Wednesday, March 05, 2008

"American Progress"

John Gast, "American Progress," 1872.

Here's a nineteenth century, unapologetically racist vision of nature and wilderness in the American west. I'd been reminded of this painting by yesterday's Chinese nature scene, which similarly portrays nature as something that should be intensively used and managed by humans, but also neglects to depict the consequences of that use.

In "American Progress," native Americans and wild animals (what 20th century environmentalists heralded as "real" nature, a paradise lost) are being chased away ahead of a frontier line of Conestoga wagons, an allegorical Anglo "Columbia" who carries a telegraph wire and a school book, and railroads, farms, and cities following close behind. The East, the source of civilization, is bathed in a soft light, while the wild mountains, savages, and beasts to the West are shrouded in darkness and clouds while they retreat. John Gast apparently didn't have much use for subtlety.

If you can set aside the racist allegories and focus on depictions of nature here, you'll see some similarities between this painting and the contemporary depiction of Chinese nature below. Just as the Chinese cartoon portrays a river that powers a dam, cools a power plant, and provides a waterway for boats, here the entire West is portrayed as as a bountiful outlet for a new empire's agricultural and industrial growth.

And, just as in the Chinese cartoon below, there is no indication here of any negative consequences of that growth: no consideration for where the buffalo herds will go when they're run off the edge of the continent, no battles over water rights, no foreshadowing of a cataclysmic Dust Bowl in sixty years.