The National Museum of the American Indian

Another day, another museum. After my experience yesterday in the National Gallery, I had quite a different experience today on the Mall. I went to the National Museum of the American Indian.

I came to the museum skeptical. I took a class this summer on Native Americans that made me really disillusioned with the way Native Americans are depicted in mainstream culture. It seems that Native Americans are very often objectified, whether as a source of national guilt, as gaming profiteers, or as sources of spiritual mysticism. I’m also weary of museums that hope to serve a didactic role in consciousness raising. To make matters worse, someone had mentioned to me that the museum focused on Native culture instead of genocide.

But the museum blew me away. First, the museum did an excellent job of addressing the meta-question of what the museum was intended to do. There was a video that discussed how history is a construct and that Native American voices have often been left out of mainstream American history. It went on to acknowledge that the museum has a specific agenda–to argue that the story of Native American survival is one of the greatest stories in human history–and concluded that one should be skeptical of all history, including this museum’s. The disclaimer video might have been a little overly dramatic, but it served its purpose.

As I walked through the museum, I was struck by the extent to which the exhibits were nuanced. One example that made a particular impression on me was the discussion of Native American Christianity. The exhibit displayed around 100 Bibles in different indigenous languages. There were brief quotes about the history of Native Christianity on the glass that covered the Bibles. One quote mentioned the Christian boarding schools of the 19th and early-20th centuries, which played a huge role in destroying traditional indigenous cultures. Another quote explained how a 17th century missionary spent 15 years learning an indigenous language in order to translate the Bible. Yet another discussed how a mid-20th century Papal decree liberalizing Church practices worked with other factors to spark Indigenous Rights movements. Finally, a quote explained how the majority of contemporary Native Americans are Christians.

I was amazed by the extent to which the museum was telling the story of genuine subjects. There is the missionary who spent years working to translate the Bible. There were no easy answers to the question of Christianity in Native Culture.

I could give other examples of how the museum told the stories of active people and avoided essentializing. There was a nuanced discussion of gaming, an exhibit about a contemporary Inuit elder, and a general effort to emphasize how much diversity there is in indigenous cultures.

Personally, going to this museum was an important experience. I often get dismayed with how the efforts of cultural progressives and academics in cultural studies can be ineffective at promoting cultural understanding. Very often, I feel that teaching cultural understanding can end up being pedantic and can even lead to the objectification of other cultures. Seeing this sophisticated discussion of such a challenging issue (on the National Mall, no less) was really encouraging.

To round out my experience, there was also a fabulous temporary exhibit on display by the contemporary artist, Brian Jungen. He reworks common objects found in pop-culture to form sculptures in keeping with indigenous traditions. It’s conceptually provocative and visually appealing. Here’s an example:

Room 64

This thing often happens when I go to museums. There’s so much to see, I’m usually in a city with a million other things to do, and I get tired of standing. So as I walk from painting to painting, I’ll often pause at a piece that really grabs me, stop in wonder for a moment, and then move on. I did this a lot during my time in Paris. And it’s not just that museums like the Louvre or Orsay are too big–it’s something else. Really looking at a painting is tiring work, and also, I’m not very good at it. Besides, there’s this rush I get from letting my initial impression of a masterpiece hit me, and then moving on to the next one.

Today I went to the National Gallery in DC. I wanted to check out the American landscape paintings.

The map I picked up confused me, so I spent a while wandering around looking for Room 64, the home of “American Landscape and Genre Paintings.” On my way, I walked through an exhibit on the history of photography. I paused for a second in front of an Ansel Adams of Yosemite’s Half Dome, but moved on.

Eventually I made my way to Room 64. The first painting I saw was Cole’s The Notch of the White Mountains.

Here was what I had come to see. I had briefly discussed this painting in a class at Middlebury, but it’s true: in order to really appreciate a painting, you need to see it in person (and so I must apologize for the crappy reproductions I found online).

Eventually, I moved on. The next painting that drew me in was Asher Durand’s Pastoral Landscape:

I started making connections between the room’s paintings. They were all painted during the mid-19th century and were mostly of landscapes. I noticed that almost all of them show mountains towering over forests or farmland.

But I got really got excited when I detected a certain awkwardness in a lot of them. In Cole’s Notch of the White Mountains, for example, the main subject is riding his horse through the colorful wild landscape, and yet there are stumps that appear to be freshly sawed in the foreground. The subject’s frontiersmanship seems a little out of place in a forest that has just been logged.

