One of my jobs at Mia is working with curators to make labels about art that are as accessible and inclusive as possible. To that end, I avoid using the term “American” as a synonym for someone who lives in the United States or is a U.S. citizen.
Because the United States of America is only part of the Americas, a geographical land mass defined by two continents. The Americas encompasses North, Central, and South America, comprising 55 countries and dependent territories—of which the United States is one.
When a word that applies to people from many countries is consistently used only in reference to those from one, we’re effectively erasing the identity of all those other people. Or, at the very least, communicating an implied superiority of one group.
If you live in the United States, you might think I’m taking things too far. We all understand the intended meaning, so why worry?
Imagine if every time your parents said “my child,” they actually meant your sister. Ouch.
It’s a small thing, but it’s also a big thing. And addressing this word is more complicated than it would seem.
Space is tight on Mia’s art labels, which are generally 100 words or less, so in these situations we’re eschewing the generic “American” for more precise language, such as U.S. citizen. But when we have the space, we prefer to clarify and expand the definition of American art.
For instance, in Mia’s division of Learning Innovation (formerly known as Education) we’ve offered a school program called “American Art Sampler” for more than 40 years. Recently, our staff has discussed how to make the title more inclusive. To call it a “U.S. Art Sampler” seems clunky, and also doesn’t get at the nuance that some of the art—created by Native artists or early European settlers—predates the nation’s founding.
In the end, we’ve chosen to call the program “American Stories.” Accompanying it is a booklet that explains our current efforts to expand the definition of American art. It reads:
What is American art? This question has endless answers. Diversity is certainly a defining element of this story. Throughout the land we now call the United States, Native people lived for millennia before the arrival of Europeans. Over the last three centuries, immigrants have come from many nations. Traditions of enslaved men and women, such as people brought from Africa, greatly shaped the United States. All of these people have contributed their own unique artistic heritages to our understanding of American art. The art objects chosen for this Art Adventure set tell nearly 200 years of tales about the United States. They also incorporate many voices, from a portrait of the first president to a photograph of children playing in St. Paul. By studying this sampling of art made in America, we can learn something about the history, traditions, and experiences of our diverse nation.
Language is not static. It evolves as much as we do: our culture, our attitudes, and, yes, our country. As that happens, we should strive to be as inclusive and accurate as possible.
This is the first in a series of stories from Mia about American art and what it means to be an American.
Top image: Detail of Map of the World, from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the Whole World), Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 project of the earth.