By Michelle Railey
July 4, 2013
In general, I find myself fascinated by the idea of American identity. I’m an American, after all, so engaging in the casual exercise of national navel-gazing is, if a little vain, at least not surprising. It inspires me that there are a minimum of 310 million ways to be an American (and that’s just right now) but they all fit together as “American.” Who we are, who we think we are, and how we relate to one another and redefine one another is a study that’s not totally unhelpful. And today, on the Fourth, it’s something to celebrate.
So, in celebration of one version of our identity, I give you this dose of Americana, this reflection of collective self: Lilly Martin Spencer’s 1856 work, Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘lasses.  Today, I’m celebrating our saucy independence, our frankness, our fulsome super-abundance. (I’ll pause so you can appreciate “saucy independence” while referring to a painting in which a pot of molasses has a starring role.)
I could have chosen almost any American artwork: something from the Ashcan School or the obligatory Washington Crossing the Delaware or the Signing of the Declaration. I could have used one of the ubiquitous encaustic flags of Jasper Johns. I could have courted spambots and being flagged as “mature content” by focusing on Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series. I could have gone with an Ansel Adams photograph, or Georgia O’Keefe’s magnificent Radiator Building at Night. All of these say something about us, too.
There was a part of me that wanted to write about the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended 150 years ago yesterday, leaving 7,000 Americans dead in the fields of Pennsylvania, a sobering reminder of the cruel price of unity. The art historian would here compare Spencer’s image of the feminine antebellum North with Matthew Brady’s photographs of the war and then finish with Winslow Homer’s subtle 1865 masterpiece The Veteran in a New Field. (“If it could be put into words, there would be no reason to paint.”)
The other direction I could have gone is important, but perhaps too easy: look at Egypt yesterday, where the Arab Spring has become an overripe perma-Arab Summer and the revolution continues. President Morsi removed from power by the will of the people and the might of the military. Look at Syria. Look at the change, the uncertainty, the growing pains as a people try to discover who they will be and how they will chart their course and how they will be governed. Aspiration and violence and revolution and all the things we Americans once were but now are not.
We are independent and we are thankfully, sometimes miraculously, past that revlolutionary episode, past our American Spring. (A spring I wish we would more often remember as we look and judge what is “happening over there” with “those people.”) For all our profane and ridiculous, vitriolic politics; for all our disagreements, our inequities, our commercialism, our vanities, and our errors, we are independent.
Saucily independent, frequently surrounded by overripe abundance. Prone to a flirtatious self-confidence and a basically good-natured sense of humor. Kiss me and you’ll kiss the ‘lasses.
It’s an identity I’ll take, happily and with pride. It’s not the only identity we have, certainly, but that doesn’t diminish our ownership of it: it is ours. We, the people, in our more-and-less perfect union, our more-and-less perfect identity.
 Lilly Martin Spencer (American, born England, 1822-1902). Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses, 1856. Oil on canvas, 29 15/16 x 24 15/16 in. (76 x 63.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, A. Augustus Healy Fund, 70.26 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)