The awkwardness is more pronounced in George Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley. In this painting, the central subject is lounging in front of a logged forest that has a rail way going through it.

The subject, with his holdout tree, is out of his element. He seems to be assuming a position of someone in the wilderness, lounging to admire a beautiful natural landscape. And yet he is looking out on the symbol of industrial progress–the railroad.

Before going to the museum today, I had spent a little time in a class at Middlebury talking about the question of how the Hudson River Valley School painters addressed industrialization. I came out of the class a little confused, but generally thinking that Thomas Cole and others were skeptical of “progress.”

As I walked around the room, I began to appreciate the extent to which these artists were struggling with the question of whether or not industrial advancement would be destructive. So I think these paintings can be seen as the visualization of these artists working through one of the essential question of their (and our) time, the question of whether “progress” can corrode our relationship with the natural world. Ultimately, these artists are too sophisticated and honest to offer any easy answers.

Even the painting that seemed to provide the most explicit critique of industrialization is quite complicated: in Lackawamma Valley, there is certainly the awkwardness of the logging, but one must also consider how a third of the painting is taken up by healthy forests, and that the piece is aesthetically pleasing as a whole. Meanwhile, Durand’s Pastoral Landscape is as idyllic as it gets, and yet its message is unclear. Is Durand saying that this pastoral ideal still exists or that it is a thing of the past?

I walked around Room 64 again. I remembered how at the end of my time in Paris, I started to change my approach to museums. One of my best museum experiences was at the Orangerie–I stared at one of Monet’s Water Lilies for half an hour. In my last week in Paris, I spent another 30 minutes on Géricault’s Radeau De La Méduse. When I really focused on these paintings in Paris, I was able to better verbalize what these paintings “meant.” But there’s always this incompleteness that comes with trying to explain a painting. To me, Le Radeau De La Méduse tells a story of human resilience and faith, and yet that “analysis” (or even a more sophisticated one) leaves so much out.

I returned to thinking about the mountains in the landscape paintings. The looming mountains are most dramatic in Bierstadt’s Lake Lucerne, which I think is the most complex painting in the room:

And what do these mountains mean? Well, my interpretation is that they’re a suggestion that there’s something larger and more enduring than then question of technological progress.

I left Room 64 wiped out and restless. It’s definitely easier to go for quantity in museums and walk through as many rooms as possible. Besides, the security guard in the room kept staring at me.

As I left, I had gained an intellectual appreciation for the complexity of these paintings and perhaps I had even taken away an overall “message” through the recurring theme of the mountains.

But really, I could have spent a lot more time looking at these paintings. I could also continue writing about these paintings for a while. Even this experience of just beginning to really look at and think about thirteen paintings is not something I make enough time to do. It’s also not the type of thing people generally do much anymore (assuming people once did make time for art).

Lingering in Room 64 was awkward for both me and the security guard. But there was something about those mountains. Perhaps something enduring.

Paris VI: L’américanisation

I had a pleasant surprise today when I went to my first Introduction to Contemporary Cultural History class today at La Sorbonne: this semester, the class will be focused on l’américanisation. The nerd in me was a little disappointing to miss out on the theory the class did last semester (now that I’m going to do this American Studies gig, I want more theoretical background), but hell yes. Americanization.

The graduate student who was teaching my Travail Dirigé (the French socialized education’s take on a discussion group) came to class, but was on “active” strike. This means she would come to class to set things up for the semester, but refused to give her actual lesson. She explained why she was on strike–she and her colleagues dislike Xavier Darkos (Sarkozy’s education minister)’s reforms.

Then a German exchange student who I had been talking to before class wanted her to explain the “other side of the issue”–what could be good about the potential reforms. My German friend asked if their these reforms would “modernize” the education system.

This is when things really got interesting.

My Professor explain that “modernize” was a buzzword designed to make opponents of the reforms look like reactionaries. Then she equated the notion of “modernization” to that of “américanisation.” Both were loaded, vague terms. She was fighting against this modernizaiton, this americanisation, that would mean more quantititative evaluation of Professors and Researchers.

Now France definitely has huge problems with its educational system, and I am all for reform of this system (this Professor also said she was for some reform), but it is interesting to me that the part of what Sarkozy is doing with his educational reforms fits into a large trope of contemporary American pop-culture: anti-intellecutalism. Sarkozy, who prides himself on copying the best of what America does, wants more oversight of French Professors. My sense is that he’s playing into the perception that Academics sit around all day lazily musing about Marx without accomplishing anything productive.

