Monday, November 2, 2009

On Being an American Explorer.

Post #50! I just want to point that out. Neat.
Somewhere, some time ago, I read a study that concluded, in more scientific terms than I can remember now, that basically it's no wonder we as a nation suffer from a plague of Attention Deficit Disorder; it's in our blood!!* Just look at our ancestors- the crazy people, three and four centuries ago now, that felt compelled to hop on a ship, cross an ocean believed to have been filled with monsters, land on a coastline whose exact terrain no one had mapped out yet, and start setting up shop in a dangerous, unknown landscape. Yep, I'll bet being an early American Explorer required something like severe ADD in order to cope. What other mental anomaly could seriously get people excited to spend their entire lives in constant surprise, forming a community in a strange land, far away from society as they knew it?? I love imagining how the pilgrims and other 17th, 18th, and 19th century settlers must have felt when every step westward took them further into a realm of new and wild animals, scary natives, trees and mountains and rivers unnamed, and craziest of all- no rules!!!!

How delicious that life must have been. "When I grow up, I want to be an explorer, like the Great Magellan." (What movie??)

I've really been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an American Explorer, both for pioneers past and adventurers present. I really feel connected to the identity of an explorer; it's something I picked up in my early school years I think. For the first time in my life, I'm waking up to an environment of fall foliage and heading out to work in buildings of historical significance every day! All the history books I have ever read depict pilgrims smack in the middle of an idyllic fall landscape, and I've just realized I reside only a few hours away from the original Jamestown settlement. Thus the attitudes and lifestyle of early American Explorers have definitely held my mind captive lately. I'll spare you my usual bright-eyed and bushy-tailed paragraph about how I am on an adventure and see new things every day and find myself in a state of constant surprise (even though that paragraph would be totally true). Instead I'll show you how, in art, we have a lot of modern-day brothers and sisters who likewise found themselves explorers of the American landscape. Except these artists liked to paint what they saw, not just look around and sigh and take pictures with their digital cameras (like me). Thus they became contributors to the ephemeral, hopefully eternal ideal of Being an American Explorer, which I hope everyone gets a taste of once in a while, if not every day. Because it's our heritage. It is in our blood. And it's a great life to live.

I brought along with me a few images to help get you in the mindset of being an American Explorer. You might not get the connection at first, but just wait. Over the past three weeks, I've seen three particular images in my graduate studies that really resound with the drama and allure of Being an American Explorer. One does so through its artist's story, the other two through their subject matter. First things first:

Ben Shahn. Lithuanian/American. Resources of America Mural at the Bronx General Post Office. 1938. Tempera.

Now, I know the teacher on The Truman Show pulls down her pansy little map of the world and tells us, "Aww, you're too late! There's nothing left to explore!" and I know that many people, myself and Truman included, occasionally fall into the trap of feeling like there's nothing new to discover in our day and age. But it can be done! In fact, it was imperative for Ben Shahn, the artist behind this first image, to be an explorer in order to even come up with the idea behind this mural panel. Mr. Shahn makes for a really devilishly fascinating character study; I just completed a fatty paper on him, so I can't pass up the chance to tell you just a bit more about him. Born in 1898 in Lithuania, Shahn emigrated with his parents to New York City in early childhood (American explorer trait #1- stranger in a strange land). He trained in lithography and other art styles at a trio of art schools in New York, and was actively involved early in his career in the New Deal's WPA program for artists during the Great Depression (American explorer trait #2- get involved in history as it unfolds around you). He flirted with NY communist groups but never really was one of them, saw a mural he worked on with Diego Rivera at Rockefeller Center destroyed for its portrait of Lenin, and most importantly for the above image's sake, Shahn travelled as a documentary photographer for the federal governmentfrom 1932-1937. For five years, his sole assignment was to take pictures of workers in America (like the one at right). Strange lands, strange people, and crazy tough times. That's what he found out there.

This adventure was faaaaar different from anything he had ever seen in his claustrophobic New York world. His travels inspired him during his design process in a mural competition back home in New York. His design for the walls of the Bronx General Post Office featured twelve panels of gargantuan figures doing various distinctly American labors. It won, and it was a very prestigious commission! The mural image above is his depiction of a Southern cotton-picker in that mural program (one of the twelve American laborers). Benevolent Mr. Shahn so loved seeing different people's lives and labors out in the American countryside during his five year stint that he took it upon himself to educate the Bronx public about the big wide world. In mural form. Haha, it didn't work so well- one funny anecdote I came across in my research tells of a Bronxian native asking Shahn why the lady was making snowballs! He responded by telling her what his figure was actually holding, to which she replied, "Oh. I thought that stuff growed on trees."

