Free and Independent States [of Being]

Free and Independent States [of Being]


An Exploration of Art’s Reckoning on American Image and Identity

John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689)1 sculpts the philosophical underpinnings of the United States, corroborated 247 years ago at America’s initial assertion of its democratic identity. Locke’s ideas surrounding an individual’s inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property find extensive theoretical backing in their intuitive logic and timelessness, as illustrated through a characteristically American persistence to uphold these pillars across political and artistic spectra. Yet the appeal of Locke’s theories contrasts greatly with what has actually been put into practice. Just as Locke employs no simple language to ponder an ideal form of government, today the dichotomy of a perfectly-thought-out society, and the convoluted reality of that which faces us, parallels the theoretical image of an American identity and that which colors (or discolors) its living counterpart. 

Indeed—to exist within a democracy today is to preserve an image. The prevailing national culture in America reminds us of this daily, assisting us by means of innumerable visual stimuli which thus sculpt and fine-tune such an image. The American macrocosm subliminally beseeches that we surrender bits and pieces of ourselves so that we may fit into the gestalt—the organized whole—and yet, we must also, somehow, occupy an untouchable, indefatigable realm of individualism that signals to others just how original and unique we can be. America prides itself as a premier governmental and social system, and as citizens, we thus assume the responsibility of existing within it; as a result, whether passively or consciously, we occupy a coveted, sacred place within global culture and international politics. In theory, America is the flawless picture framed within the iron proscenium of civilization, at least pertaining to the ideal organized by western tradition and thought. But while democracy famously awards power to the people, forces persist that encroach from all sides, organizing and fashioning us, arguably controlling us, irrefutably contorting us.

Locke broke ground in his Second Treatise of Civil Government by establishing, first and foremost, a philosophy pertaining to a “State of Nature,” demanding the consideration of the “estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”2 Within the jurisdiction of such a State of Nature, then, Locke championed the process of pioneering political societies based on majority rule, acknowledging wholly the nature of all men as “free, equal, and independent.” 3 Locke calls to mind an image of deep reverence to man’s inherent value, the theoretical evenness of life’s playing field, the exciting and enticing proclivity for man by “consenting with others” to form a civil society, and a “body politic under one government” to raise its mighty hand and bring about harmony, justice, and the endorsement of expressing one’s identity freely and unabashedly.4 In practice, though, Locke’s musings fall short. For one thing, it is no secret how exclusionary Locke’s language actually is when concerning discussions of man, because for Locke, not once could man be mistaken as a synechdoche for humanity, as is commonly understood today, thanks to repeated exercises of injustice and inequality throughout America’s history. Additionally, while Locke’s language is neither highfalutin nor inaccessible, the images brought forth by a society founded on such ideals resemble little of the philosopher’s original dealings.

Further, much of Locke’s rhetoric surrounds the concept of “consent,” that is, carrying with oneself an awareness and comprehensive understanding of the society into which one has bought, and as such, participating willingly in the goings-on therefrom. One can argue, therefore, that in entering into a society, there is an implicit, ongoing framework of consent that occurs after one’s initial participation in such a society. With this logic, governments modeled after Locke’s philosophies may feel entitled to absolve themselves of any moral or ethical responsibility they owe to their citizens in the name of citizens’ own freedom and implied consent. But does passive consent equate to consent in the Lockean sense? If so, what can be said for an identity within the American collective today? Is it but a series of anonymized consentings? And, if so, do these consentings paint a warped image of what individual freedoms–and the responsibility of an ethical democracy to uphold them–actually imply?

