Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Promised Land

the promised land

snow, portland

the promised land

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If you've ever wandered through downtown Portland's Chapman Square, you might've noticed the bronze family of rifle-totin', Bible-packin', traditional-valuin' pioneer folk, situated right in the center of the park, midway between the Portland Building and the Justice Center. This is the controversial sculpture titled The Promised Land, or as I like to call it, The Bus Back To Gresham Is This Way.

First, the basic facts. The city's page about the square (above link) describes the sculpture thusly:

In Chapman Square is a bronze statue commissioned by the Oregon Trail Coordinating Council to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail in 1993. The Promised Land, by Oregon artist David Manuel, depicts a pioneer family - father, mother, and son - at the end of their journey. The red granite slab upon which the statue is mounted is inscribed with a quote by Thomas Jefferson. The plaza in front of the statue is sandblasted with footprints reminiscent of pre-settlement days: jackrabbit, black bear, porcupine, grouse, coyote, elk, and moccasin prints.

Reading that, you'd come away knowing who made it, who paid for it and why, and when it got here. But there's much more to the story than that. To get some idea of the controversy, you might start with this story (in the Seattle Times, ironically enough), and a later followup. In a nutshell, a lot of people took one look at the thing and saw a big steaming pile of reactionary kitsch that had no place in our liberal, urbane, Euro-wannabe-yet-multicultural-wannabe metropolis. It was wrong in just so many ways. The gun, and particularly the Bible were obvious offenders. There's Mr. White Male Pioneer boldly pointing the way, as his wife stands there looking meek and clutching a doll (which I think is supposed to be the doll of a daughter who died along the trail). And there's the inconvenient fact that the Indians were here first, but there's no sign of them in this official commemoration -- which was an especially sore point, coming so close on the heels of the 500th anniversary of 1492. People wondered (or at least I recall wondering) why something so nakedly ideological was being shoved down our throats. It's not like we were marching down to Grants Pass and putting up statues of Emma Goldman or the Village People, after all, as fun as that might have been.

snow, portland
You may or may not remember this, but the early 90's were sort of a heyday of identity politics, and there was a whole cottage industry built around the bashing of Dead White Males. It was all the rage in academia, and elsewhere it inspired all sorts of heated bellowing about "political correctness" and so forth. So there really couldn't have been a worse time (or place) to install a statue like this. And yet, in the end, it went in anyway, and now the pioneers get to stand there in our park, glaring at us accusingly, until the sun goes red giant and swallows the Earth, or I suppose until the Rapture happens, if you believe in that sort of thing, which I don't. Knowing our fair city as I do, I expect we put it up on the idea that we'd already paid for the damn thing, and you don't really see the gun and Bible unless you look closely, so we might as well get a statue out of it, even if it isn't very good.

Luckily(?) for us, someone had a bright idea to use the statue's surroundings to try to neutralize all the icky conservativeness. The Jefferson quote, which I unfortunately don't have a photo of, is a sorta-multicultural-sounding platitude, and it's there to semi-negate the presumed subject matter of the statue itself. One could cloak this in art jargon and say the statue's carrying on a dialogue with its surroundings, or remark on the "dynamic tension" between it and its base. Or one could be blunter, and call it "awkward" or even "clumsy". The animal prints in the sidewalk around the statue don't really help, either.

The best description I've seen of the sculpture comes from this post on Pudgy Indian:

As Rhonda and I were heading out, we noticed there was action at the front of the justice center. I guess the park is called Chapman Square. It is the park with that statue of the white folks that came over to kill us Indians off and steal our land and resources while carrying the bible.

the promised land

So, ok, I think we've established that The Promised Land comes from well outside the Portland mainstream. The key thing to realize is that the artist, David Manuel, is not a Portland artist. The tiny Eastern Oregon town of Joseph has something of a cottage industry in bronze art, and Mr. Manuel had his studio there for a long time. More recently he's relocated to the LaGrande area, where he and his wife are busy renovating the historic hotel at Hot Lake Springs. Where, as it turns out, the other copy of The Promised Land is now located. Photos of the "other" Promised Land here, here, and here.

Manuel's website mentions something about valuing historical accuracy over political correctness. And there may be a point to that. They probably were a bunch of gun-toting, Bible-thumping, land-grabbing Indian-haters. Or at least some of them were. But, you know, putting it up in the middle of a city park, in the modern era, just feeds the eternal "real vs. fake America" divide we heard so much about in the last election. I mean, what's next, a statue of a heroic slave ship captain?

the promised land

In all fairness, Gun-N-Bible-Totin' Pioneers are a common motif in Old West kitsch, I mean, vernacular art. As are Noble Indians, actually. In fact, I gather Mr. Manuel does Noble Indians quite a lot -- see here and here for example -- although I realize that's often taken as cultural appropriation, not as a compliment. It's probably fair to classify Portland's eternal grade-B public art staple, "Heroic Salmon Swimming Upstream", as Old West vernacular too, although for whatever reason it's far more respectable than many of the other motifs.