More generally, it is interesting for me to see how many French people want to adopt parts of American culture I find least appealing. Pierre-Antoinee, a friend of mine from the foyer, talks about France doesn’t compensate their elites enough and needs to cut its social safety net.

What is most interesting about this perspective is the that Americanization is the thing to do because America is so universally defined as successful. People want to consume the American way of consumerism because the quantitative successes of the Consumer Republic.

Anyway, I’m excited to see what the trendy, intellectual “américanistes” who are pictured smoking on the back of the textbook I just bought have to say about all this.

Paris V: Une Exhibition

Today I went to a museum.

We saw Robert Frank and Sophie Ristelhueber exhibits. We started with Robert Frank. There were two Robert Frank expositions, one of his influential book, The Americans and the other of his time in Paris during the après guerre. I spent a good amount of time in The Americans room.

The exhibit consists of a series of photos Frank took during the 1950’s when he travelled around the US with his family.

Something struck me about the exhibition. It was as if Frank was showing us scenes and images you weren’t usually supposed to see. The photos look like they were taken hastily– they are often off-centered and blurry.

As I sat and pored of Kerouac’s introduction to the published version of these photographs, I was struck by how there is a certain artistic and aesthetic unity in both the writing of Kerouac and the Frank’s photographs. A disjointedness. A quickness. An oral element to both works.

Part of this artistic frame of mind really appeals to me. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s direct. And yet, there is something lacking in it. A polished perspective, perhaps? In my mind, these two and others like them were reacting against high art, against stuffiness. I like that, but you can’t totally disconnect from the wisdom of the cannon.

So I’m undecided and intrigued. When I’m done with my current book, I’m going to read On The Road.

Anyway, we went upstairs to look at the Ristelhueber exhibit and I was impressed with her formal abilities, but dissapointed by the overtly political nature of some her work. I’m generally moving towards not liking specific political messages in most artistic forms–written and oral media are the best in my mind for dealing with politics.

What I loved about Frank’s exposition was the way he transcended his form and medium. He moved beyond an explicit political message, beyond the quick, direct mode of him and the beat poets. He expressed something profound about character.

I’ll get back to you about whether or not I think Kerouac can do the same thing.

Road Trip Post 1: Iron Man, Metaphysics and 400 miles

As promised, I will be blogging my thoughts on the roadtrip with Will and Ken and later my thoughts on my stay in Minneapolis.

Leaving Middlebury was definitely sad; I had my last meal in Proctor and it was especially stirring to saying goodbye to Thom who I won’t see until I go to France next spring.

But our trip starting magnificently with a Verve/Jay-Z mashup blaring as we drove out of the bubble. We were graced with a rainbow (left) as we crossed Lake Champlain and made good time to Will’s family friends’ house in Saranac Lake.

Then we decided to go see the new movie, Iron Man. Wow. What a movie. If I had known anything about the movie before I had walked into the theater I probably wouldn’t have gone in.

What really interested me about the movie was it addressed ideas of Americanism. In the first half of the movie, this weapons engineer is held captive by muslim terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan. To simplify the plot, he builds a superhero suit by engineering this new energy source and kicks some “islamofascist” ass.

This was very interesting to me because the Iron Man dominated the terrorists in very primordial ways: the terrorists’ AK47 bullets bounced right off the Iron Man’s suit. He beat them up with his fists. Because of his intellectual prowess and ingenuity, he was able to be more manly and primordial then the terrorists.

It was as if the film-makers were saying that through our technology and braininess we can be more manly than the animalistic terrorists. This is interesting in the context of Mark Steyn (a speaker college Republicans brought in this year)’s affirmation that what our culture lacks manliness.

In many ways, I see a social phenomenon of a Napoleonic complex going on with my wonderful neoconservative fellow citizens. From “Bring it on” to “Dead or Alive” to Mark Steyn’s comments, these men are afraid of losing their manliness to terrorists. They think they can defeat terrorists by out-manning them and starting wars. Admittedly, it sounds farfetched and reactionary of me to say this, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how our cultural landscape influences our politics.

Anyway, Iron Man was terrible on every level and Will rightly compared it to Snakes on a Plane.

We slept well and the next day we went on a quick hike and had a great view of the Saranac Lake area:

We then had a pleasant six hour drive to Toronto, where we just got some Pho at a Vietnamese place, enjoyed the drinking age by having some wine with dinner and had a pretty intense metaphysical talk.

Good times. Tomorrow: on to Detroit!