popular functions that art had in Europe were it was more of a spiritual and aesthetic tool. America enters the art world as a way to keep record and immortalize the life of the few and early colonists that took part of it. Today, we are able to appreciate art as both and index of the past and something aesthetically pleasing, art is now so much more than the sum of its parts and allows us to connect to people, whether they live now or lived many centuries ago, we are able to connect and communicate through art.


  10. I think that our colonial ancestors really put themselves out there for their art. They really went out of their way to ignore the norm of what was considered art at the time, and it has helped shape the cultural landscape of America ever since.

    Art is an enormous part of my life. Not only because I am a graphic designer, but also because I am an animator. Animation is such a different type of art then something like a painting. You can actually show what you want to tell instead of just hoping that people will interpret it correctly. Not only is animation what I want to do for a living, but cartoons shaped my humor and the person I am today.


  11. I think when it came to our ancestors of the colonial/frontier chose a decision of a pathway with art making. Which made it very admirable and earned up some respected esteem. When it came to life as an artist, there are some hardship that come with that job. Since even today there has been struggles wanting to make a difference and standing ground in this worlds society after all that the set dream artist wants to achieve. The feeling to be a part of something remarkable and achieve is always rewarding and an amazing opportunity. As a designer, art is nonstop around me all the time and it puts into my everyday regardless and being too freely create anything and I feel art has evolved when it comes to the overall openminded thinking towards people’s views.


  12. Art will always be a part of everyday life. In today’s world, art has evolved past the traditional painting and sculpture. Even if your not an artist by profession, you interact with some form of art everywhere you go. Social media outlets such as Instagram or creative content such those on YouTube are all forms of art. It may not be as complex as Renaissance art, but do hold value among a large crowd. As a graphic designer, I am constantly looking at objects around me, sometimes I even catch myself thinking about how I can improve on what’s caught my eye. I am always observing whats around me, its quite fascinating.


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