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Dances with Buffalos

The politicization of American history—again.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By BRUCE COLE
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If there were a truth-in-advertising regulation for exhibitions, this latest at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum would be in trouble. The exhibition is not in a hall, nor is it about wonders, nor really about art. What it is, sadly, is yet another example of how tone deaf this national museum is to the taxpayers who subsidize it, as well as an emblem of the sorry state of contemporary humanities scholarship.

Rubens Peale with a Geranium painting

‘Rubens Peale with a Geranium’ (1801) by Rembrandt Peale

As with so much of this scholarship, “The Great American Hall of Wonders” advances an activist social agenda. The introductory wall text, amplified by the exhibition’s catalogue ($45 for the paperback), makes some big claims. It tells us, without proof, “that nineteenth-century Americans considered ingenuity to be their most important asset”; that the exhibition aims “to catch Americans making selections about what was possible and what was not in the land of liberty”; and that “their choices parceled out opportunities in varying measures to the nation’s multifold communities and reconfigured its ecological systems in profound and irreversible ways”—whatever that may mean.

The wall text ends with this exhortation: “Today’s urgent social and environmental challenges call for a great national brainstorm, a collaborative imagining of enduring solutions.”

So maybe this exhibition can fire up that “national brainstorm” and “collaborative imagining” thing. But don’t count on it. Art is X-rayed throughout, and the viewer, with the urging of the exhibition curator, Claire Perry, must look beyond mere surface images, beyond the artist’s intent, beyond the aesthetic impact, beyond the materiality of the paint, stone, or plaster. And what’s beyond the fringe? More sophisticated (or should that be sophistical?), “deeper,” and usually ominous implications about America’s myriad shortcomings in the 19th century.

To demonstrate the 19th century’s innovation, science, and invention, the exhibition is divided into what the curator breezily calls “six iconic themes that sparked brainstorming.” But it’s hard to know why since no evidence is offered to prove this assertion. The themes are an odd and disparate assortment, including Democratic Time, The Peacemaker [guns], The Big Tree, Niagara Falls, The Buffalo, and A Locomotive People.

Woven throughout, sotto voce, is the underlying message that much of this is not at all good, and that invention and technology “reconfigured” the ecological and social systems, and not always for the best. The decimation of the buffalo (a particular hobby horse of this exhibition); the deforestation of the West, especially the felling of giant sequoias; the violent nature of American society represented by guns and hunters (the extermination of the buffalo is equated to the carnage of the Civil War); the railroads snaking through the pristine countryside (providing passengers a convenient way to massacre buffalo)—all are overlaid on the past with the sensibilities of a 21st-century environmentalist.

The bewildered visitor meanders through a series of galleries, each devoted to a theme, or “icon.” To be sure, there are a few wall texts, but these are confusing and didactic. Essential guidance is missing. Why these themes? How do they relate to each other? What is the overall narrative? This is a real disservice to the overwhelming number of visitors, most of them tourists, who come to learn and appreciate something about the ongoing creation and creativity of the American nation as embodied in the objects on display, and not to hear yet another homily on the evils of capitalism, this time anachronistically stamped onto the past.

What is displayed is an odd and disjointed lot: some major paintings, many of lesser quality, drawings, illustrations, portrait busts, maps, an early Edison light bulb, patent models and applications. One also finds a few pistols and long guns in The Peacemaker section, but curiously enough not the Sharps breech-loading rifle which (it is pointed out) made buffalo-killing a snap. In the curator’s zeal to make the Sharps even more deadly, she claims that it could fire a one-pound bullet containing 90 grains of powder—which is like saying a peashooter could fire a cannon ball.

So much for the curator’s technological acumen; how is she on art? The section on The Big Tree is particularly instructive, and unintentionally amusing. Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of his brother, “Rubens Peale with a Geranium” (a geranium is not a tree), is a fascinating depiction of the artist, a beautiful still life of the potted plant, and a well-wrought composition rendered in subtle shades of brown and green punctuated by the plant’s red blooms.

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