At War With Art | The Nation


At War With Art

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In her comments on Homer Dodge Martin’s The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York (circa 1862), Harvey misreads two works at once: “The mine shaft openings resemble bullet wounds, and the rusted tailings of iron ore stain the slopes like dried blood. This scarred landscape subtly recalls Gardner’s battlefield photographs of fallen soldiers.” Well, no, it doesn’t. Alexander Gardner’s photographs show few bullet wounds, no colors (of course), and no slopes with blood running down. The comparison is solely in the mind of the curator. No one who knew Martin claimed that he was alluding to the Civil War, so far as I can tell. 

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James W. Loewen
James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and the editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.

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More misleading still is the wall text for Frederic Edwin Church’s Aurora Borealis (1865):

Under a dark Arctic sky, polar explorer Isaac Israel Hayes’s ship, the SS United States, lies frozen in the pack ice…. The auroras above erupt in a cascade of eerie lights. Throughout the war, auroras were solidly associated with apocalyptic warnings about the conflict. As the ice grips Hayes’s ship, and by proxy the nation, the auroras snake across the sky like a grim warning from God, a bleak foreshadowing of doom.

Only a curator who had never seen the northern lights would imagine that they “snake.” They don’t. The S-curve is the bottom of a curtain that descends or appears but does not snake. An impressive display appeared over the northern United States on December 23, 1864, but it occasioned few “grim warnings” or “foreshadowings of doom.” Nor would any have been appropriate, because Sherman had taken Atlanta in early September 1864, leading to Lincoln’s re-election in November. For that matter, the boat’s situation was not grim, either. Hayes expected it to be “gripped,” but after the ice loosened, he brought it back to the United States in triumph.

According to the exhibition, no subject, however distant, remained untouched by the war. In 1864, the United States bought Yosemite and turned it into a park. Albert Bierstadt hastened to the valley, which he called “the most magnificent place I was ever in,” and made numerous paintings of it. On exhibit is Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California. According to the wall text, “Bierstadt’s views of Yosemite held out the promise of a place where all Americans could slough off the trauma of war and sectarian strife, a place of renewal and healing.” The book takes the interpretation even further: “Bierstadt’s painting represented a wartime yearning for sanctuary. But what appears to be the promise of redemption is in fact mostly an escape—not a solution to the nation’s problems.” Surely this is the first time in history that Yosemite Valley has been criticized for not being “a solution to the nation’s problems,” and surely Bierstadt never thought it might be when he painted it. Interpretations like these reflect a deep unease about the ambiguous relationship between history and art. 

* * *

When the exhibit turns from the Civil War to Reconstruction, its history goes completely off the rails. According to the big piece of wall text that introduces the postwar gallery, “The ensuing bitterness that permeated Reconstruction in the South came from dual causes—the realization that the North quickly went back to business as usual, having sustained little damage, while Federal promises to rebuild the South were more often broken than fulfilled.” Under the title “The Unraveling of Reconstruction,” the book states:

Reconstruction began as a well-intended effort to repair the obvious damage across the South as each state reentered the Union. It was an overwhelming task under ideal circumstances. Following Lincoln’s assassination, that effort soon faltered, beset by corrupt politicians, well-meaning but inept administrations, speculators, and very little centralized management for programs.

This exhibition is hardly alone in misconstruing Reconstruction as reconstruction, but it’s embarrassing to find such an elementary blunder in print at a national museum. To be sure, the war had ruined parts of the South. But Reconstruction had nothing to do with rebuilding this “obvious damage.” Reconstruction was a political process: the seceded states had to be reconstituted politically to be readmitted to the Union. How to do this occupied President Andrew Johnson and the Republican-dominated Congress from 1865 until Johnson left office in 1869; Ulysses Grant then oversaw Reconstruction until it ended in March of 1877.

Comparing Georgia and Florida provides an easy way to grasp the matter. The Civil War raged across Georgia for the better part of two years, including General Sherman’s burning of Atlanta. In Georgia, Reconstruction lasted until October 1871—six years. Florida escaped the Civil War almost completely unscathed, but Reconstruction there lasted until 1877—eleven years. Again, Reconstruction was not about physical reconstruction, but about race: would African-Americans be allowed to share power? In less than one year in just one state—Louisiana—white Democrats killed more than 1,000 people over this issue. I know of no murders committed over “centralized management” or any other matter connected with rebuilding.

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