Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Preservation of Metaphor

"Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free... It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. I should not lay so much stress on this fact, if I did not believe that something like this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west."

-Thoreau,  Walking     

iew from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
Nearly a year ago, Holland Cotter wrote a piece in the New York Times regarding Thomas Cole's 1836 painting "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow." He re-imagined this 182 year-old work as a political gesture significant to our day while reiterating the psychological chasm between human activity and nature:

"The painting divides vertically into two atmospheric halves. To the left is a wild storm-soaked tangle of old trees and dense vegetation; to the right, far below, a flat terrain of treeless, square-cut fields running back to distant hills scarred by clear-cutting. The wilderness looks unkept and threatening, but seethes with life. The flat land, though cultivated and presumably fertile, feels as bare and bland as a tract-house town. And in the foreground of the picture is a tiny self-portrait of Cole at his easel. He turns away from his canvas and looks right at us, as if to say: Here are the alternatives; you choose."

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm — The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
Detail view— The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836
At the heart of Cotter's take on Cole's cultivated fields "bland as tract housing" and a hillside "scarred by clear-cutting" is the rejection of the cultivated and settled. He suggests that Cole looks back toward "us," prodding with a stark choice; Cotter's tone implicating settlement as fundamentally immoral. Wedding wilderness to morality is not new in the American experience. It is a deeply ingrained component of our split psyche. Here, Cotter's rhetoric provokes the split, backing us once again into a corner, demanding that we choose one of our two selves: wild or cultivated, good or evil, sacred or profane. 

As the words of Thoreau (top) suggest, this expression is entangled with our nation's creation myth. Annette Kolodny, in her book,  "The Lay of The Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Letters," deepens our understanding of this psychic frustration and its self-destructive impulse. In her chapter Unearthing Herstory, she explains:

"Eden, Paradise, the Golden Age, and the idyllic garden, in short, all the backdrops for European literary pastoral, were subsumed in the image of an America promising material ease without labor or hardship..." and further "...when America finally produced a pastoral literature of its own, that literature hailed the essential femininity of the terrain in a way European pastoral never had, explored the historical consequences of its central metaphor in a way European pastoral had never dared, and, from the first, took its metaphors as literal truths." And lastly, "Other civilizations have undoubtedly gone through a similar history, but at a pace too slow or in a time too ancient to be remembered. Only in America has the entire process remained within historical memory, giving Americans the unique ability to see themselves as the wilful exploiters of the very land that had once promised an escape from such necessities."

The American wilderness had been described as welcoming and fruitful; it's feminized prospect captivated the territorial impulse, yet it could also be a terrifying, risk-laden experience of the unknown, physical hardship, illness and death. In 1846-47, just as Thoreau comfortably reveled in his nature experience of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, Patrick Breen kept a diary of his experience as a member of the Donner-Reed Party trapped by the snow-covered Sierra Nevada. Stories of tragedy undoubtedly traveled east, but the symbolic impulse worked to suppress the terror and with it there was movement west, farther into the wilderness and then, by necessity of survival, there was deforestation, plowing, structures, and villages.

alexander hogue Mother earth laid bare
Erosion No. 2, Mother Earth Laid Bare, Alexandre Hogue, 1936
For Kolodny, the feminine image cast into metaphor and then into the lived experience of the American settler is not as much the problem as it is the key to understanding the predicament in which we find ourselves. In her chapter Making It With Paradise, she writes:

"We must begin by acknowledging that the image system of a feminine landscape was for a time both useful and societally adaptive; it brought successive generations of immigrants to strange shores and then propelled them across a vast uncharted terrain. For it is precisely those images through which we have experienced and made meaning out of the discrete data of our five senses (and our cerebral wanderings) that have allowed us to put our human stamp on a world of external phenomena and, thereby, survive in the first place in a strange and forbidding wilderness. And the fact that the symbolizations we chose have now resulted in a vocabulary of destructive aggression and in an active expression of frustration and anger should not make us assume that they may not yet again prove useful to us, or if not, that we have only to abandon them altogether to solve our ecological problems."

Ghosts of Lake Agassiz, Sophia Heymans, 2018
On a recent visit to a Minneapolis gallery, I looked over an exhibit of paintings by Brooklyn artist Sophia Heymans. I was intrigued by the Rhode Island School of Design-trained artist's landscape paintings that embraced a folk-arts styling. After spending some time with the work, I picked up the three paragraph artist narrative that described the work as "approaching painting landscape from a non-dominant perspective."

Clarifying the artist's intention, the statement goes on to say:

"American landscape painting, along with American history, has...ignored thousands of years of indigenous human history, acting as though this land was ours to tackle and overpower. Even when seemingly depicting the grandeur of the wilderness, as with the Hudson River School painters, the work still reeks of supremacy –peering ravenously down from a high rock at the wild young lands."

