Hypothetical situation: An anonymous donor will pay to have a Mount Rushmore-esque monument that, instead of presidents, will celebrate the greatness of US artists. He/she/it has put you in charge of selecting the 4 figures who will be carved in stone for our descendants or alien archeologists to discover millenia hence.
Your mandate: choose 4 great American artists (literary, visual, film, whatever) who represent a diverse selection of American artistic greatness.
The criteria: You must select 4 people. Chosen artists must be dead. They must be US artists, meaning they were primarily active after the US was formed and native to or intimately bound up in US artistic movements. The group of 4 must be somewhat diverse, meaning that you can’t pick 4 novelists or painters or directors. Sexual or ethnic diversity is encouraged, but not required.
So which artists do you choose to be carved into stone? (Non US dopers can play, too – either design a US monument or one for their home nation.)
Emily Dickinson (1830), one of the two biggest uniquely American poetic voices (along with Whitman).
Mark Twain (1835), who wrote the great American novel (Huckleberry Finn,) several other great American novels and short pieces, and helped bring American vernacular into the literary spotlight.
Duke Ellington (1899), who may not have invented jazz, the great American musical form, but was perhaps its greatest polisher and composer.
Andy Warhol (1928), who was a pretty good artist but who also demonstrated that art, celebrity and money are all variations on the same theme, which is about as American as you can get, frankly. Plus, his hair carved into a mountainside would be a sculptor’s nightmare. How fun is that?
Painful to leave off: William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and D.W. Griffith, the last of whom invented much film grammar yet is not fit for monumental immortality based on Birth of a Nation.
I think Mark Twain will be the only unanimous choice; he was my first thought, too.
Otherwise, I’d say we need to look at the following fields:
Definitely we need a jazz musician; jazz is the most important musical innovation to come out of the United States, and probably the most important musical innovation of the last hundred-odd years. Ellington and Armstrong would both be strong contenders for this role. I’m not savvy enough about jazz to make a good choice, though.
Similarly, we need a Hollywood icon, as cinema is the most American of artforms. Humphrey Bogart would be my choice, given my humongous crush on the man, but Katherine Hepburn might be a better choice.
The fourth choice I’m not so sure about. I’d actually shy away from static visual arts and from poets, as these are not such popular forms in the US, and I’m not convinced that the US has produced a surplus of superlatives in these fields. A rock star might be appropriate–Madonna or Elvis, maybe. If cinema isn’t the quintessential American artform, then television is: Dick Clark or William Shatner would work.
There needs to be a writer, an artist (visual, static art), a tv/movie personality, and a music personaltiy. My choices.
Writer: Mark Twain
Television/Movies: Mel Blanc
Artist: Andy Warhol
The only real reach is Mel Blanc, but I (along with a ton of other people) grew up watching Bugs, Daffy and their cohorts in humor. I think he deserves a spot just as much as any other person in Televison.
Rule clarification: The subject must be a real person. Some other anonymous donor can do the Rushmore of American Fictional Characters. I’ll be happy to participate in a selection thread for that one!
Walt Disney is a really tempting choice. Of the four I chose (Dickinson, Twain, Ellington and Warhol) I’d most likely drop Dickinson. But throwing Disney on really tilts the monument towards 20th century artists, which is something I was trying to avoid. Hmm.
Bogart’s another great choice for a Hollywood icon. Also a tempting swap out for Dickinson, with the same caveats about 20th century bias.
Other comments: Twain is probably a gimme, which only pains me because it leads me to drop Poe and Faulkner. You could argue for Poe, which would put two prosemongers on the list, but I think Faulkner’s gotta be an also ran even though I think he’s pretty frickin’ great.
I agree with Left Hand of Dorkness that a jazz musician is required. Ellington and Louis Armstrong are probably a toss up. Elvis and Sinatra had occurred to me, but I think jazz wins out over jazz vocals and rock in the music category.
I don’t think a visual artist is necessary, but I think Warhol is so quintessentially American and so iconic that he should be on the monument, even before O’Keefe, who I’d considered.
Other names I considered: Frank Lloyd Wright, Houdini, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Herman Melville, Thoreau, Isadora Duncan, Florenz Ziegfeld and Charles Ives. I’ve probably overlooked some other contenders.
I wouldn’t worry too much about heavily weighting it toward twentieth-century artists: there WERE more artists in the twentieth century. Not only because a highly-industrialized society has more time for creating art, but also because there are simply a lot more people today than there were two hundred years ago. I’d guess that of the people alive from 1776 to 2004, more than 75% of them were alive in the twentieth century. I worry a little about being slanted too much away from the last half of the century, in fact, but I think we’re a little too close to it to make good judgments. Is Madonna going to remain iconic? Michael Jackson? George Lucas? I dunno.
Of your additional choices, I like Houdini the most: if I understand correctly, he was an unbelievably big celebrity during the early part of last century and was one of the first people who had a cult of celebrity around him.
A mountain with Mark Twain, Harry Houdini, Duke Ellington, and Katherine Hepburn would probably be my choice.