In Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization, John Kouwenhoven links an emergent American aesthetic to our unique status as a “technological civilization,” the “only major world power to have taken form as a cultural unit in the period when technological civilization was spreading throughout the world.” Enterprising Americans have shaped this aesthetic by combining vernacular culture, derived from the democratic people, technology, and the American wilderness, with high culture brought back from Europe by elites; when vernacular and high culture compete, the vernacular usually wins. And as far as Kouwenhoven can tell, that vernacular considers beauty to take the form of useful objects.
To get at this technology-based American vernacular culture, Kouwenhoven reads a wide variety of American authors, including John Hersey, Jonathan Edwards, Poe, Whitman, Horatio Greenough, Harriet Monroe, Melville, Twain, Anderson, Dos Passos,Hunter, and Emerson. Through these writers, he finds American art in long-barrelled frontier rifles used in the American Revolution, the ‘hot jazz in stone and steel’ of skyscrapers, steel (instead of iron) farming tools, the Colt revolver, the Corliss engine, clipper ships, steamboats, locomotives, and even Whitney’s invention of mass production. He finds American art in fine art, too, like Gershwin’s music and Sheeler’s paintings, but even these are uniquely American blends of high and low culture. And American artists for Kouwenhoven are the people who make industrialism run: engineers, mechanics, farmers, carpenters – as well as writers, painters, and musicians.
Although ascribing a uniform aesthetic to any group of people as large as the United States doesn’t make much sense, nor does seeking that culture solely in the work of American writers, Kouwenhoven does make some hugely wonderful contributions to the study of technology and culture. He erases the divide between high and low art and at the same time between commodity production and artistic production, so that the economic base and cultural superstructure – and thus, with a little elision, technology and culture – are one and the same. And hey, I totally get what he’s saying about the Corliss engine.