Sunday, January 18, 2015

Discovering the American West

[Photo by J. Russell]

Space, Land, and Concept in Art of the American West is all about discovery. The eighteen of us are spending sixteen weeks starting in January 2015 to explore the art, culture, and mythologies that exist in and pervade our understanding of the American West. This blog will document our conversations and will serve as a travelogue in May when we travel from Muncie, Indiana to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

[Missouri Territory, Formerly Louisiana, image via]

To get us started we debated our various definitions of the “American West.” Not surprisingly we haven’t quite figured out what we mean by that term. We know it’s not here in Indiana, though at one point our state might have represented an unknown frontier. Some of us think the West begins at the Mississippi River. Some think it ends at the Pacific Ocean. Some think Texas is part of the West; others are not so sure. We all did agree, however, that to understand the West you have to (or at least will want to) go there and that this class will make us look differently at our own Midwestern terrain.

Our starting point has been Lucy Lippard’s 2014 book, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, which was a fascinating account of the challenges of land, water, and resource management; the impact of the nuclear age; and many different types of artistic encounters. And of course, we all learned way more about gravel than we ever anticipated. Lippard’s text delighted some of us who got swept up in the momentum of her lyrical prose. Others were frustrated because they craved a more distinct narrative structure or wanted to read more about solutions to the problems the author exposed. No matter what, however, this book was a lucky find for us as it really does introduce all of the issues that we knew we wanted to cover this semester. It lays out a lot of options for art history students to consider as research topics and for studio art students to use as inspiration for their own interventions.

The members of this group (Sibley, Trevor, Mikayla, Tracy, Sarah, Dan, Lexi, Nicole, Kristina, Nikki, Kyla, Ashley, Alyson, Noelle, Grif, Jacinda, and Lara) used lots of evocative terms to describe their understanding of and questions about Lippard’s book and the American West at this point in the semester: progress, preservation, random, narrow, easy, staunch, pessimism, disgust, rambling, digest, successful, educate, enabler, anger, money, greed, overwhelming, shame, responsibility, love, contempt, imbalance, questioning, oppression, glorified, politics, corruption, community, commodity, new, respect, and mind-blowing. We latched on to such quotes as, “Culture is a far broader term than art and can embrace social energies not yet recognized as art,” “If the modern city is vertical (a climb leading to a penthouse overview), landscape is predominantly horizontal (a walk, through all walks of life). Like archeology which is time read backwards, gravel mines are metaphorically cities turned upside down, though urban culture unaware of its origins and rural birthplaces,” and “Art’s purpose, as defined by James Baldwin, is ‘to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.’” And we asked questions about how our work as artists (or historians or critics) can impact the world around us, the difference between “land” and “place,” and what to make of large-scale, long-term earth art and the tourism it generates.

And this is only the beginning.

Lara Kuykendall

No comments:

Post a Comment