All the 'stuff' of a cowboy country

The American Effect
November 21, 2003

Sadly, not a single memorable image jumped out of a contemporary art exhibition held this summer in Manhattan. Fortunately, though, in one of the essays in the book that grew out of the exhibition, Luc Sante generated that image for me when he branded America "the undisputed world capital of stuff". The "stuff" he talks about is, to my mind, not just what Americans have spent the past 150 years accumulating in their homes and backyards - big cars, credit cards, trash, piles of discarded hardware, software, munitions, aircraft carriers, tall buildings and comicbook heroes - but, at a more abstract level, it is what Jackson Pollock's drip paintings are built out of and are about. Elena Poniatowska, in her essay "Americanization Hispanization", built another not-quite-so-sharp but equally poignant image. "We eat fiber, use Reebok tennis shoes and don Polo shirts. Our television programs and news coverage come from North American agencies. The American image is everywhere. Dark-skinned Mexicans only appear (on our televisions) when there is an earthquake, a war, or a revolution." So, out of an art exhibition that included work by 50 artists from 30 countries came one of the most engaging, up-to-the-minute exhibition catalogues I have ever read.

Although timely, the exhibition, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, failed to connect its audience with any great, let alone challenging, art. Instead, it presented received opinions, second-hand ideas and second-rate manipulations of materials and media. Designed to look like a scrapbook cut from Time and Life magazines, this book is, says Lawrence Rinder, curator of contemporary art at Whitney and mastermind of the exhibition, "about the way America's real and imagined effects intertwine to create a fertile source of themes and images for artists around the world".

The catalogue is a series of commissioned essays that have been collaged into the exhibition images. Tariq Ali took the history of American hegemony as his theme and drew the conclusion that "what we are witnessing today is not a 'war against terror' but the first shots in a new struggle (by America) for hegemony over former allies. It's back to racketeering and capitalism with a vengeance, but under new conditions and with a military superiority that Smedley Butler could not have imagined."

Pramoedya Antana Toer takes on freedom and democracy. First he explores his own sense of freedom, or lack of it, during the first part of his life at home in Indonesia. Then he comes at it from a more elevated viewpoint, while looking approvingly across pre-9/11 America then, finally, to a finger-wagging post-9/11 disapproval of today's administration. "Replace those towers of might with beacons of freedom," he says.

If you ignore the text and flick through the pages, just taking in the images that Rinder tells us sum up the non-American artists' view of the US over the past decade, you'll see no space travellers, no good coming from foreign aid, no burgers or bottles of Coca-Cola and no sex or rock 'n' roll. There are, however, images of cowboys and Indians, foreign shores that have been beaten with US munitions, spent components of new technology and spent superheroes hanging onto life in sheltered housing.

Possibly the most bizarre collection of images is by photographers Andrea Robbins and Max Becher. It shows fair-haired, blue-eyed Germans dressed up as native Americans, hanging out by campfires in rural Germany. Not pictures of Camelot but presumably something to do with that very popular contemporary theme, identity?

For the visual artists who helped to make this book, America appears very much as we see it portrayed in comic books, the press, television and cinema. But for the writers, it is an America found somewhere between the gritty streets, Washington policy-makers, scholarship and the imagination.

What this book does is draw together some smart essays on the state of the image of America today and weave them into a parallel text of familiar and quite pedestrian images.

In this year's September-11 edition of The New York Times , Richard Bernstein wrote on the subject of foreigners' perceptions of America: "To some degree the resentment is centered on the person of President Bush, who is seen by many of those interviewed, at best, as an ineffective spokesman for American interests and, at worst, as a gunslinging cowboy knocking over international treaties and bent on controlling the world's oil, if not the entire world." The book seems to underpin Bernstein's realisation that we may be living through nothing more than the next episode of a made-for-TV cowboys and Indians drama.

This book is for everyone who has even the mildest interest in current affairs, cultural affairs and politics, but I suspect it is of lesser importance to lovers of contemporary art. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the penultimate essay, "Global crisis in Iraq". Here, the pictures serve as nothing more than a juddering distraction from Edward Said's well-organised thoughts. Said writes: "In no other country I know does the waving of a flag play so central an iconographic role. You see it everywhere, on taxicabs, on jacket lapels, on the front windows and roofs of houses. It is the main embodiment of the national image, signifying heroic endurance and a sense of being beleaguered by unworthy enemies."

Stephen Farthing is emeritus fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and executive director of the New York Academy of Art.

The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003

Editor - Lawrence Rinder
Publisher - Whitney Museum of American Art Publication
Pages - 240
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 874 134 7

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