Monday, March 16, 2009

What's in a destiny?

Manifest Destiny was our nation's first great marketing campaign. In order to secure territory and resources in the name of our country and our ideals, our ancestors wrote a sense of entitlement and an ethic of ownership into the "American" identity that justified westward expansion as a predestined trajectory rather than an act of decision and will . Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape is an exhibition and accompanying catalog that looks at landscape paintings throughout American history to reveal the ways an environmental ethic arose alongside Manifest Destiny and was envisioned through art. The exhibition was on view at the Loyola University Museum of Art from May 17 - August 10, 2008.

Of the exhibition, John Peter Brownlee states, "In tracing [a] stylistic evolution from the eighteenth to twentieth century, the exhibition charts the dawning of an environmental awareness, a gradual though still incomplete shift from an anthropocentric view of the earth to a biocentric one that recognizes all organisms, including humans, as parts of a single natural system or community." Brownlee’s idealistic, American-centric notion that environmental awareness dawned with the birth of our country and that people have since been progressively moving towards a biocentric rather than an anthropocentric view of the natural world seems mislead to me. The Native Americans that we pushed from this land understood that life is interconnected and must be respected with an awareness that few Americans have today. Though all of the authors do not treat environmentalism as a concept of the enlightened class, there is a sense of romantic progression throughout this catalog that made me apprehensive as I read it.

Even so, I enjoyed considering the ways American’s have formed their identity by looking at landscape imagery. In the catalog’s preface Elizabeth Glassman wrote, ‘As early as the mid-nineteenth century, American culture manifested tension between differing attitudes toward the natural world, between the drive to conquer the continent and lament for deforested lands.’ This statement holds true today as we long for the wild lands that form a part of our identity and heritage but drive economic progress by over consuming resources that destroy the places of nature that we long for.

We look at representations of nature to form many parts of our identity as Americans and as humans. We see our heritage in images of wilderness. The human race has grown out of the wild and become civilized so images of nature serve as benchmarks to distinguish our intelligence and accomplishments that separate us from nature. This also holds true when we look at our country’s heritage. We have conquered and civilized what was once wild and we image and preserve portions of nature as national treasures to remind us of what our continent once was. These preserves are the remains of the raw resources that our country was built on and they establish a dynamic of power that shapes our identity over nature. We are primarily cultivators and controllers of nature, not interconnected community members.

W. J. T. Mitchell asserts in the introduction to his book Landscape and Power that landscape “does not merely signify or symbolize power relations, it is an instrument of cultural power, perhaps even an agent of power.” Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape does not only trace the development of American’s environmental identity, it also has a subtext of domination and ecological imperialism that affirms the human and particularly American power to harness and control nature.

The end of this decade seems like a particularly important time to examine the origins of Manifest Destiny because the American cultural identity that was established by our ancestors' expansion and manipulation of this continent has been reinterpreted to forcefully extend US agendas globally. This decade is one plagued with interventionist nation-building and growing signs of ecological devastation brought on by human enterprise. These are the very same issues that arose in the early years of our nation on a continental scale.

Peter Granser - Man with a Flag, 2006

This photograph by Peter Granser is from his body of work titled Signs. Signs is a look at conservative American values through photographs that were made in small towns in Texas during the 2008 election campaign. This image speaks to many of the ways Americans identify with nature. Two guys stand at the foot of a mountain in a location that is presumably accessible by car. One waves an American flag, symbolically saluting the land of his heritage from a distance while affirming America as its territorial owner. His shirt echoes the flag, his pants the pallet of the mountain he is looking at. The boy’s attire reflects a tension in the American view of nature. We are sort of like nature from the waste down, but we aren’t nature. We view mountains from afar and solute their beauty but we value comfort and disconnection. It is as if there is a line that these two guys cannot cross. They are keeping their feet firmly planted on the civilization side of the photograph.

It is important to note that Granser is German. To me, this photographs and the entire Signs body of work feels like an outsider's perspective. The way Granser half mocks the sentiments of his subjects seems cynical and detached from the American identity it is criticizing.

I have been thinking about ways my work relates to this reading and in lieu of a map I created a photograph as my visual response this week. I happen to have a poster of Granser’s photograph in my apartment and I made the photograph below using part of that poster as the background.

my visual response (made with a point and shoot digital camera because the negs aren't back in time)

In my photograph, I used an artificial material (from a torn up sheet of cushy stuff that you put in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet) to cover up one of the guys in Granser's picture and I cropped out the other guy. By removing the figures in the photograph, I shift Granser's critique from a cynical and detached look at the distant and absurd sense of self identity of two iconic Americans' to a questioning of the untouched and pristine nature that I have come to understand through imagery and have adopted as a part of my personal identity.

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