Then, as a counterpoint:

"Heymans flips the roles in her paintings, daydreaming of a time and place outside of human hegemony. In this post-human America, the plants and land forms are characters, able to express themselves after hundreds of years of White (European) dominance.  Their movements are those of freedom and festivity. Trees high-five each other knowing they are finally liberated from human devastation.  Smoke floats like reaching arms across borders that no longer exist.  Rain clouds release drops into a lake, creating towering columns between heaven and earth. The paintings are from a bird’s-eye view, or the perspective of a cloud or spirit, hovering somewhere outside of human perception and dominion."

Twenty Seven Waterfalls, Sophia Heymans, 2017
In this imagined post-human world, anthropomorphous plant forms celebrate the continent's return to (non-indigenous?) prehuman days where they are finally free of subjugation by humankind. Although only an artistic phantasm, it's rhetoric is of the same bifurcation Europeans cast about these shores a few hundred years ago. To Holland Cotter's question, Heymans has made her choice, only taken to the extreme -humanity must exit to restore what was our dream of paradise.

"The pastoral impulse, neither terminated nor yet wholly repressed, the entire process -the dream and its betrayal, and the consequent guilt and anger -in short, the knowledge of what we have done to our continent, continues even in this century to eat at the American heart like acid," writes Kolodny.

In describing the work as seen from "the perspective of a cloud or spirit, hovering ...outside of human perception," Heymans attempts to extinguish the only humans left -the viewing audience. Art can focus our attention on it so thoroughly that we exit our bodies, if only briefly, but the audience is always integral to the art. We are each, individually, the figure of an apparently figure-less art. Heymans' art becomes my experience of celebratory nature, my experience of water flowing freely to nourish the land. It is not nature, so titled, Without Us, as much as it becomes nature without every one else. It is in this way that the work revisits the fantasy crafted by the early codifiers of the American pastoral -Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole. Yet, to return to Cole's self portrait turned back to look at "us" in his painting The Oxbow, the painting is most compelling in its foregrounding of the audience -on the insistence that we be present.

"To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it." 

-Thoreau,  Walking

Frederick Church Twilight in the Wilderness
Twilight in the Wilderness, Frederick Church, 1860
Humanity in art, as represented by the figure, was often minimized in 19th century landscape painting -the art often described as the inspiration for a national park system and even the environmental movements of the 20th century. The frontier dream, so effectively reiterated by Thoreau (in Walking) and so clearly demonstrated by Kolodny, had little room for civilization and no tolerance for the complicating narratives generated by throngs of settlers. Within the latter years of the century, the federal government began designating tracts of wilderness with national park status, effectively enshrining their identity within the ethos of the period. By the turn of the century, however, with little psychic or expansionist value after the close of the frontier, the unpopulated, monumental landscape painting of the 19th century had become all but forgotten. The wilderness dream that took its metaphors for truth would now be embodied in situ, in our national parks.

Left: Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, Albert Bierstadt, 1873      Right: Fallen Bierstadt, Valerie Hegarty, 2007
Above, the most quoted visual pairing from one of the more interesting nature-themed exhibits to come together recently: Nature's Nation, organized by the Princeton Art Museum. That this polarized pairing is used to represent the complex exhibit isn't surprising given how easily digestible it is. It reflects a simple narrative deeply ingrained in our psyche -Nature, then, was wild and beautiful -today, it's ruined. That the burnt image of a Bierstadt painting is as much about the state of a nation as it is about nature, is likely to be secondary. To my mind it reads as an incomplete dismantling of the wilderness metaphor or, possibly, an image of what may become of it.

William Cronon has observed:

"The critique of modernity that is one of environmentalism’s most important contributions to the moral and political discourse of our time...appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to wilderness as the standard against which to measure the failings of our human world. Wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul. It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives. Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity. Combining the sacred grandeur of the sublime with the primitive simplicity of the frontier, it is the place where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are—or ought to be."

Visitors photographing deer accustomed to being photographed -Devil's Tower NM, Wyoming
When Cronon wrote those words for his essay, The Trouble with Wilderness, in the book "Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,"he could hardly have imagined the combined effect of social media and mobile phones on the wilderness experience. While the increasing number of visitors to National Parks and Recreation Areas might suggest that more and more people are discovering their "truest selves" within the cathedrals of nature, the selfie and instant gratification of mobile social media have proven that wilderness allows us, as Cronon said, "to know ourselves as we really are" and, at times, not live up to who we "ought to be."

That mobile-phone wielding visitors do not show "appropriate" reverence in the presence of wilderness reveals, to some degree, current attitudes about wilderness. On the one hand, it shows the importance of social relations (an image of Yosemite garners many hearts) as a basis for the valuation of an experience of wilderness. On the other it reflects the alienation inherent to a largely urban culture that venerates wilderness in the absence of direct experience with it.

