Debunkery—and Plain Bunk

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To do Professor Reeves justice, his aim in writing A Question of Character was less to provide a fair-minded biography than to demonstrate that “Good character is an essential framework for the complex mixture of qualities that make an outstanding President and a model leader for a democratic people” and that John Kennedy miserably failed that test. But surely such outstanding Presidents as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would have scored poorly on that test too, while it seems safe to say that the apparently blameless private lives of, say, Rutherford B. Hayes and Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter did not ensure their becoming model leaders. Politics remains a tough business in which virtue alone is rarely rewarded. Many, perhaps most, of Reeves’s charges may be accurate, but Kennedy, like any man in any walk of life, was made up of more than the sum of his weaknesses.

Because of the revelations of tawdriness made by more enterprising writers than Professor Reeves, were Kennedy somehow to reappear around my corner today, I might not be willing to wait quite so long to see him as I was twenty-nine years ago. But I’d be out there, at least for a while.

The much discussed exhibition “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier” has closed at the National Museum of American Art, but the handsome exhibition catalogue (National Museum of American Art; $60 hard cover; $35 paper) survives to remind us of both the great richness of the 164 pictures that the show comprised and the especially egregious brand of nonsense that the most apparently straightforward art seems to inspire in some art historians these days.

For all the breathlessness with which they were offered, and the xenophobic frenzy with which they were attacked, the show’s premises seem self-evident to anyone who knows much about either history or art. Does anyone really need to be disabused of the belief that history “is an objective reading of the past”? Did nineteenthcentury artists or their patrons ever believe that their depictions of Western scenes were “literally true”? Is it in any way surprising that Americans who were engaged in a titanic enterprise so all-consuming as the exploration and exploitation of the West would pay to have themselves praised rather than damned in paint? Is anyone out there astonished to learn that some “Western” paintings were actually painted in the East, that artists who did venture into the authentic Western landscape sometimes rearranged or omitted details once they got back to the studio?

Reeves’s charges may be accurate, but Kennedy, like any man in any walk of life, was made up of more than the sum of his weaknesses.

What is astonishing is the diligence with which the curators have winkled ever more elaborate meanings out of these mostly plain pictures. Clearly they have looked at them too long. Some examples:

Carson’s Men , Charles Russell’s rendering of Kit’Carson and two companions on horseback crossing a river, is solemnly revealed to be a metaphor for the Crucifixion. (Among the pieces of “evidence” earnestly adduced: a bleached buffalo skull in the foreground is pronounced “Golgothian,” and Carson’s first name is “Christopher.” Get it?) The composition of a second Russell painting, a pitched battle between mounted Indian warriors, titled For Supremacy , turns out to display in its “asymmetrical arrangement (there are more [Indians] on the left than right) … a stereotypical idea of the ‘imbalance’ or disorder of Indian cultures.” Three black servants listening in the background of Richard Caton Woodville’s Old 76 and Young ’48 as a wounded Mexican War veteran recounts his adventures at the front “suggests the uncertain consequences of the war’s aftermath to the status of black Americans,” while the soldier’s saber, lying on the floor, may really be “an augury of the impending Civil War. …” Albert Bierstadt’s Last of the Buffalo , in which a warrior draws his bow on a massive bull, unconsciously expresses the artist’s—and white America’s—“guilty longing that resilient Indians might really vanish.” And while the helpless subject of Irving Couse’s The Captive might seem to be in some danger from the Indian who has trussed her up, she turns out, according to the museum label, to be “ really captured” by her “role as sexual stereotype. …”

When I was studying painting in the late 1950s, we were taught that “meaning” had no place in art. That was nonsense. But surely so is the notion that it is our task to discover hidden agendas and uncover trendy secret messages in the work of long-ago artists whose minds such notions never crossed. By and large the artists whose work is included in “The West as America” glorified the westward movement because, rightly or wrongly, they thought it glorious.