Monday, March 16, 2009

Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility

The Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility provided a great road map outlining the “complexity of American environmental attitudes” throughout art history in the U.S. It was comprehensive in its scope and I appreciated most of the choices of the work in the catalog, and I would move Cranberrying, Monehegan, from the “responsibility” part to the “destiny” part.
Overall, I think the authors’ explanations of the evolution of American landscape art and how it paralleled the changing national mindset was fascinating. Upon further reflection, it makes complete sense to me that artistic responses served as vehicles for manifest destiny as well as questioned the doctrine.

It’s interesting to me that the “humans apart from nature” and “humans as part of nature” mindsets have always been pertinent. I’ve only thought about it now-and-then, but it is now permanently integrated into everything I do – not just readily apparent activities like trying to recycle but the ways we eat, entertain, communicate, etc. I clearly am late to the game, and probably would have been painting the landscape ‘as natural resource’ back in the day. It’s also troubling how, while environmental concerns are on everyone’s mind, it feels like we are still depending on the contradictory conquering/land of promise model:

Once we tame the natives and nature, the land, which we will legally (because *we* make the laws) and spiritually have a right to (because everyone else is a heathen) we’ll be just fine. I think an image of a Conestoga Wagon traveling across the West would have been a good addition to the LUMA exhibit. Or perhaps this would have been too literal for the exhibit.

John Gast, American Progress

It's a bizarre image. Columbia, which represents America, lights our way as we march into the dark wilderness, and brings an enlightened path, figuratively and literally. Injuns and bison are being chased away. Telegraph lines, and thus, progress, follow her. If I had visions of an enormous floating woman with draping robes, I'd probably follow her, too.

I also enjoyed reading about the contrast between the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian approaches to the environment, and it feels like, aside from Jefferson’s slave ownership, we're moving towards a more enlightened perspective of connecting responsible stewardship of the environment to a democratic society. The thriving of the organic food industry and the desire to buy locally grown vegetables has the sentiment of ‘people power’ movement. Still Life with Fruit by Robert Spear Dunning is an interesting inclusion into the exhibit as certain fruit has certain cache. I'm not sure if the banana's overripeness represents indulgence, but I agree with the author that the banana and grapes themselves may represent items that have traveled great distances, from faraway colonized lands. Ceramic pineapples, which often crown the tops of buildings or metal gates, reference a time when colonizers used to pike a pineapple in front of their estate to notify the community that they've returned from a journey abroad. They were a symbol of power, wealth, and hospitality. There's no better souvenir from a Caribbean sojourn than a pineapple. (And slaves.) Perhaps if Dunning were an environmentalist and he painted his still life today, it would be adorned with how large the carbon footprint of each fruit, e.g. how much oil was required to transport the grapes from the vineyard to our kitchen table.

It's easy for me to understand why artists responded to manifest destiny by painting incredible landscapes. If they believed that it was their god given right to this land, I can't imagine any other way an artist would depict the national character than painting a big beautiful nationalistic advertisement of the natural landscape. It's like America went through a puberty growth spurt and started to feel like a grown-up. The anthropocentric view, while beautiful and sublime, is like an entitled teenager thinking the prom is *the* most important thing in the world and anyone who gets in the way of having a good time will be colonized.

I found some of the landscapes chosen for the catalog that represented the 20th century a little less compelling as far as depicting that national character at the time. The more impressionistic and delicate handling of materials could be related to the 'fragile subject matter' but I'm unsure if I would draw a comparison between Burchfield's Dreaming of a Fantasy Flower to Carson's Silent Spring. Burchfield's work seems quite tame compared to the alarm bells that Silent Spring sets off. Then again I thought a bowl of fruit was a bowl of fruit before.

It's hard not to think of Robert Adams's photos of clear cuts when discussing Sanford Robinson Gifford's photorealistic painting Hunter Mountain, Twilight. Gifford and his Hudson River School colleagues reflected a romantic relationship with the American landscape, but it feels like the only thing romantic about this painting is the light. Rather, it feels like a brutal commentary that we should be better stewards of the land. But I'm not sure if Giffored was a tree hugger or not.

Sanford Gifford,
Hunter Mountain, Twilight

Robert Adams, Clearcut, Humbug Mountain, Clatsop County, Oregon

Perhaps we should protect our land with the likes of Paul Shambroom's cast of homeland security characters. While the subjects reference a classic Renaissance pose, the figures obstruct the landscape they are protecting. Shambroom's treatment leaves me with the uneasy confusion as to whether I'm supposed to feel protected or if I'm the person that the SWAT team is protecting the land from. It's not exactly Manifest Destiny or Manifest Responsibility, but I feel like this series, Security, is a result of an overextension of Manifest Destiny.

Paul Shambroom, Police SWAT, Camouflage

No comments:

Post a Comment