Shows of Force: Power, Politics, and Ideology in Art Exhibitionsby Timothy W. Luke
It has long been considered a mark of naïveté to ask of a work of art: What does it say? But as Timothy W. Luke demonstrates in Shows of Force, artwork is capable of saying plenty, and much of the message resides in the way it is exhibited. By critically examining the exhibition of art in contemporary American museums, Luke identifies how art showings are elaborate works of theater that reveal underlying political, social, and economic agendas.
The first section, “Envisioning a Past, Imagining the West,” looks at art exhibitions devoted to artworks about or from the American West. Luke shows how these exhibitions—displaying nineteenth- and early-twentieth century works by artists such as George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Remington, Frederic Edwin Church, and Georgia O’Keefe—express contemporary political agendas in the way the portray “the past” and shape new visions of “the West.”
In “Developing the Present, Defining a World,” Luke considers artists from the post-1945 era, including Ilya Kabokov, Hans Haacke, Sue Coe, Roger Brown, and Robert Longo. Recent art exhibits, his analysis reveals, attempt to develop politically charged conceptions of the present, which in turn struggle to define the changing contemporary world and art’s various roles within it.
Luke brings to light the contradictions encoded in the exhibition of art and, in doing so, illuminates the political realities and cultural ideologies of the present. Shows of Force offers a timely and surely controversial contribution to current discussions of the politics of exhibiting art.
“This is a groundbreaking book for anyone interested in the cultural politics of contemporary art.”—Suzi Gablik, author of Has Modernism Failed?
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Shows of Force
Power, Politics, and Ideology in Art Exhibitions
By Timothy W. Luke
Duke University PressCopyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
GEORGE CALEB BINGHAM
Big corporations and major banks, as we are told by the public relations departments of many firms, are always available to perform good works for the general welfare. Given the tendency to define "the general welfare" as the economic and cultural interests of their middle class and upper middle class clients, who bravely continue to purchase corporate products of dubious worth and leave their personal fortunes on deposit with crumbling American banks, these "good works" frequently take the shape of subsidies for cultural spectacles to soothe the mental mutilation that these same customers endure in the jungle world of contemporary American markets. Since corporate capital today increasingly is national or even transnational in scope, then the pay-outs for this community service multiply at even sweeter rates of return if the impact of such good works can be felt in more than one locality. These good works continually can be touted, as though they were the firm's most reliable indicator of altruistic intentions, at every turn in the corporations' or banks' public relations campaigns. Finally, if these efforts and expenditures also can be dedicated to a revalorization of the corporation's existing logos of everyday symbolic display, then the corporate image managers score an almost transcendently perfect coup.
Boatmens Bancshares, Inc. of St. Louis, Missouri, which condenses its commercial self-image into logo form as a classically styled Mississippi steamboat, plainly penetrated deep into these sweet realms of complex symbolic associations in its recent sponsorship of the most comprehensive review of George Caleb Bingham's painting since the 1930s. Working in unison with the St. Louis Art Museum as well as two other St. Louis-based firms, the May Department Stores Company and the Monsanto Company, this major regional bank pulled together an impressive display of Bingham's paintings about life on the Missouri frontier for viewing in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Given Bingham's fascination with jolly Missouri River flatboatmen and rugged Missouri frontiersmen carving a new world from the wilderness, the desire of Boatmens Bancshares, Inc. to be seen by St. Louis investors/art patrons and Washington decisionmakers/art audiences as jolly, enterprising souls in today's wild capital markets and dangerous financial frontiers was well worth the investment. Through an elaborate and expensive display of nineteenth-century Missouri art, then, a major bloc of corporate banking capital enlisted some of its St. Louis area customers and the National Endowment for the Arts in an extensive public relations campaign dedicated, in part, to the reaffirmation of the symbolic manna in its historically suggestive name and logo.
Exhibitions like this one raise fascinating questions. When it comes to the Old West or frontier America, what is the past? How can we envision it? When does it end? Why does it begin? By what means do today's discourses turn what perhaps "really was" into what we want it to be so that we might redefine what we are, or were, or will be? Quite often, as this and other exhibitions illustrate, choosing particular artistic images and then privileging them as the authoritative aesthetic traces of "what really was" becomes a definitive stratagem of manufacturing such memories. In the quest for a visual record to document the social history of the West, Bingham's paintings often were chosen as exhaustive representations in his own time; yet, they also have been privileged by later generations as some of the most authentic images for validating our concepts of what the past "actually" was. This past, in turn, usually has been reconstructed as such not to give a truly new understanding to the past, but rather to reinterpret periodically the meaning of the present and future in America since the crises of the 1930s.