To examine this dilemma, we turn to two iconic American artists, whose timelines of life and work align almost identically, yet whose depictions of America differ dramatically. Both Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) capture the essence of American life–something multifaceted, ephemeral, difficult to pinpoint and yet entirely distinctive–through their imaging processes, elucidating nuances pertaining to an American artistic identity. Rockwell, a New York City-born painter and illustrator, rose to prominence through his cover art on issues of the famed Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell’s cozy, quintessentially American illustrations, bespeaking lighthearted, fanciful flights of plenty, colored much of the twentieth century with the warm iconography of a thriving democracy. His timeless, feel-good depictions of the nuclear family, fulfillment of simple pleasures and simultaneous achievement of dreams, paint America as a place of effortless wish-fulfillment, at the equilibrium of personal satisfaction and professional advancement. Rockwell’s iconic style bespeaks the omnipresent phenomenon of artistic ingenuity, as well as the excitement and fantasy implicit within the construction of an aesthetically infallible American image. Specifically, Freedom from Want illustrates a trademark American tradition: the Thanksgiving holiday. Luscious, steaming dishes of delicious food in abundance adorn a table within a well-lit dining room around which excited, full-cheeked, well-groomed and -dressed American family members exchange happy, carefree smiles. The father, in smart business attire, stands faithfully behind his wife, who serves the turkey to the jubilant dinner guests. Somehow, even amid subject matter typically at risk of cliché, Rockwell manages to convey a picture of authenticity, and as such, genuine familial reverie. His evocative depiction of this American holiday, then, brings forth feelings of national spirit and pride. The title of the piece speaks to a greater measure of American identity—Rockwell named the piece in response to President Roosevelt’s articulation of the Four Freedoms—wrapped up in the understanding of the freedom and independence Locke envisions in his own writing.

In contrast, Hoboken, New Jersey native Dorothea Lange’s approach to capturing American life grounds itself in pragmatic and austere doses of reality, offering no solace from life’s often grim articulations. Lange’s photography, while compositionally sound and artistically gorgeous, provides a harrowing take on the state of America during the Great Depression period. Lange, a journalist-turned-photographer, saw humble beginnings in her own life that reflect themselves in her aesthetic, such that her art almost objects to possessing an aesthetic. Lange’s roots as a non-artist seem to situate her imaging as having been born out of a journalistic necessity to promote awareness of her subjects, rather than to aestheticize the conditions in which she observes them. For example, Lange’s Migrant Mother is part of a larger project centering a destitute, vagrant family in California. Bitter and honest and harrowing in grayscale, through the Migrant Family series Lange delivers haunting depictions of the failure of America to deliver on its promises, or, the consequences of delusion, aided in large part by Locke’s philosophical fantasies and manifested in the shortcoming of their application within reality. Lange remains honest in portraying her subjects as exactly what they are—people, not caricatures—something which undermines the traditional possession of a certain aesthetic as, say, Rockwell exhibits in his art’s more stylized proceedings. Lange’s visual communication of poverty and want screams at the marked discrepancy between American fantasy and reality; Rockwell’s saturated illustrations drawl lucidly; the artists work at opposite ends to reveal an image of America and its participants, a democracy of consenters devouring its Langean dreamers so as to popularize and revere its Rockwellian archetypes.

One could still argue that there exists within the subjects of the Migrant Family an implicit consent to this “ideal” society, this American culture—or, a moment suspended in time of disillusionment realized. Yes, thousands of families similar to those whom Lange showcases in her work journeyed across America in hopes of a better life, leaving everything behind in blind faith of what Rockwell-laden tables could or might exist ahead, but instead of wealth and prosperity, America presented a plethora of unique and implacable challenges, laughing in the faces of those who were naïve enough to believe that they deserved better, and foolish enough to act on such a belief. Did Lange’s subjects, then, simply receive what was coming to them through their wrongly-marketed vision of America? Once westbound, did the migrant families like those Lange photographed implicitly consent to the democracy of which they so desperately ached to realize the dream and exercise agency within? Or, is there a kind of ownership—moral and artistic—that is imperative to couple with Lange’s subjects? A kind of American morality that could or should overshadow Lockean theoretical underpinnings and Wealth of Nations borrowings, and bring solace to the subjects of Lange’s photos? For there is an equally compelling argument that these migrant families knew not what was coming to them, that they became captured in the irresistible torrent of the image, the facade of an aesthetic promise of American identity, something obviously and entirely separate from its reality.

This is not to say that Lange was wrong to have taken the photographs that she did at the time when she did; nor should Rockwell be condemned for his artistic language and its interpretations. Lange understood the ethical implications of documenting situations about which she could do nothing, as evidenced by her unmistakable wariness in publicizing her work. Lange’s own perception of her work, she knew, was often inextricable from the looming presence of “public recognition.” 5 Once again, this brings about a contrast not just in the artists’ images, but in the images of the artists, calling into question whether there is a greater Lockean ethos within a work of art that illustrates only the best features of his vision, or if there is a democratically just significance within the showcasing of what ugliness emerges from even the most “ideal” society.

