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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.

Yet the wall text and catalogue do not discuss this painting as a work of art but dive into an explication of its imaginary iconography. The springboard is the two pairs of eyeglasses in the painting, one worn by Rubens and the other held in his left hand. The curator explains that

He is not looking at the geranium, however, and his unused pair of spectacles posits the possibility of insights unrelated to seeing. Rubens places two fingers at the plant’s base to check the moisture of the soil [there is no reason to believe that he’s doing this]. This gesture connects him to older ways of knowing plants, and to practices related to medicine, healing, and magic.

Rubens, moreover, “is engaged in a kind of diagnosis, one that is rooted in an ancient human connection to the earth.”

Another painting, Winslow Homer’s “The Initials,” is a moving image of a woman alone in a forest of tall pines. The bare trees, broken branches on the forest floor, and the sober yellow and brown palette make the woman’s bright blue dress, and the tree she touches, the compositional and emotional focus. Carved into the tree are crossed swords and other markings, probably initials, perhaps of this woman and her lost husband or fiancé. Dated 1864, Homer’s picture is a restrained meditation suggesting loss and mourning engendered by the Civil War.

Because what I have just described is what any levelheaded viewer would note, the curator is having none of it. Instead, the painting evokes the “ministering angels” of “the long campaign, the female nurses who bandaged, bathed, and fed wounded soldiers.” But more than that, “Homer’s protagonist, reading what a tree says,” stands for “generations of American female plant specialists.” Accordingly, she “represents female authors, clubwomen, and educators who were among the most outspoken opponents of indiscriminate logging.” Here, and in many other instances, the catalogue quotes no sources for this eccentric claim, and the overwhelming number of sources she does cite are secondary, and of recent date.

The curator’s musings on the ever-expanding American Empire are found in her description of an extraordinary painting by Thomas Hill, “The Last Spike,” which is not in the exhibition and depicts Leland Stanford about to drive in the last spike uniting the tracks of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah. Stanford comes in for some rough treatment by the curator, who comments on his weight and egotism, and tells us that he missed the spike, hitting the rail instead, much to the delight of the assembled crowd.

The painting deploys “an array of religious and imperial iconography to drive home the splendor of the spike-driving moment.” This consists of Chinese and Irish laborers kneeling in obeisance, a woman bowing her head, and a man working on a telegraph pole who “evokes the divine sacrifice at Golgotha that redeemed humankind.” And then there’s the locomotive above Stanford’s head belching “fire and brimstone.”

This is a wildly misleading reading of the painting, intended to make it a depiction of the evils of 19th-century capitalism, the oppression of women (a thread that runs throughout the exhibition), and, of course, American imperialism. And it is inaccurate: The woman does not genuflect, and the locomotive, in the distance and not above Stanford’s head, does not belch “fire and brimstone” but smoke and steam. Sometimes a telegraph pole is just a telegraph pole.

In the Obama administration, the endowments for the humanities and arts have lurched leftward. So, too, have the Smithsonian museums under the direction of Wayne Clough, the present secretary, who has asked Congress for $861.5 million for 2012. Smithsonian museums already have a history of controversial shows, including the Enola Gay exhibition at the Air and Space Museum, the American Art Museum’s “The West as America,” and this year’s “Hide/Seek” at the Portrait Gallery, which landed the secretary in hot water with both the left and the right—no small feat.

But lest we forget, Clough’s responsibility is to the American people. To fulfill it, he needs to demand that the national museums under his direction serve all our citizens, rather than the narrow ideologies of their curators.

Bruce Cole, who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during 2001-09, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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