Guest Opinion: Fake Muse
Tampa Bay Reporter does not take editorial positions; however, we welcome debate and publish opinions from others. (Guest opinions may or may not reflect those of Tampa Bay Reporter or anyone connected with Tampa Bay Reporter.) Today, St. Petersburg lawyer Thomas McGowan argues that the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art presents a sanitized and romanticized vision of the American West. The museum would better serve visitors, he says, by presenting a historically accurate version of the artists and of the settling of the west.
By THOMAS MCGOWAN, ESQ.
The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is not any of that. At best, it is a collection of items housed in a splendid building, but nothing more.
The term “museum” derives from the ancient Greek, rooted in education and enlightenment. To understand this, you only need to walk a couple of blocks from the James to the Museum of Fine Arts whose stated mission is to ‘engage, educate and excite the community.”
Regrettably, the James collection not only fails to serve any legitimate educational purpose, but it promotes a racist mythology into which its principal benefactors have apparently bought. This is evident in Mr. James’ telling introductory video explaining how his childhood love of “playing cowboys and Indians” informs his attraction to what he has collected, and now, promotes. Wittingly or otherwise, it is the false notion that certain territories in the lower 48 States were not “settled” until descendants of white Europeans wiped out its indigenous peoples; and that the whole process is to be celebrated as “American Exceptionalism.”
In fact, the westward expansion of the U.S. was neither “American,” nor “exceptional.” About the same time the so-called American West was being “settled,” the British, Dutch, French and Belgians were doing pretty much the same things to India, Indonesia, Indochina, and Africa. Fueled by the Industrial Revolution, and the resultant expansion of unfettered capitalism, this imperialism was marked by a degree of ethnic cleansing unparalleled in human history. While the Europeans rationalized their colonial expansions as advancing “civilization,” (and making money), we Americans claimed what we were doing was ordained by God. We even gave it a name: “Manifest Destiny.”
In truth, what the James promotes is a made-up version of history derived from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which in turn gave birth to the “Western movies, ” and the formulaic plotlines that so inspired the collection’s benefactor.
Regrettably, this problem is compounded by much of the collection itself.
Whether the work is “good art” or “bad art” is purely subjective, thus beside the point. It may or may not be worthy of the James’ presentation. Who the artists were, however, is salient. No lesser light than Frederic Remington wrote in 1899, “I’ve got some Winchesters and when [the] massacring begins which you speak of, I can get my share of ’em and what’s more, I will. Jews – injuns – Chinamen – Italians – Huns, the rubbish of the earth I hate.” [sic]. Members of the Taos Society, also prominently featured at the James, frequently engaged in cultural appropriation by depicting indigenous people not as they were, but as the artists imaged them to have been. Indeed, members of that Society were not above dressing up and performing for one another in “red-face,” not unlike what minstrels in the Eastern U.S. were doing at the same time. John Coleman, whose prominent sculpture commemorating the battle of Little Big Horn, is at best a well- meaning dilettante who took up art after he retired form a successful career – of all things – as an Arizona land developer.
What is on display, then, depicts cultural appropriation of an indigenous civilization that had already been eviscerated by the time the art was made, thus much of what is on display is, in the best light, a stylized version of a conquered people depicted for fame and profit by those who conquered them.
The distortion of history doesn’t stop there. On the day I was there, for example, a tour group was being told about the wonders of the transcontinental railroad, and the notion that the labor was done by “Chinese immigrants.” No mention was made of the corruption that allowed for that construction, the obscene wealth that was amassed by a very few people because of it, or the fact that those “immigrants” worked for slave wages and got rewarded for it by the anti-immigrant Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Even the description of “The American West,” is faulty. Historically, the “American West” has meant many things. When we were a British Colony, it meant west of the crest of the Appalachians. After the American Revolution, it meant the “Northwest Territories,” and a quarter century later, it became the region covered by the Louisiana Purchase. It was only when Jacksonian racism became the nation’s policy did this “American West” become the glint in the eyes of its promoters past and present.
Photo shows steel girder being installed during the construction of the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. TB Reporter file photo.
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