It is a new world. The USA has a new President and many new precedents, ranging from the laughable to the grotesque. This winter I visited America for the first time. This is our America issue.
America takes her name from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who was the first to demonstrate that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent the Eastern edge of Asia – as Columbus had thought – but another continent altogether. In a letter published in late 1502 or early 1503 Vespucci called it Mundus Novus: the New World. The first map to display the New World as separate land mass was produced by Martin Waldseemüller in April 1507. It is called the Universalis Cosmographia, and in its depiction of the world things get pretty vague across the Atlantic, but America is there – an idea of it, anyway. And it was also this map that gave the continent its name: taking the feminine version of the Latinised name of Amerigo.
To look at this map and the vagueness with which America is rendered – a couple of ragged, dreamy scythes of land somewhere in the East – is truly to appreciate the term ‘the New World’. Emphasis not on the ‘new’, but on the ‘world’. To travel to undiscovered earth and not know what you would find there – what impossible creatures, civilisations, dangers, answers, Gods, men – must have felt like unravelling a divine plan; discovering what He had laid out, what other men He had put upon the earth. Thus design is often attributed to the unexplained. Because in fact, at some point between fifty- and seventeen-thousand years ago, during the Wisconsin Glaciation, man crossed the land bridge of Beringia from Siberia to Alaska – before the waters took it back. This world was only once new.
There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought concerning nationhood: one is the ideal that found perhaps its most virulent historical expression in the French Revolution, that a nation is constituted by contract between the citizens and the ruling state. The other is that nationhood is constituted by common history and cultural practices, if not also a racial identity. The USA has, historically, been tightly bound to the former ideal: it was forbidden, by its limited history and immigrant populations, from the possibility of espousing the latter, and the founding principles of the nation seem to rest upon the notion of free contract. Trump’s USA seems to be reverting – dangerously – to the latter, which even on its own terms has little to rest on. We are, I feel, witnessing further nationalist birth pangs of American identity, as it struggles with itself. Whether it ultimately chooses nation-by-contract or nation-by-‘culture’ remains to be seen. We are rooting for the former.
In this issue we attempt to get our heads around some things American. We connect them with some things patronising. J L Blarney writes about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where the execution of a patron’s taste remained “uncrushed by the pestle of a budget” and where you can enter for free if your name is Isabella. Arn West considers Trump as WWF patron, and the ways in which televised wrestling maps contemporary politics, or acts as his propaganda tool – in the same way that Abstract Expressionism might have done for capitalism through the CIA in the Cold War. Dr Jaspreet Singh Boparai considers another brutal patron – the Italian Renaissance nobleman Sigismondo Malatesta, also known as the Wolf of Rimini – and his biographical combination of personal and professional iniquity with the sponsorship of great works of art. I write about how the USA engineers addiction. Whether America can be fixed remains to be seen, but you can get yours here.