Monday, March 16, 2009

Manifest American Dream

Upon reading the exhibition catalogue "Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape" I was instantly reminded of a place in Minnesota on the Mississippi River called St. Anthony Falls.  It used to be a natural waterfall, but has since been replaced with a concrete "apron" after it partially collapsed back in 1869 due to human-made shafts and tunnels that weakened the limestone and eventually led it to break away.  Now the falls consists of two dams and several locks, which hardly appears to be the same thing that had once been in the making for 10,000 years.
St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis, MN

One of the reasons I immediately came to think of St. Anthony Falls (besides the fact that I am from Minnesota) is because it's history is deeply rooted in native american culture and westward expansion.  Before colonization and European expansion, native tribes such as the Dakota and Ojibwa considered the falls sacred, associating the falls with legends and spirits and using stories associated with the falls as part of their oral tradition.  They also used the falls as a trading point between other tribes and were able to maneuver around the falls using a well-established portage trail.  However, in 1680 European explorers became aware of the falls and it was all downhill from there.  Albert Bierstadt below gives his rendition of what the falls probably looked like immediately before European invasion.
Albert Bierstadt, The Falls of Saint Anthony, 1870-1877

So, in terms of the three types of historical American landscape painting laid out in the catalogue (manifest bounty/destiny/responsibility), Bierstadt's painting seems to be mostly manifest destiny, but with hints of manifest responsibility.  The painting depicts a dark figure in the foreground looking out at the falls, probably a European explorer.  The landscape appears to be pristine and untouched, without even depicting the native peoples who so commonly used the falls for various purposes.  The painting gives off the idea that the falls are an untamed wilderness, newly discovered by the figure in the foreground and a place to be admired.  However, Bierstadt painted this in 1870, immediately following the partial collapse of the falls and at a time when the area was becoming increasingly more heavily populated and more polluted with industrial waste.  Although I'm not sure if Bierstadt was even remotely interested in environmental policies, he must have been concerned with the current state of the falls by attempting to portray the original splendor of the waterfalls as they perhaps once looked.

The Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility catalogue shows historical landscape paintings that made a slow and still incomplete shift from an anthropocentric viewpoint to a more biocentric one.  I feel, however, that the Manifest Responsibility section left much to be desired.  I still don't quite understand how John Twachtman's "Winter Landscape" made it into this section.  How can a painting of a very small babbling brook in the midst of a thawing transition from winter to spring show a biocentric responsibility to the landscape?  Sure it is a delicate and sensitive rendition of nature, using the tenets of impression to stress form and color over scientific detail, but it doesn't imply anything regarding human interaction with nature or even much about the American landscape.
John Twachtman, Winter Landscape, 1890-1900

In terms of human interaction with nature and the landscape, I was thinking of what the next step would be; a fourth category to add to the Manifest Bounty/Destiny/Responsibility.  After some thought I kept going back to the American dream and the rise of suburbia.  The landscape of the lawn seems to be today's Manifest Destiny, given Americans' near obsession with keeping tidy, well trimmed/manicured lawns (which, when you think about it, is a wasteful use of space).  Greg Stimac shows this relatively new American tradition in his series "Mowing the Lawn," which depicts Americans doing just that.  I read somewhere that one theory for the reason why humans keep lawns is an evolutionary reason.  Given that millions of years ago humans all have evolutionary roots stemming from eastern Africa, we are reminded deep in our genetic biology of the savanna landscape native to that area.  We feel comforted by this landscape of grassland and sporadic trees and wish to replicate it.  That's just one theory.  I suppose you could apply biophilia here as well; keeping lawns is possibly a humanistic biophiliac need to be close to nature but in a tamed and controlled way. 
Greg Stimac, Oak Lawn, Illinois

Greg Stimac, Concord, Vermont

Justin James Reed shows his version of the American dream landscape in his series "Paradise." Riddled with power lines and cookie-cutter houses, he shows images of rural communities and the domineering infrastructure that has taken over the landscape.  He uses an aesthetic look inspired by the nineteenth century painters from the Hudson River School movement to show the contrast between a rural landscape and the introduction of suburban development. 
Justin James Reed, Norristown, Pennsylvania, 2007

Justin James Reed, Medford, New Jersey, 2008

No comments:

Post a Comment