Bill Long 2/12/05
A Museum, An Exhibit and My America
The University of Oregon's Art Museum has just reopened with a new name (the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art), a traveling exhibit (Andy Warhol's Dream America) and an expanded exhibit space on the 3rd floor, with rotating Morris Graves (1910-2001--an Oregon native) paintings, a large East Asian collection and images from Jordan Schnitzer's extensive private collection on display. On this rainy Saturday in Eugene the sprawling U of O campus was relatively deserted but the Museum was abuzz with activity.
Most were interested in the 88 Warhol pieces, primarily silk screens, of Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Chairman Mao, 10 leading Jews of the 20th century and a host of other images. While Warhol's comments on his work often don't shed much light on what he was trying to do in his all-too-brief life (1928-1987), a few quotations in the "Dream America" exhibit caught my attention. Most thought-provoking to me was his use of the word "atmosphere" in two sentences: "Your own life while it's happening to you never has any atmosphere until it's a memory." And: "The fantasy corners of America seem so atmospheric because you've pieced them together from scenes..." [that you have seen in movies, books, etc.].
For Warhol the word "atmosphere/ic" seems to suggest something that is a concrete and particular representation, something that takes shape in the imagination in a fixed manner. While we are living, our life is as if it is on television (another favorite metaphor of his); we are not living life as much as viewing life. But when reflection enters in after time, one gets some "atmosphere." Then, images become concrete and art can happen.
Thinking About America
When the "atmospherics" of America congealed for Warhol, he created the unforgettable images of America, from the banal to the arresting, which came to be known as "pop" art. His productive years in the silk screen process numbered fewer than 25 (the last 24 or so of his life), and his focus seemed to be on the portrayal of celebrities to the exclusion of other individuals.
Viewing Warhol's work through Jordan Schnitzer's magnificent collection made me ponder what images or thoughts would make up "Bill Long's America" if anyone ever asked me about that. That is, what constitutes the essence of this land in which I have spent most of my life, this land that I alternately love and have great difficulties with, this land of plenty and want, of tolerance and intolerance, of glory and shame? I would not point to people as much as I would point to certain ideas or realities of American life in the last 20 or so years that, to me, make up America. This is not a romantic Whitman-esque picture where I hear America singing, and where the seemingly dissonant noises from sea to shining sea really make up one great unified symphonic chorus of song. Rather, I see smaller things, which define and will define our common existence. Three things come to mind: (1) our relatively new interest in recovering and preserving our past; (2) the widespread vulnerability of our people in the midst of a land of plenty; and (3) our continued mobility.
(1) Recovering Our Past
One might say that America has always been interested in its past and in recalling, even mythologizing, certain individuals and periods for all of us. True enough. The founding fathers, Lincoln, Gettysburg, Thanksgiving Day and a few other things have become etched into our consciousnesses. But what I really mean by this point is that America has devoted considerable, and not really widely recognized, effort in the past few decades to preserve homes, railroad stations, benches, banks, streets, businesses, buildings and other human artifacts that witness to some aspect of our past. What is often overlooked in this process is that preservation itself is driven by a myth of America, a myth of the past's ability, when shaped and reshaped, to exercise an influence over us today. Every time we preserve something we need a mythographer, a person who can tell a good story, to tell us why we should preserve something and to relate why this thing deserving of preservation has a claim on us today.
Certainly there is nothing necessarily nefarious about this. Learning about our past enriches, influences and even defines us. But I think that America will have a great longing, once the preservation efforts get beyond the cataloguing and documenting stage, to tell our national story in a different way, incorporating these newly preserved items along the way. But when one thing is preserved, another thing is not. We may focus during Black History month on funds for reconstruction of cabins along the Underground Railroad from the South to the North, but I doubt if there would be much interest in federal funds for preserving or rebuilding the grand lodges of the KKK after the Civil War or in the 1920s, when it revived itself. The preservation movement, while fueling the historical spirit, may have a vested interest in telling the story of America that is a "tame America," an America that was destined "from the cradle" to become a great nation, an American past that has a certain ineluctability about it. Triumphalism is never so powerful today as when it can be conveniently and apparently cogently buttressed by history.
Thus, when I think about America, and "Dream America," I think about the ways that our past is being shaped even as we are unaware of it. Indeed, one of the most important questions for self-identity as a nation in the next generation will be, "What's new with the past?"
But these ruminations lead me to the end of this essay. Click here for my two other thoughts.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long