Neal Herbert, National Park Service
We admonish people to leave only footprints, take only memories (pictures). In doing so, we must acknowledge that restraining a natural enthusiasm for physical experience with material nature reinforces the abstract, the photographic, the landscape view over lived experience of the world. For the sake of preservation, this may be a necessity, yet one wonders why, year over year, more visitors make their way to the edges of wilderness, to shuffle along boardwalks and clogged arteries in pursuit of a photogenic destination. If these excursions are a reflexive reenactment of the American frontier mythology; that it is then thwarted by hoards of visitors, commerce, filled parking lots and campgrounds has had minimal effect.

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1750 -the most cited landscape in the Marxist critique.
W.J.T. Mitchell, in "Landscape and Power," chapter one, Imperial Landscape, conceptualizes landscape and its valuation this way:

"Landscape is a medium in the fullest sense of the word. It is a material "means" like language or paint, embedded in a tradition of cultural signification and communication, a body of symbolic forms capable of being invoked and reshaped to express meaning and values. As a medium for expressing value, it has a semiotic structure rather like that of money, functioning as a special sort of commodity that plays a unique symbolic role in the system of exchange-value... At the most basic, vulgar level, the value of landscape expresses itself in a specific price: the added cost of a beautiful view in real estate value; the price of a plane ticket to the Rockies... Landscape is a marketable commodity to be presented and object to be purchased, consumed, even brought home in the form of...postcards and photo albums. In its double role as commodity and potent cultural symbol, landscape is the object of fetishistic practices involving the limitless repetition of identical photographs..."

iPhone case with Gainsborough's painting printed on the back ($24.99)
The image of Gainsborough's Mr. and Mrs. Andrews may be commonly known among art students or students of the Marxist critique of images, but among customers for mobile phone cases, I imagine that the number of knowledgeable buyers is quite small. No matter, because the image exposes us to what it must at a glance. At face value it reflects back to friends or family a model image of humanity in nature at the moment the phone it enshrouds captures their image in nature. Subtly, it reinforces what landscape really is to us -a staged scene.

Mitchell goes on to say:

"As a fetishized commodity, landscape is what Marx called a "social hieroglyph," an emblem of the social relations in conceals. At the same time that it commands a specific price, landscape represents itself as "beyond price," a source of pure, inexhaustible spiritual value. "Landscape," says Ralph Waldo Emerson, "has no owner," and the pure viewing of landscape for itself is spoiled by economic considerations: "you cannot freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are digging in the field hard by." Raymond Williams notes that "a working country is hardly ever a landscape." Further, "Landscape" must represent itself, then, as the antithesis of "land," as an "ideal estate" quite independent of "real estate," as a "poetic" property, in Emerson's phrase, rather than a material one."

Wedding photography may be the contemporary, American application of the Gainsborough standard.
Wedding photography staged at the edges of wilderness has become common. In Mitchell's terms, it commands both the specific price of a photo shoot in a hard to reach location and the poetic property of the ideal estate. As these images suggest, the practice reflects an American ideation of nature and relation to it -grandeur, no vulgar indication of work or commerce (in sight), and a comfortable, elegant exhibit of mastery over wilderness. This wilderness, of course, is a stand-in for other material and personal hardships not so easily objectified that must be mastered nonetheless. The image of wilderness continues to hold value for there is no other readily understood, easily consumed, aesthetically appreciated backdrop for a life lived boldly.

If you detect a note of cynicism in the Marxist critique of landscape, you will not find any argument from me. Yet, I do think it offers important, if limited, insight into reasons why wilderness maintains its value in a mass culture that lives almost entirely within the bounds of civilization. It also illustrates how deeply abstract the conception of wilderness is among most Americans.

As this article has circled back to Holland Carter's false choice between wilderness or civilization and because I cannot fully come to terms with all there is to consider on the subject of the wilderness landscape ideal, I will end with the quotes below.

From William Cronon's The Trouble with Wilderness:

"The dream of an unworked natural landscape is very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die. Only people whose relation to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature, for the romantic ideology of wilderness leaves precisely nowhere for human beings actually to make their living from the land."

Paul Shepherd, from his book Man in the Landscape:

"My point is that their [cities] origin is inextricably associated with a surplus agriculture, that cities tend to grow beyond what the local agriculture will support, and that there is an urban attitude toward nature which is insular, cultivated, ignorant, dilettante, and sophisticated. At the same time, by virtue of the very polarity in the landscape that cities create, they contain and educate and produce men who retreat to nature, who seek its solitude and solace, who study it scientifically, and who are sensitive to its beauty. The very idea of a sense of place is an abstraction, a sort of intellectual creation ...which is impossible except in a world of ideas whose survival depends on the city. "

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