Which is not to say that The Promised Land is any good, because I don't think it is. It's just that it's part of a longstanding tradition. To see it done properly, check out the works of Frederic Remington or Albert Bierstadt, to pick a couple of examples off the top of my head.

the promised land

The Promised Land is not universally scorned here, I should point out. Most people either don't know it exists, or they do and they ignore it. But it even a few actual fans, believe it or not. A local conservative scold called it "magnificent" in an op-ed piece griping about modern art (to a very mixed reception -- see this for example). To give you some idea of where he's coming from, he also has beefs about modern architecture; immigrants (he especially doesn't like immigrants); skateboarders (seriously!), and "disorder" in general.

If you want to style yourself as a conservative intellectual, certain opinions are de rigeur. Abstract art is always Bad, in fact it's a commie plot. Art should exist for the moral and political instruction of the populace. It should reinforce "traditional values", and promote reverence toward religious figures, Founding Fathers, the nation, its leaders, past and present, captains of industry, past and present, and so on, and so forth. An abstract painting or sculpture does none of these things, and therefore is evil and shouldn't exist. A similar complaint is lodged against modern architecture, most memorably in Tom Wolfe's book From Bauhaus to Our House. Which is actually quite an entertaining book, whether you buy his thesis or not. Our local guy doesn't handle the argument quite so well, but it's what he's got. As a conservative intellectual, one has a rather small bag of tricks at one's disposal, and bashing modern art and architecture is a key one. If possible, one should always paint a gloomy picture of our national decline and imminent downfall, relating it back to the similar, basically-identical decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It always has to relate back to the Roman Empire for some reason. I'll never understand what it is that conservatives love so much about Imperial Rome.

Dinesh D'Souza griped about the controversy in one of his books. It's the usual conservative schtick: Use the incident to rile up the conservative shriek-o-sphere, and conveniently neglect to mention that they actually won that round. I'm not sure a true conservative can be reconciled with winning anything; they're so wrapped up in the whole doom-and-gloom, decline-and-fall routine that they just can't wrap their minds around it when something goes their way.

the promised land

I have to laugh at their selective reading of antiquity (if I may digress for a moment). It's kind of an SCA version of the times: Ancient Greece And Rome As They Should Have Been. It's all Roman martial values and Stoic philosophers; the history of great battles and noble orations. It's Rome without the orgies, Sparta without the gay sex. From Greece, all Iliad and no Lysistrata. From Rome, all Aeneid and no Satyricon. In their telling, Ganymede was merely Zeus's "cup-bearer", an entirely chaste position, er, I mean, job. And all that graffiti at Pompeii? Well, uh... that's when you're supposed to turn it around and start ranting about moral decay and the fall of Rome again.

Their notions about what is and what isn't acceptable in present-day art are similarly precious. It has to be figurative art, of course, a realistic or idealized depiction of a person or persons. But the requirements don't stop there, of course. The art also has ideological hurdles to overcome. Pioneers, clinging bitterly to guns and religion? Acceptable. The "MLK & Friends" grouping at the convention center? Not so much. And that Lenin statue up in Seattle? Unthinkable! Sure, he's certainly figurative, and he exists for the moral and political education of the masses, and he does a fantastic job of Heroically Pointing At Stuff, and I think he's basically the kind of art they have in mind. But he was forged in the service of a competing all-encompassing Big Idea. So -- Anathema!

Works like The Quest are also very questionable, with all that horrific nekkidness. I mean, it's not that all conservative critics are against all nudity in art; for at least some of them, bare bosoms may be acceptable, in theory, at least so long as they're strictly allegorical bosoms, such that Liberty Leading The People passes muster (except for being French, of course), while Manet's Olympia doesn't. And even allegorical won't do if conservatives have to stand next to it, like the sad and silly case of the Liberty statue at the US Justice Dept. under Ashcroft.

Another thing, sheer realism isn't sufficient. Duane Hanson's photo-realistic fiberglass sculptures of mundane people doing mundane jobs do not, I think, pass the litmus test. While it's hard to conceive of more realistic depictions of actual people, these depictions aren't exactly uplifting. Which I think is the whole point of the sculptures, therefore they simply won't do.

Given their approval of The Promised Land the one thing that art doesn't have to be is good. I don't mean that in the sense of whether I personally like it or not, because I think I've already conveyed that particular point. I mean simply sheer technical skill at working in the medium, as compared to other similar works done in the same medium. Look at it, and then look at the Lincoln and Roosevelt statues in the South Park Blocks, for example. There's just no comparison. Although I'll grant that it does exhibit more technical skill than something like Rusting Chunks #5, although that's not really saying much. Given a reasonable amount of time, I'm sure I could learn to create something just like the Rusting Chunks if I cared to, and I don't mean that as a compliment.

Besides, with regard to the whole "art for moral betterment" angle -- the pioneer family has been here for close to a decade and a half now, reproaching us for our liberal, lascivious ways. Is it working? Has anyone, in all this time, even once, looked at them and gone, oh, wait, I see the light now, from this day forward I shall attend church religiously and vote party-line Republican from here on out? I kind of suspect not.

In the end, mostly I just think "conservative intellectuals" need to get a life. But somehow I doubt they will.

the promised land

the promised land

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