Friday, September 18, 2015

Louis L’Amour. Galloway (1970)

     Louis L’Amour. Galloway (1970) A well done potboiler of a Western, with three narrative strands coming together in a satisfying resolution. Fagan Sackett narrates one of them, the other two tell of his brother searching for and finding him, and a distant cousin wandering onto the set because he’s heard some Sacketts are in trouble. The nub of the conflict is a struggle with the Dunns, a lawless bunch who’ve lived off rustling, but now want to settle down and ranch in the same good country that Fagan and Galloway Sackett have selected. But they want it all, and hire an assassin to pick off the Sacketts one by one. Simplified characters, the usual L’Amour sense of place, and of course the unattainable woman as the prize for the hero.
     The book reads like an adaptation of a scenario. The switching from Fagan to other narrators feels like “Meanwhile, back at the ranch”, Fagan’s story is told in a series of set pieces, etc. It’s L’Amour’s ability to  put you into the scene that saves this book from mere formula. **½

The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of the United States

     The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of the United States (1776 &1784) Published by Penguin Books as part of it 60th anniversary series of reprints.
     Every time I read these documents, I notice things I don’t think I noticed before, or I find some hazy memory corrected or confirmed. This time it was the following, from the Declaration:
     But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Objective evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
    “It is their duty”. Indeed it is. Of course, anyone who takes that seriously these days, and decides to foment revolution on these grounds, will find that most people will consider him an extremely dangerous person. To put it mildly.
     The text has been modernised in spelling, but not in punctuation. 18th century punctuation was somewhat haphazard, and writers were fond of the absolute adverbial phrase, which causes modern readers some trouble in discerning intent. Several articles were clearly responses to political issues of the time, which history has rendered irrelevant. There is entirely too much blaming of the King in the Declaration. By that time, Parliament was already the actual government, with the monarchy only a couple of steps away from a purely symbolic role with no actual power.
     It’s also clear that the Framers were worried that a strong President might take over the Government, much as a strong monarch might. They weren’t very aware of the political developments in England, and so opted for a Republican legislature instead of a Parliamentary one.  The long term result is a weak President, who must rely on both personal qualities and alliances with lawmakers to get his agenda accepted. Ironically, the Framers in effect created an elective monarchy with mid-18th century powers, which don’t amount to much.
     Nevertheless, worth rereading every year or two, if only to remind oneself that a liberal democracy is still an unrealised ideal, but always worth striving and if necessary fighting for. ****

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Picturing the Americas. At the AGO to September 20th, 2015.

     The AGO co-operated with the Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo and the Terra Foundation for American Art to present a survey of how Europeans saw the Americas. It’s obvious that from the beginning America was seen as an empty wilderness with a handful of salvages (forest dwellers) hunting and foraging, oblivious to the potential wealth of this untouched continent. Most of the early canvases show a vast wilderness, painted in the sublime style fostered by Romanticism, of varying skill and aesthetic appeal. Most of include a group of small figures to make the scale plausible. I noticed a number of them showed the European in the group waving his hand or pointing at whatever had caught his attention. It seemed the European was the guide and explicator of the landscape, not the native who showed him the trails through the bush.
     These paintings foster the myth that justified the European conquest. That there was a full range of cultures, with the majority of Americans living as farmers and townspeople has been more or less forgotten. There were several empires, and a number of federations built around trade and common cultural themes. Most Americans were killed by the diseases that the invaders brought to them. It wasn’t European weapons that defeated the Americans, it was European microbes. The Pilgrims of North America moved onto ready-made farms, left behind by the people who died of smallpox. That’s why American now means a citizen of the USA.
     Once the Europeans had established themselves, their art became a celebration of the new culture, which has adopted and adapted native motifs and stories. The exhibition ends with early to mid-20th century paintings, in which Canadians, Americans, Brazilians, and so on paint the visions of the land as it is, including railways and cities. But images of the wilderness still dominate. Even paintings of farming in the Mid-west emphasise the otherness of the landscape. Although created by humans, the vast fields seem more alien than the sublime wilderness painted a century earlier.
     Two texts that should be read in conjunction with this show: The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, and What is America by Ronald Wright. Both retell the history of the Americas as one of the destruction of thriving local peoples and nations by the commercial and imperial ambitions of the European powers. Knowing that history, I saw most of the art as misrepresentations. It shows us how Europeans saw their new world. The native version became the stuff of archeology, a pre-historical narrative. Now that Native artists have begun to reclaim their history we see that early picturings of the Americas were an exercise in amnesia.
     A show worth seeing. As art **½ , as cultural commentary ****.