Why has Bingham served these purposes? After his death in 1878, Bingham's standing in the art world outside of Missouri was virtually nil. However, his unique image of everyday frontier life was resurrected and revalidated in the 1930s, thus providing foundation for making a special statement about where the New Deal state and society had once come from. In the midst of the Great Depression, the St. Louis Art Museum staged a major retrospective show of twenty-eight works by Bingham, which toured a year later to the Museum of Modern Art in New York with great success. During the intervening decades Bingham's reputation has continued to deepen and develop as his images have been seized upon to represent some of contemporary America's best visualizations of its democracy, frontier roots, and westward expansion. For a newly urbanized and largely industrialized modern society under the administrative watch of a centralizing national bureaucracy, Bingham served several ends. On one level, his works explore the artificial reconstruction of untamed natural places as settled civilizing spaces, showing how the frontiersman's confrontation with nature remade both into something new. On a second level, his depiction of simple technologies of wind, water, and steam power under the control of ordinary settlers comfortably obscured the serious loss of personal autonomy and collective liberty implied by passively accepting the benefits of technocratic industrialism in modern cities. Likewise, on a third level, his works subtly express Whiggish suspicions about the corruption and carnival implicit in popular electoral democracy, which modern industrial elites eagerly could exploit to enhance their own power, privilege, and position as the actual practices of real democracy decayed into mass media spectacles. Yet, on a final level, Bingham's work is even more interesting inasmuch as it reached immense national audiences during the 1840s and 1850s in the form of mechanically reproduced engravings, which were sold by subscription as cheap paper prints. As a result, as Walter Benjamin suggests, the artistic function of his images increasingly became incidental to the spectacular ideological functions played out in this new style of exhibition.
Benjamin first marked this transformation in art by contrasting the cult value versus the exhibition value of art works at their points of reception. Whereas painting once served almost exclusively cult values in auratically charged rituals in secluded privacy, the mechanical reproducibility of paintings made it possible to totally reorganize the nature and conditions of art's reception; thus, as Benjamin notes, "with the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature." And, by the same token, as art is quantitatively revalorized by its quantitatively expanded exhibition value, "the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic functions, later may be recognized as incidental." For example, in seeking to support his family and build a career as an artist, because he could not survive by painting auratically charged portraits to fulfill the cult values of frontier Missouri households, Bingham ironically typified how the influence of painting can shift as it begins to be produced for its new mass exhibition values via mechanical reproduction.
Although George Caleb Bingham gained his fame as a Missouri artist, he was born in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley on March 20, 1811. Bingham's father was a farmer and miller, but lost his land and mill in 1818 after a series of poor business decisions, which spurred him to move his wife and six children to Missouri in 1819. There Bingham intently watched the colorful spectacle of small town politics and Missouri River traffic that later preoccupied him as subjects in many of his paintings. After considering a career in law or the ministry, he turned by 1831 to the calling of art as he began painting portraits of local people in the small towns up and down the river. Much of Bingham's life work actually was portraiture–done starkly and directly in the style of his own self-portrait, which was the initial image introducing viewers to this show. Though he was technically accomplished in the use of light, color, and texture, the forms and lines of his work nonetheless openly ring with many simple folk or naive realist indications of a self-taught artist. Yet, his original do-it-yourself style was well adapted to his clientele and the setting in which he lived and worked. Always restless, Bingham traveled in 1838 to New York and then later to Philadelphia, where he lingered at the Academy of Fine Arts to study more closely the highly stylized genre paintings of Emanuel Leutze and William Sidney Mount. Excited by the prospect of making a living from such styles of painting, Bingham placed his now lost Western Boatmen Ashore (1838) with the Apollo Gallery in New York and did six other genre pictures, which also are now all lost, for the National Academy of Design show in New York. These efforts proved to be a serious personal gamble and major financial setback, because no commissions resulted from the showings. With no income rolling in from this sort of painting, he returned to doing portraits again. Eager to improve his situation, he moved to Washington in 1840 at the suggestion of his mentor and paternal guide for much of his life, James S. Rollins, who also embroiled him in Whig party politics. Living in Washington from 1840 to 1844, which included brief stints in Petersburg, Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley looking for commissions, Bingham returned to Missouri to paint genre scenes full-time after a second trip to Philadelphia's Academy of Fine Arts in 1843 convinced him of the real possibilities for financial gain in doing this kind of painting.
For a time, this new professional strategy worked, because Bingham hooked up with the American Art-Union in New York during 1845. This organization agreed to buy examples of his genre painting, and then engrave the images for sale as cheap prints to its mass market membership. The largest sum that Bingham ever received for any one painting was $350. Nonetheless, this kind of money soon gave Bingham a certain financial security, and the mass distribution of his works in the form of cheap paper prints widely publicized him and his vision of the American frontier. By the late 1840s Bingham was winning recognition in New York art markets as the most definitive artistic witness of Western life. Similarly, by the mid-1840s, Bingham was being written up by the Missouri press as "The Missouri Artist," following his very positive reception in New York and its popular press as an important "Western" artist. Rather than doing realistic landscapes of the West, however, Bingham painted idealized genre scenes from everyday life along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Instead of documenting what he saw as it actually was, he painted what he knew his audiences in the East wished to see, namely, his own highly romanticized remembrances of how the West used to be. Missouri was the West, even though it was fracturing in the 1840s and 1850s into divided fragments pulled at cross purposes between the North and the South. Hence, his images both provided a mystifying aesthetic veil thrown over the sectional conflicts of his day as well as an alluring vision of the interests that the North or South might control in winning domination for free or slave labor in the West.
