How can art generate identity for a country?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Art cannot and does not always generate a country’s identity.  Much of the time, the country’s identity generates the art or, at the very least, the art and the country’s identity help to create each other.  This is because most art is created voluntarily by people who create art that means something to them.  Their national identity often helps to create this meaning.

As an example of this, let us look at the painting “American Progress,” by John Gast.  We could argue that this painting helps to create our national identity.  In the painting, we see Americans pushing out across the continent.  They are moving out in small groups of rugged individuals.  As they go, they are pushing back the darkness and bringing light to the land.  This helps state who we think we are (or who Americans of the time thought they were) as a people.  It tells us that we are meant to dominate our land and bring civilization to it through our individual acts of bravery and our hard work.  This tells us who we are supposed to be as a nation, but that idea does not just come from the art.  Instead, the art can be seen as a reflection of the way people already think.

However, we can argue that art can help to generate an identity for a country.  This generally has to be done purposely, as with the “socialist realism” movement in Soviet art.  The government promoted this style of art as a way to get its people to think of themselves and their country in the “right” way.  But how does this happen?  How does the art generate the country’s identity?

When people see a certain kind of art often, they will come to think that it represents the way things are supposed to be or the way that everyone thinks.  If that were not the way that everyone thinks, why would it be represented in all of the art?  This is how art helps to generate a national identity.  It shows people how they are supposed to think and feel.  As they see the same message over and over in art, they come to believe that it typifies their country.  When this happens, the art has helped to generate an identity for the country.

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