Nevertheless, Shahn tried. He "went out into the world, and came back in," (what song??) and thus his images, although a little too tawny-toned and generalized for me, still speak a little bit about the artist's amazing journey, and his desire to share with others the marvelous things he encountered during the Great Depression.

And now, image #2 & 3

Cândido Portinari. Brasilian. Discovery of the Lands & Teaching of the Indians. In the Hispanic Reading Room, Library of Congress. 1941. Tempera.

These were from a classmate's presentation, and the way she described these images just really caught my attention. They are by the Brasilian artist Cândido Portinari, who was asked by Washington to design the four large murals in the Hispanic Reading Room at the Library of Congress (which is THE most beautiful building I think I've ever been inside! I need to get some major pictures of that place, it's gorgeous!!!). Portinari drew upon his Latin American heritage for inspiration for this work. He selected as his subject the discovery, exploration, and colonization of America.

Now, these images caught my attention for a few reasons: first, because I pay special attention whenever I hear anything about Latin American art, because it is really gaining strides in the contemporary art scene. Second, because I'm quickly seeing that American mural art owes a LOT to Latin American precedence. This is because Latin American artists-- particularly Mexicans like Diego Rivera and Brasilians like Portinari-- really embraced and enhanced the medium of mural work because of its ability to appeal to their countrymen and convey a sense of heritage, via a distinctly Latino style. Look at these images. You wouldn't say they were made by Italians, would you? You probably wouldn't say they are American, either. They are something else entirely, and that something is Latin American cultural insight and style: the wavy outlines, the patterned surfaces (like the checkered shirt on the center figure in the second image-LOVE!), and the flattened picture plane (notice how the ocean is ABOVE the heads of the central figures in both images- definitely not realistic, huh?). But I'm getting into nerdy, only-interesting-to-art-historians territory here.

The thing that I love most about these images is the almost-innocent view they take on American colonization. For once, neither side of history is demonized--neither the explorers nor the natives. For once, the artist just simply.... looks at the people who were alive in those epochs. By doing so, he shows us what he thinks about Being an American Explorer. Portinari depicts the discovery of the continent from the everyday sailors' point of view, not Columbus'. I liken that to the fact that being an American Explorer doesn't take some superior genius; it can be done through your basic hard work and perseverance. Portinari also chose to depict the Jesuit conversion of the natives to Christianity (second image). He said he believed that that was one of the greatest, most positive events to come out of colonization. American Explorers have historically trusted in the idea that their new world is the handiwork of God, and that they in it are also made by Him. Me likey this idea as well.

Thus concludes my art explique for the moment. It's been such a busy fall season, and I've seen and explored and written so much lately that I don't feel like I can add much more to what I've got. For all those who would like an update on how I myself have recently gone about being an American Explorer, here's a few images I've taken (off Flickr and off my camera... I'll never say which ones are which!). Welcome to the surprising new worlds and new scenes I've stumbled upon lately. Enjoy exploring.

* On a completely unrelated note, at my teacher training at the NBM recently I found out that the socio-psychological powers-that-be have officially stopped using the phrase "Attention-Deficit-Disorder." It officially no longer exists. We have Asperger's and ADHD, but that ADD, that's a thing of the past. I have no idea why, but my guess is a desire to be more politically correct and to discourage the over-diagnosis of ADD that has occurred in the public school system. Haha, I wonder what will happen to the Pilgrim-ADD study now. Is it considered debunked? Bad scholarship? Unimportant? Ah modern academia. Never a dull moment.


Summer Lewis said...

I always feel smarter after I read your posts. Thank you. Sometimes I need that after changes so many diapers. As for the "new ADD" which is now Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, I think it just means that the pilgrims were also hyperactive (which wouldn't suprise me because you'd have to be to survive in this crazy country).

MOM said...

Haahhhhh...that was nice. I loved your exploration slide show. Way fun. :) And Katie knew the movie quote on the explorer Magellan (The Truman Show). But not the song. Thanks for giving us a sweet dose of American history and art. It felt gooood! I, like Summer, feel a few brain cells perk up and pay attention.

You're my girl! (And Candy Land!! ha! Talk about explorers; that was the ultimate exploration exerience as a kid!)

Grandpa Brown said...

I read your latest blog. It was wonderful. I'll write later; I have to go to the temple.

Grandpa Brown said...

This is Grandpa and I am practicing with your Mom as coach.

Judy Anne said...

I love to expore our vast country and experience the multiplicity of people and ideas. I am always amazed at God's creations and the gifts He gives us which enables us to then make our own creations. Your blog is a beautiful exhibition of what you are creating...your life's work. Please continue to delight us with your musing.
By the way, can you get 'chapter and verse' from your teacher trainer regarding the ADD debunking? I need to add that to my course...but I need the documentation. Thanks my dear sweet friend.