Bingham's artistic agenda ranges far beyond merely painting an objective chronicle of frontier life. His goals are baldly ideological, boosteristic, and mystifying. Rather than representing the West as it is, he casts it as perhaps it was, or at least as he believed his audiences wished it to be remembered. Casting it not as a site of exploitation and conflict, he draws it instead as a sylvan Jeffersonian experiment in face-to-face democracy, small-scale enterprise, and adventuresome free men all struggling to make America what it had become in his own day. His river and landscape paintings played out actively as promotional imagery for America's Manifest Destiny. In these images Bingham presents the frontier and frontier society in the terms he knew many wanted to blindly buy into; that is, as ever expansive, free, open, and liberating.
Bingham's paintings, then, have been and are much more than historical illustrations. Their perpetual citation and celebration over the past five decades has transformed them into ideological icons, which anxious minds fiercely cling to for that perfect impression of authentic memory. The memory, which is but an artificial, two-dimensional idealization of fictional moments from the illusory frontier, in turn becomes "historical reality" for all who seize upon its images to ground their sense of "a past" or "some past" as "the past" or "our past." Hence, when Bingham's works are celebrated as a painted archive of American social history, one must be on guard, resisting the implicit call to accept or transform such displays in art museums into a sanctified articulation of American civil religion.
Several of Bingham's images, for example, might be read as an epic road map of Anglo-Saxon America working its will upon the North American continent. In this respect The Emigration of Daniel Boone (1851–1852) is an excellent case in point. Its gaze solemnly stares upon Daniel Boone leading a party of white settlers from the settled East into the unsettled West, bringing with him civilization, technology, and progress in the form of white women, white workers, and white society. Traversing a rough rocky trail between two opposing arrays of dark, craggy cliffs, the Boone party in the foreground is bathed in bright light, very much like the strongly lit background of the already civilized East where they started. Yet, on either side of the trail, tangled broken trees, untamed forests, dark clouds, and circling birds suggest the promise and dangers of the unsettled West. In front, Daniel Boone leads a white horse carrying an almost madonnalike woman, or his wife, Rebecca Boone, riding sidesaddle as she and the horse are lead by this great pathfinder. To his left, a tough grizzled-looking scout holds his rifle at ready, while gazing intently ahead, much like Daniel Boone and the lady on the white horse. To Boone's right, another pioneering male rests a moment to adjust his moccasin as his dog warily watches the wilderness. Behind this prepotent advance party, which is set in the painting's foreground as a strong triangular mass, the other settlers follow in single file, including another younger woman, or Boone's daughter, on a black horse, more armed men, a man with an ax or mallet, pack horses and cattle all the way back to the horizon. Unlike his depiction of carefree Mississippi boatmen, this image represents the solemn relentless advance of an entire civilization, bringing all of its technology, economy, domestic order, and political system with it into a new land. The painting works on many levels as a complex coda of Jeffersonian democracy and agrarian freeholding in the American republic, unfolding from its founding to the Civil War as an imperializing irresistible force. Here are the timeless champions of an entire way of life passing through the wilderness, waiting to remake it and themselves in an epic confrontation of nature with American society.
Yet, as the Boone party and other settlers file out into the West through passes and draws in the Appalachians, Bingham also paints images of the savage otherness awaiting them in the dark thickets or on the cliffs above in The Concealed Enemy (1845) and Captured by the Indians (1848). The Indian is portrayed as a menacing antagonist, but his unseen prey is left undepicted because, in a sense, it appears in many of his other canvases. It could be Daniel Boone and his party, it could be the fur trader and his son, it could be jolly boatmen, or it could even be other Indians. Captured by the Indians, on the other hand, illustrates the early American's classical horror story of captivity as a white woman with her small son–perhaps someone like the woman on the white horse once led by Daniel Boone–rest at night in the forest under the guard of Indian braves in war paint. Yet, the image is ambiguous. The peace of the scene does not suggest violence on the Indians' part or much resistance from the woman. Does the Indian blanket over the woman and the boy's bare feet suggest care and concern for the white captives? Or perhaps even some clear personal ownership or an obvious sexual tie between the awake, alert brave and the white woman? Is the woman's attitude of prayer one of hope for some future rescue or one of despair over accepting her plight? The pioneers or farmers who came into the wilderness with her now are absent, gone or perhaps even dead, leaving her to submit to the Indian's apparently subhuman demands.
Excerpted from Shows of Force by Timothy W. Luke. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Timothy Luke, University Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Virginia Polytechnic and State University at Blacksburg, is the author of several books, including Capitalism, Democracy, and Ecology: Departing from Marx and Ecocritique: Contesting the Politics of Nature, Economy, and Culture.
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