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Ed Siegel

American exceptionalism we can agree on

By Ed Siegel
December 11, 2010

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‘AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM’’ is a phrase you hear bandied about these days, particularly by the right. It dates to de Tocqueville and his extolling of Americans as exceptional, evidenced by individualist, populist, and democratic values. Conservatives like Mark Rubio and Sarah Palin have referred to it while castigating the left, including President Obama, for deriding the notion.

Maybe they have a point. There’s a different kind of American exceptionalism in the air these days that’s worth thinking about and applying to the political debate. You can see it in the history of the country’s arts and letters, most recently in the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Art of the Americas wing, the publication of “The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1,’’ and the release of “Bob Dylan: The Original Mono Recordings.’’

Each of these reflects what de Tocqueville was talking about, particularly in their rejection of elitist, often European aesthetics in favor of a more vernacular style. It isn’t to say that American art is better than of other countries, but that there’s something particularly robust and populist — and joyful — in American arts.

At the MFA, once you make your way past the spectacular Hudson River School landscapes and the treasure trove of John Singer Sargent paintings on the second floor, the room that really cries out “American art’’ is the one dominated by Winslow Homer paintings.

They’re notable not only for the rigor of the artwork itself, but for its rejection of the European rage of the day — impressionism. Homer’s belief in his own abilities, independent of any school, as well as his embrace of a more naturalist narrative and populist subject matter, is pointedly American. Even when he was painting in England he was lighting out for the territories in much the same way that Samuel Clemens was as Mark Twain. Homer’s “Boys in a Pasture’’ could be Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer contemplating their next adventure.

Twain’s autobiography is the surprise publishing success of the season, despite its size and its being filled with anecdotes that don’t always stand the test of time. But its plain-spoken, conversational manner evokes what was so revolutionary about his prose, its celebration of an American idiom that seems centuries removed from prior American masters Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. The right would dearly love to have this politically incorrect populist for its own — but it’s a bridge too far, as Twain makes clear in passages about patriotism and his opposition to military adventures that clearly resemble those in Vietnam and Iraq.

Twain, though, went to great lengths to avoid ideologies, as has Bob Dylan, despite the fact that his early days as a protest singer marked him as a man of the left. But when you listen to his first eight albums, packaged together in “The Original Mono Recordings’’ you’re reminded not just at the jolt they had when they first came out but at the iconoclastic nature of his work from the beginning, his willingness to take on the left as well as the right. Dylan has now fashioned his whole oeuvre into a “Fanfare for the Common Man’’ kind of leftish though not leftist Americana that in recent years has embraced both Barry Goldwater and Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.’’

There’s a lesson here for politicians, particularly liberal politicians. American exceptionalism and populism, as defined by this country’s artists, is something to be embraced. There’s nothing reactionary about it.

Ed Siegel is former theater and television critic for the Globe.