Saturday, 30 June 2012

A Really Big Shew

Ed Sullivan showed he knew where the Prime Time nerve of the American public was with his early TV catchphrase—“a really big shew.” That packed them in, for in America, almost from the beginning, Big was Better, and Bigger was Best. There has always been an Expectations Gap in a culture that casually assured Everyboy he could grow up to be President, while in reality most of the people most of the time had much more mundane expectations. The Metaphor of Bigness thus became our psychological safety valve, easing the tension between promise and reality.

That’s what first came to mind when I caught the opening last summer in Buffalo of the opening of “Niagara,” of images of that unique natural phenomenon (opening January 22nd at the New York Historical Society). Father Louis Hennepin published the first eye witness account in 1697, the most salient feature of which is his grossly overestimating of the actual height of the cataract. This exaggeration so charged up the imagination of his readers that in the second edition he upped his inflated estimate even more!

There’s another elephantine aspect to this collection of over 250 paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, photographs and memorabilia from sixty-eight private and public collections. The Megashow is the esthetic expression of this American hunger for the grandiose. What has been happening in the past decade of Megaexhibiting is a display of curatorial logistics that is a triumph of long distance phone calling over artistic insight. After seeing such a plethora of Niagara images, I began to understand what Ronald Regan meant when he argued that when you’ve seen one giant redwood tree you’ve seen them all. This is particularly apparent in images of what appears to me to be incommensurate with mere artistic skill: the Niagara is just too overwhelming to be captured with equivalent power in a static image. Even Frederic Edwin Church’s “Niagara Falls” (1857) is a disappointing ho-hum, juxtaposed to the briefest film clip, not to mention five minutes of ogling the torrent in the round. It has been widely argued (and persuasively disproven in my judgment) that the Holocaust was too horrible to ever be captured truthfully enough in word or image. Not so. But my net conviction after seeing “Niagara” is that it’s simply not meant for static media.

This emerging judgment was snapped firmly in place at the end of my viewing by seeing a superb half-hour film, “Niagara Falls: The Changing Nature of a New World Symbol” (Produced and directed by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey of Florentine Films). When I wondered (on my bus ride over to complete my Niagara caper with a reviewing of the Falls themselves) why the film pleased me so much and the disparate images so little, I concluded that the film was anthropological, while the discrete images a mere pyrrhic victory of temporary curatorship. The film is much better at explaining, for example, the rise of the Niagara tourist industry, a pre-jet age Honeymoon Central. In short, what the film achieves and the “art exhibit” misses is that the real story of Niagara was not what was going on in the studios of artists wowed by its immensities but what was and wasn’t going on in the hearts and imaginations of the tourists.

A film is the proper medium for bringing together in a comprehensible way all the daredevilry of going over the falls in a barrel or tight rope walking across it—to the astonishment of the hyped up tourists and those who read about the exploits in their hometown newspapers, vowing doubtless that they would take the train there next summer and see for themselves. The more I think about it, in fact, the more I wonder whether a really well-edited film about a painter or a genre or a tradition doesn’t achieve more in purely esthetic terms than the increasingly “social” significance of the crowds moiling around in confusion at your typical Megashow. They click in turnstiles for fiscally beleaguered art institutions, but I’m beginning to wonder how much art insight those by-ticket-only mob scenes generate.

Another aspect of this exhibition that is much more significant than the mainly mediocre artifacts assembled is the occasion for the show itself, namely the centennial of the establishment of the Niagara Reservation. One could argue that the successful fight against gross commercial debauching of the Niagara site (and it had become a world-class Mess) was the first instance of historical preservationism in America, if you stretch that category to Natural History, restoring a site to its predeveloped condition. It’s a neglected success story in American cultural history (Jonathan Baxter Harrison, who was later to distinguish himself with the Indian Rights Association, joined forces with America’s first art historian—Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton—to organize a letter writing campaign in the then fledgling Nation magazine to save Niagara from commercial desecration). It was a heartening example, smack in the middle of the Gilded Age, that those who cared could triumph over the careless if they got smart politically.

Buffalo being so close to the Falls, I was eager after an afternoon of image mulling to see if the Real Thing still wowed me the way it has so many times before—first as an early married, then with the kids, and later May-Decembering. And how. I chose the highest viewing point—I couldn’t help but notice it had just been renamed Minolta Tower (with a credible mini-museum of photography at the observatory level). I gathered these thoughts in a haze of recollection and rumination, pampering myself with a dinner of Canadian pheasant and a New York white wine.

By dessert time I had decided that, except for the film, the best part of the day had been an adjacent exhibition just down the street from the Albright-Knox Gallery—at the Erie Historical Society, on how Niagara had been used in advertising campaigns during the last century. Frequently a cascade of unrelieved kitschiness, still the exhibition was more memorable than its higher class art expo because, all things considered, Niagara has meant more to the commercial marketing imagination than to the Muse pure and simple. The “meaning” of Niagara thus is best approached through the Sunday 2:00 p.m. afternoon films and lectures (the film, January 26, followed by lectures February 2 and 9 by contributors to the catalog, $20 at the Museum Store). The show itself will continue to flow until April 27.

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