13 December 2005

. . . and Government Art

So yesterday I made a case for art and not art rather than good and bad art. I need one more disclaimer on it. There are all these areas where art is used as a descriptor on a specific category of creation: media arts, arts and crafts, folk art, decorative art, etc. My previous post wasn’t intended to castigate or condone any of these art derivations/deviations/divisions. They exist in their own right apart and outside of the art I wrote about yesterday.

And that brings me to Government Art, which is one of those categories outside the scope of art as described yesterday. I’ll just come right out and say that most of what governments make to present themselves to the world stinks. It isn’t art. Government Art is only called that because that’s what they claim it is. Most of the art in this category is an oxymoron like “honest politician”, but there are a few notable exceptions.

We aren’t talking about the exceptions today though. We are talking about the rule.

The first example is from the US Capitol building, which, thank goodness, wasn’t even mentioned in any of the art classes I have ever taken. Nothing from the US Capitol is in any of my art books either. If you click here you’ll find an image of the statuary on the pediment of the Senate entrance. All classically rendered, proportional etc., I can’t really object to the looks of it except to say that it is fairly blah. But look at what is depicted. The following is a statement from the US government’s site about this statuary:

The sculptural pediment over the Senate entrance on the U.S. Capitol's east front is called Progress of Civilization. The center figure is America, who stands with an eagle at her side and the sun at her back. On the right, a woodsman, hunter, Indian chief, Indian mother and child, and Indian grave represent the early days of America. On the left the diversity of human endeavor is suggested by the soldier, the merchant, the two youths, the schoolmaster and child, and the mechanic. Completing this side of the tympanum are sheaves of wheat, symbolic of fertility, and an anchor, symbolic of hope; these elements are in contrast with the grave at the opposite end of the tympanum.

What a load of propaganda. But that’s what Government Art generally is, and luckily, most of it is so devoid of educational value that nobody is taught about it. At least, art students aren’t. I frankly think that the sculpture should be taken down.

On a different, but equally bad note, Bosnia has recently added this to their collection of state art. Government Art (with only a few exceptions) is a travesty.


Josh said...

you couldn't find any more blatant, less cynical examples of propaganda in art from the soviet union? ;) i would venture to say that thomas crawford (the sculptor of the capitol example) would have no problem with the description on the government's website. this may have more to do with the politics of the mid-19th century than with modern definitions of art/not art. what i mean is that "government art" was not dismissed so quickly in the 19th century as it is now. what about all the artists and composers who were agents of the court? at least in music, nearly every example of baroque and classical music was composed for a government.

getting back to the capitol's east entrance: of course, this piece of "art" is not innovative or even very creative. it's just a commission that needed to be in the classical style to give nationalistic pride to the nation's capitol. indeed, i would argue that it doesn't purport to be art like the art in art history books. therefore, i don't find it subversive to the mission of Art or "propaganda" in a manipulative sense. of course, i guess that's why you're placing "government art" outside the realm of Art as in the previous post. but, if that is the case, i don't hear you calling arts and crafts a "travesty." (which is pretty much the word i would use)

sorry to go on so long, but you always bring such a thought-provoking perspective to this blog.

Jonas said...

Thought provoking.

Mary Ann said...

Thanks for your comment, Josh.

Government patronage isn't the same thing as government art. I'm not ready to throw those babies out with the bath water. I'm really only talking about the imagery governments put together to represent themselves. There are exceptions to the "travesty" ruling, and most of them are pretty old like the ones you are citing. A comparetively new piece of Gov'ment art that I think is art is the Vietnam Vetrans Memorial, but Pres. Regan wouldn't dedicate it, so how "Government" is it?

Maybe it wasn't clear, but I should say that propaganda can be art, and art can be propaganda, so that whole issue is sort of irrelevant.

Back in the mid 1800s art was so much more narrowly defined that there isn't much else the sculptors and architects involved in the US captiol could have been trying to do.

The travesty of Government Art as I see it is bad design mixed with a meaning-delivered-with-a-hammer approach. Neither of those happened with the arts and crafts movement (at least I don't see it that way).

Josh said...

yeah, but arts and crafts are so boring...

Mary Ann said...

Your verb choice got me thinking--we must be talking about two different kinds of arts and crafts. There is first, the kind you do as a kid, and second, an art movement that took place in Europe and the United States at the turn of the last century. I was talking about the movement.

Yes, the crafty stuff kids do is pretty dull. And some of it is absolutely a travesty (though none of the things my kids or their cousins have done has been).