Both Lange and Rockwell epitomize the concept of artist-as-observer. Lange poses the question as to whether her art absolves her from her guilt as a consenting non-participant—someone who observes a scene but does not intervene, particularly for the purpose of performing as documentarian of a scene’s unfolding—and seemed to justify her outsiderness by exerting a “frenetic effort” to “assuage some of her guilt.” Rockwell, on the other hand, constructs scenes out of his imagination, only inspired by the suggested images of American prosperity. 6 If the artist is the observer, then, is the patron or recipient of the observation–i.e., the museumgoer, the researcher, the photography enthusiast–absolved of their guilt when partaking in this metaöbservation? Does the consenting American viewer bear no ethical nor moral responsibility to the subject of the work, however destitute or decadent such a subject is? These laissez-faire artistic attitudes, too, find themselves reflected in American identity and culture. When there is another individual or institution at which to direct blame, such will infallibly be the case. Even Adam Smith posited that individuals will operate out of self-interest, something that has become synonymized with the exercise of individual freedoms under the guise of democratic advancement. Even as an “outsider,” as photographer or illustrator, the artist sits tidily within the responsibility of articulating an image reflective of national identity. After all, image is paramount to an American identity; Rockwell and Lange verify this. It is not merely the necessity of creating an image, but also the imperative of maintaining one, that ideologically prevails over democratic society. This concept of image brings about an expectation and a manifestation of a specific kind of identity, begging for something that fits a mold created by an aesthetic in contrast to a reality. However, the charcoal smudge of reality’s fingerprints inevitably seeps into this fantastical, theoretical framework, dotting the bucolic frontier landscape with the manifest reality of many loftily dreaming Americans.

If, in the core of the American ethos, the articulation of self-image exists by way of material objects, then Rockwell identifies and epitomizes an American identity insofar as he exonerates both the subject and the onlooker from any immaterial necessity of being as it pertains to Americanism. Quite so: the tangible objects abounding in Rockwell’s work—lavishly decorated dining rooms, wholesome fare, and tidy, expensive clothes—give way to a more caricatured depiction of democracy, wherein humans are not the main focus of the American ideal, but rather a piece of the richly outfitted, materialized puzzle. Contrarily, if American identity defines itself not by the presence of material objects but rather by their absence, then Lange’s artistic prowess stands as a much more accurate representation of an American identity, at least one to whose punctuation and articulation art—and the power it wields in identifying and uplifting the bare beauty and power of humanhood—exists as the main proprietor. 

So, which one is more accurate to American identity—which is democracy’s real image? To turn back to Locke, who does not equivocate in regards to a consenting citizen’s inalienable right to property, his treatise posits this clearly, albeit theoretically. “Property,” then, in abstract, can far transcend one’s material possessions. The word itself hearkens to a deep complexity including, but not limiting itself to, the possession of one’s own identity, values, and morals as property, at least to the extent that the exercise of individual freedoms allows within the confines of the theoretical, collective consent-driven society. Thus, whether its our wealth or our wits, whatever it is we possess or properate is ours and ours alone, an image reflecting back to us an individual articulation of democratic image and identity, however we choose to define it.

Perhaps it is telling that a discussion regarding American democracy, Lockean consent, and identity as it is expressed through art brings about more questions than it answers. A subject containing such nuance complicates itself further with each articulation, and yet remains a fascinating foray into the innards of America, as the art within such a rich climate of democratic discourse and seventeenth-century body politic musings seems to be one of the last remaining authentic representations of a kind of historical truth and logical precedent, in that the art itself seeks to be free, heretofore taking ownership of the rights for which many other human dealings often fall short. It is necessary, then, to continue asking the questions proposed, as well as to generate new lines of inquiry constantly, in efforts to peel back the layers binding what is theoretically possible, and what is, in practicality, true. Ultimately, in order to analyze an American image, one must analyze American images: lucid explorations of conflict, hardship, selfhood, merriment, strife, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Largely, art reveals both theoretical and pragmatic manifestations of what an American identity truly is and ought to be. Both Rockwell and Lange occupy vital positions in the landscape of American art and the representation of democratic and individual identity, and the interactions of journalistic photography and illustrative vignette reckon with the true spectrum of what the sought-after American experience and elusive democratic identity truly implies and entails—not just in fantasy, but in fact. 

  1. John Locke, The Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689).
  2. Locke, Second Treatise.
  3. Locke, Second Treatise.
  4. Locke, Second Treatise.
  5. James C. Curtis, “Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the Great Depression,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 21, no. 1 (1986): 1–20. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Nov. 2023.
  6. Curtis, “Dorothea Lange.”
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