Friday, March 14, 2008

Picture This

The United States Government recently launched a new arts education program titled Picturing America supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Believing that “[g]reat art speaks powerfully, inspires fresh thinking, and connects us to our past,” Picturing America will offer to schools (kindergarten through grade 12) and libraries 40 large (2 x 3 ft.), high-quality color reproductions of the works they’ve selected as well as a Teachers Resource Book and additional materials and lesson plans available on their website. Any time a government, especially the United States Government and particularly the current administration, gets into the business of selecting the art that will define a culture, it seems to be a complete recipe for disaster in terms of the miseducation of youth along the lines of what the powers that be want them to believe. When the NEH announced this program, I was reading Michael Brenson’s Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Arts in America, which relates the NEA’s rise (the Kennedy and Johnson years) and horrific, seemingly irreversible fall (the Reagan and Bush I years), so I was immediately cynical. I’m still cynical.

Picturing America gathers the usual suspects. Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware appears on the cover of the brochure, of course. Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Grant Wood, Thomas Cole, Edward Hopper, and plenty of other dead white males make up the majority of the list, as would be expected. Realism rules the day, with Richard Diebenkorn representing modern abstract art by himself. Jackson Pollock was good enough to represent America during the Cold War, but doesn’t carry the same rank today. You can argue both the choices of artists and the artists all day, but I’ll mention the first things that jumped out at me. N.C. Wyeth appears with an illustration to The Last of the Mohicans (above, from 1919), but Andrew Wyeth doesn’t. Eakins appears, but with the watercolor John Biglin in a Single Scull. Couldn’t they get The Gross Clinic, perhaps the single greatest painting done by an American? John Singer Sargent, the eternal expatriate, makes the list with Portrait of a Boy, whereas one of his portraits of the rich and powerful would have been much more representative of both him and America at the turn of the twentieth century.

Clearly the people making the choices anticipated special interest group complaints, making nods toward inclusivity, but just barely. Of the thirty-six named artists, only two are women: Mary Cassatt and Dorothea Lange. Where have you gone, Georgia O’Keeffe? Only three African-Americans—Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Martin Puryear–make the cut. Puryear’s Ladder for Booker T. Washington (above, from 1996) is the most recent work included, but seems included more for the double dipping it offers in providing an African-American artist honoring an African-American figure in a non-confrontational way, unlike say Kara Walker, who would offer the triple lindy of an African-American woman dealing with racial issues, albeit in an extremely confrontational and controversial way. Perhaps the next occupant of the White House can rectify the lack of women or persons of color in this selection from first-hand experience of what it’s like to be part of one of those groups.

On one hand, Picturing America provides a valuable service in bringing art into American classrooms and libraries. Anything that brings about greater arts education in this country is definitely welcome. In Visionaries and Outcasts, Brenson recounted a 1960 speech by President Kennedy in which he pointed out that America was a country but not a civilization, because a civilization has a sense of its own culture through the arts. Perhaps these images will help foster some civilization in our troubled times. On the other hand, the blandness (literally the “whiteness”) of the selection, especially in the use of familiar images already in history text books, robs the program of any immediate visual impact it may have had. With all respect to N.C. Wyeth and his capacity to inspire young imaginations, I think that a Pollock hanging on a classroom wall would have opened up whole new possibilities for students. Add in the rather tame suggested classroom questions, which instructors unfamiliar with the arts would be presenting, and any optimism I have for this program is muted. The timing of this initiative leads me to believe that the Bush II administration hopes to improve its poor image, especially in the arts, during its last days. That’s the cynic in me. I’d love to be proven wrong, of course.

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