DiGiWriMo – November 3

Today’s post is dedicated to tenets, themes and traits of American Renaissance art.

(Between the paragraphs, I am wondering if the idea of an American Renaissance has leaked into current political discourse, i.e., the willingness to look back to classical underpinnings for modern examples, buried for years beneath the faux progressivism of modernity and neo-liberalism.) 

This comes almost exclusively from Prof. Thomas Somma’s published and unpublished papers that we’ve used in docent training.

The American Renaissance lasted from 1876 to 1917, from the nation’s centennial to the beginning of World War 1.

(Again, between the paragraphs, I am wondering what were the forces correlated with the end of WW1 that snuffed out the renaissance movement in art. And was there a 20th century American Renaissance in literature, in poetry especially?)

First, the American Renaissance as an ideology identifies with the classical traditions of the Italian Renaissance and of ancient Greece and Rome, and seeks to include the following tenets:

  • personification, i.e., use of the human form symbolically and metaphorically;
  • humanism, or the study of living human beings, how they move, how they are constructed, how they think and react to one another;
  • skepticism, i.e., the individual use of their own intellect, critical thinking, and the celebration of the intellect, of making sense of the world by applying the intellect;
  • the use of classical art as a pedagogical tool, to teach something, to appeal to the intellect.
  • inclusiveness of the best aspects of all previous cultures, especially aboriginal and indigenous ones, and saving those aspects for all posterity.

(Between the paragraphs, I see these tenets all but disappearing/disappeared in modernist discourse. Somma suggests they might re-emerge/reappear in post-modernism.  I used to think the Wynton Marsalis alternation between classical music and avant-garde jazz was a possible expression of that tendency, of that re-emergence.  Just heard that Marsalis is experimenting with a violin concerto. Might be a hopeful sign.  MJQ and others experimented with what they used to call “third stream music,” a synthesis of classical and jazz elements. Yes, there is hope.)

Here are a few characteristics (in no particular order: these are all from the Somma article, by the way, listed as aspects of Jeffersonian belief, inherited from the Enlightenment):

1) public access to accumulated knowledge is essential to the integrity of a free and democratic society (rationality, the rule of law, and unfettered access to accumulated human knowledge as intellectual cornerstones of a modern enlightened republic);

2) the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is in and of itself an essentially moral endeavor;

3) the diversity of nations and cultures contributing to human progress;

4) the lifelong pursuit and practical application of knowledge;

5) the cultivation of wisdom as a civilizing influence (the two Minervas, of peace and culture and of defensive war, and the lampbearers, distant cousins to the Statue of Liberty, illuminate the library visitor’s personal journey along the path towards truth and enlightenment);

6) individual exemplary achievement in law, government, science, and the arts;

7) promotion of the common American Renaissance notion that modern “civilized” institutions are actually rooted in aboriginal cultures and that the entire human family contributes to civilization’s general progress;

8) the educated American worker is the true source of the nation’s power and wealth.

(Between the paragraphs for a final time. This is coming together for me as a universal and an inclusive ethic. Pulling back the external layers, I have to confess that it sounds to me more like current conservative trends in politics, preserving the standards of the distant pass, and less like other existing streams of political thought. That may make me bad to a lot of readers of this blog. I accept that.)  

And three themes of the American Renaissance:

  1. reliance on art historical sources from antiquity and the Italian Renaissance;
  2. a belief in the social usefulness of art; and
  3. unity (and harmony) of the primary arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture)


Somma, Thomas P. American Sculpture and the Library of Congress. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy. Vol. 80, No. 4 (October 2010), pp. 311-335. Accessed at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/655873 on September 30, 2016.

Somma, Thomas P. “The Sculptural Program for the Library of Congress.” Unpublished manuscript, Ithaca College, July 15, 1996.

Somma, Thomas P. (Producer). 2006, November 14. Statuary in the Thomas Jefferson Building. Library Docent Training Webcasts (Episode 9). Webcast retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4251