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Artist, Nature, Nation
Edward Morris, 23 Jan 09
Stephen Shore. Merced River, Yosemite National Park, 1979.

During the course of his speeches, U.S. President Obama often connects his audience to a version of American history that emphasizes achievement, sacrifice and a vision of greatness. He mixes these stories of the past with exhortations to complete the work that others have started. In so doing, Obama is cultivating a particular brand of patriotism: the patriotism of Progress, i.e. of The Left. One of the leading champions of this sort of patriotism is Richard Rorty, whose book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America seems like it could be a source for many of Obama’s lines.

“National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement,” writes Rorty.

Rorty also has something important to say about the role of artists in cultivating this self-respect. He writes: “Nations rely on artists and intellectuals to create images of, and to tell stories about, the national past. Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s identity and about differing symbols of its greatness.”

One such story that I have not heard Obama relate – but which is certainly appropriate to his professed interest in climate change and sustainability – is the proud history of America’s conservation movement and the creation of National Parks.

Recently, I spent a few days in Yosemite National Park with my wife and Canary Project co-founder Susannah Sayler. We were there to photograph and take video of the place as part of a larger study on iconic American landscapes. We came away a little baffled. How do you photograph (professionally, honestly, artistically) this place that already has been photographed so often (both casually and purposefully)?

We have been doing some research. A good, comprehensive survey of prior attempts to render Yosemite is Yosemite: Art of an American Icon edited by Amy Scott. In this book there is an excellent survey of Yosemite photography by Jennifer Watts, entitled “Photography’s Workshop: Yosemite in the Modern Era.”

Watts begins her essay by contrasting the following two photographs:

Ansel Adams. Clearing Winter Storm,

Yosemite Valley, 1942.

Roger Minick, Woman at Inspiration Point,

Yosemite National Park, 1980.

The first is by Ansel Adams from 1942; and second is by Roger Minnick from 1980. Roughly speaking, these two photographs embody a dialectic that has dominated approaches to photographing Yosemite. Thesis: Yosemite is Nature; a place of pristine and sublime beauty (Ansel Adams). Antithesis: Yosemite is Culture; a nature theme park for tourists.

But the works of Stephen Shore (like the one at the top of this post) and others suggest that a productive synthesis is available. We can acknowledge that Yosemite is a managed landscape (a current strain of thought holds that ALL landscapes are managed), but we can ponder or even celebrate this fact rather than lament or ridicule it. As Susannah said during our visit: “I love this place. It is nature for everybody!”

This sort of synthesis view allows for more possibilities in exploring man’s uncertain, changing relationship to Nature, that is to say it allows for a more nuanced art. At the same time, putting this synthesis into the context of our national history allows for the sort of affirmative, Nation-celebrating gesture that Rorty imagines and that Obama encourages.

But are these two tendencies mutually exclusive? Does the nuanced inevitably work against the affirmative?

An affirmative art is virtually unknown (or at least not much respected) in our era. Why is that? Is art always about critique, negation, interrogation, suspension (all elements of nuance; cf Roland Barthes). These qualities of nuance are in direct conflict with the qualities of affirmation: positivity, action, declaration. As Paul Chan has pointed out, politics is about consolidation of power and art is about dispersal of power.

Was this always the case? Or is it an historical development? Is it possible that a given work can speak in both the nuanced and affirmative, the political and artistic registers (though perhaps not at the same time; in the same context)? What does this mean for works that treat nature explicitly? What does this mean for representations of Yosemite for example?

In the spirit of blogs I leave these questions open in the hopes that others will share their thoughts…

Edward Morris is the co-founder of The Canary Project and a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. The Canary Project produces visual media and artworks that deepen public understanding of climate change and energize commitment to solutions. Morris was formerly a partner at the James Mintz Group, an international investigative firm.

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While it seems that President Obama has said little about preserving national parks, it should be noted that at the "We Are One" concert held last week on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in honor of Barack Obama, one of the tributes was to the presidents who have shaped our National Park system.

I had the great privilege to attend the concert. To be honest, I was surprised to hear this message spoken by celebrities at a high-profile event. It was a nice change from the popular opinion we have heard coming from politicians recently.

Posted by: Alex on 23 Jan 09

While I cannot speak to the artistic tradition in Yosemite, I wonder if Yellowstone might not provide the greatest insight into these question. The works of Thomas Moran, for example, show at least a temporal shift across this very spectrum. His monumental first rendering of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the "machine" that was so instrumental in garnering interest in and support for the creation of the first National Park, is nothing if not quintessentially affirmative; the shear magnitude of the work and the subject speak unequivocally to the power and potential of the emerging American identity; the figures in the foreground, the white explorer Hayden directing the attention of a somewhat hesitant indian chief, evoke the new reality of "progress." Moran returned to paint this same scene two more times in his life, and these like his other works became increasingly nuanced, reflective, and perhaps most signifcantly, devoid of human figures. As has been pointed out by Peter Hassrick in "Drawn to Yellowstone," given the result of popularizing the West as a symbol, this may well express a latent but growing ambivalence about the very definition of "progress."

Almost by definiton, art that is affirmative resonates most broadly. In Moran's case, a shift away from such an approach may party come from a central irony of all art: the wider the embrace, the quicker the decline in its "cultural" value. Not surprisingly, Moran later paintings of the same Grand Canyon, though critically praised for their subtlety and nuance, drew very little public attention.

Posted by: fontinalis on 24 Jan 09

I've been thinking a lot about the role of art lately. Critical/interrogating art (ie. nuanced) and Affirmative art are both necessary, and they complement each other. One without the other would leave a flat cultural landscape. Positivity can be a challenge - and it's the challenge that makes art worthwhile. (I've got a bit more on this at the above URL.)

Posted by: Chris L on 26 Jan 09

I love this post, and am interested in knowing the exact source of Paul Chan's comment about politics as consolidation of power and art as dispersal... very apt!

Posted by: Jenny Ryan on 8 Feb 09

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