Thursday, 13 December 2012

Stealing Horses

There is a move underfoot to escalate Frederic Remington from his comfy status as the premier illustrator of Western Americana to a newer plateau of Great American Painter and Sculptor. This amiable conspiracy is on view through April 16th at New York’s Metropolitan Museum (after having been organized by the St. Louis Museum of Art with the moral and material support of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming).

The movement is altogether unconvincing to this viewer, in spite of a high-powered and interesting catalog which includes as essay on Remington as writer by long-ball-hitting Americanist John Seelye that convinces me the artist was less mendacious about the white / Indian morass in prose than he was in 3-D.

And David H. McCullough, who has achieved a considerable status as a tele-docent, has the mugg’s job of doing the audiotape. What are we to think of his assertion that both John Wayne and the Marlboro Man are in Remington’s debt? Deficit is more like it.

For the sad truth of the situation is that Remington, in his hunger to find a m├ętier (“I am,” his is quoted in a wall caption, “going to do America—it’s new and it’s to my taste”), chose the morally tacky bog of the white man “civilizing” the West by obliterating the Indian.

In his 1900 canvas, “The Intruders,” five live white are trying to shoot it out with an “intruding” horse posse of savages. Intruding? Who’s intruding on whom? And his 1907 bronze, “The Horse Thief,” pictures a dishonest Injun riding away with somebody else’s horse. Now, why not a bronze white man called “The Land Thief?”

The self-serving perspective is so mendacious all the way around that you almost feel guilty reminding Remington’s fans about how disgracefully ex parte his view of the westward movement was.

And it doesn’t stop there, the lying. The 1898 painting, “War Correspondents Buying Hotel,” reminds you of William Randolph Hearst’s xenophobic jingoism over the Spanish-American War (the one about which Teddy Roosevelt conceded, “It wasn’t much of a war, but it was the only one we had”).

His “imagined” canvas of the soldiers charging up San Juan Hill is simply silly, in the light of recent investigations which reveal that there was no charge at all (the only charge might be one of outrageous battle faking).

In any case, a party of black soldiers (whom the racist Remington alluded to as “buffalo soldiers”) secured the hill in advance of any charge—real or imagined—by T.R. and his Rough Riders. Doesn’t art history have to deal with a minimal amount of political and social history to retain its validity?

So from his winter home in New Rochelle and his summer place on the St. Lawrence, Remington carved out a career as a Harper’s illustrator of the emerging American imperium and graduated—with very little formal training—to his eminence as a sculptor (63 copies of his “Bronco Buster” were sold) and a painter of white men horsing around in the Indian’s West.

“I am no longer an illustrator,” he bragged toward the end of his short (48 years) life. Like hell. Remington illustrates that you can horse around with history, but your defective version will be discredited in the end.

It is sad to see the noble Met engaged in such dubious reputation-inflation. Somebody somewhere must want to sell a lot of bronzes (or canvases) which tell literal truths while maintaining a massive mendacity about the real history of the West—U.S. committing genocide on the indigenes, who have sadly become the indigents of our GNPhooey society.

From Welcomat: After Dark, April 12, 1989

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