Art and the American Individualist

Over at The Economist’s cultural blog More Intelligent Life, my friend Blake Ewing has what can only be described as a truly remarkable interview with Maine artist Ray Murphy. Mr. Murphy is not, if you please, a woodcarver, nor is he merely a chainsaw artist: he is a self-described “sawyer”. Should you be interested in acquiring one of his pieces, it would seem prudent to make certain that you get that right.

Mr. Murphy is an exemplar of a certain type of American artist, whose work is not only accepted, but encouraged and embraced as a result of certain characteristics of this country. The notion of going it alone, or of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and so on, is something which is often considered characteristic to the American psyche. When the arts are truly a reflection of an aspect of society, they produce something that is authentic to the experience of that society. Mr. Murphy can, to some degree, be connected to other figures in the American cultural landscape, such as Henry David Thoreau, who have managed to, if you will forgive the expression, carve out a space for themselves in the national dialogue by expressing themselves in an unique way that is also uniquely attractive.

Certainly the British have frequently produced unusual writers, thinkers, and so on who were considered eccentric – and indeed British literature is filled with examples of eccentric character “types”. One need look no further than the pages of Dickens to realize that this is the case. Yet this country went beyond mere eccentricity, and took that heritage of appreciating the eccentric and put it on steroids: quite literally, as I will explain momentarily.

This is not a genetic predisposition we are considering, but rather a cultural aspect of this country. There is no quality of being American that means that we are born knowing how to change a tire or fix a leaky toilet. Though recently, a European friend observed to me how differently Europeans and Americans tend to address such problems: the bourgeois European finds that his toilet leaks, and calls the plumber. The bourgeois American finds his toilet leaks, and goes to the hardware store to learn how to do it himself. Admittedly this is an over-generalization, but there does seem to be a fascination among my European relatives whenever my father shows them how to easily fix or repair a home appliance without having to call in some sort of specialist.

For immigrants to the United States, too, who in their native lands might have been rejected for their idiosyncrasies, America turned out to be a haven for their forms of self-expression. Simon Rodia for example, the builder of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, would likely have had less chance of becoming the intense object of academic study had he remained in his native Naples. We may not always be daring in our groupthink architectural preferences, but we also recognize that the individual can often be left to his own devices without the need of our interference.

To some degree, this is also why the comic book superhero, even if he owes something to the ideas of Europeans such as Nietzsche or Edgar Rice Burroughs, is so fundamentally an American creation. The superhero is a figure who is often rejected by conventional society, and yet paradoxically works to preserve it. Perhaps this is because he realizes that the freedom to have his Fortress of Solitude or Batcave, work and live undisturbed, and maintain a level of protection from prying eyes into his personal life, is simultaneously dependent on an ordered society that does not persecute individual thought and expression.

As a pointed aside, worth your consideration, the reader may not be aware that in fact, a number of the original writers and artists who created the superhero characters we are familiar with today were, in fact, the children of Jewish immigrants to this country. Certainly the experience of European Jews throughout history is one fraught with being singled out for being “different”, and while anti-semitism certainly was and is present in this country, fortunately we do not engage in pogroms. That no doubt had an impact in the development of these superhero characters.

Of course Mr. Murphy is not, so far as I am aware, a caped and cowled crime fighter. However, like James Bowie, Captain America, J.D. Salinger, and others, he is an American type whose work and existence bring a great richness to American life. Long may he saw.

4 thoughts on “Art and the American Individualist

  1. I’m impressed with how effortlessly you connected a woodworking art, Thoreau, and Captain America. Well done — and insightful to boot.

    Your analysis is very interesting. I’m not in a position to critique it, really, except to offer this comment. It seems that the “handyman” mindset (if I may term it that) which has historically been so integral to the American psyche is eroding. More and more people I know are more likely to just call the plumber when the toilet leaks. My family happens to be an exception, as my dad is an engineer who loves tools and engines and pipes and fixing things, and my cousin (who lives nearby) is a carpenter who often fixes our fence and gates for us (with my help). But they’ve noticed that certain things which in the past could easily be fixed are now being manufactured with the expectation that they won’t be fixed when they break. Cars are the big example: things which my dad can fix himself in his old ’68 cruiser demand a licensed mechanic if they break in our newer vehicles. Things are designed to be replaced instead of to last. That saddens me, because it robs us of the chances to become self-reliant and handy with our hands.


  2. Pingback: Herbert Hoover o kreowaniu przywódców oraz o tłumie w "Amerykańskim indywidualizmie"

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