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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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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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