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A Terrible Beauty

banner skyI spent a lot of the Sunday afternoon before Valentine’s Day at the Smithsonian exhibit (headed for the Met) on  “The Civil War and American Art.”  Although it is staged as part of the 150-year Civil War anniversary, the exhibit’s burning skies, darkened landscapes, and martial corpses are, ironically, just as apt for this coming Sunday’s march on the Washington Mall to demand action on climate change.  What binds the two is the question of how to see nature, and one another, after a self-induced catastrophe makes familiar ways of seeing impossible.

The Civil War exhibit is an arresting collection of images.  Visitors meet a thoroughly implausible flag-in-the-sky, composed of horizontal sunset streaks and clouds, with night’s first stars in a patch of midnight blue to the upper left; Arctic icebergs and Ecuadorian volcanoes yoked symbolically to the Unionist and abolitionist causes – Frederick Douglass having called slavery, among other things, “a slumbering volcano,” and icebergs being, after all, sublime emblems of the ultimate North; and the first widely viewed photographs of the battlefield dead, devastating in the specificity of the faces, ruinous in that the bodies are strewn, discarded, epitomes of waste.

800px-Looking_Down_Yosemite-ValleyThe real burden of the show is what those dead, the human trash of war, meant for everything else.  Fredric Edwin Church’s Flag Sky Tattoo (more properly, “Our Banner in the Sky”) is a garish reminder that American artists of the antebellum period moralized nature ecstatically and without stint.  The effects were often gorgeous.  The Hudson River School, briefly sampled in this show, made light a divine, vivifying force that brought even stone to life and made the most dramatic landscapes seem portals between this world and a higher reality.  Painters like Albert Bierstadt made visual the simplest form of Transcendentalist optimism, Emerson in a sunny mood, and prepared the eye for the Western tourism that, in turn, became environmentalism.  When John Muir assured early Sierra Club members that the face of God was visible in the living light and stone of the California High Country, he was completing the passage of this early nineteenth-century optimism from philosophy through paint and canvas to hiking guide.

antietamBut the living light and stone had no place for the black and bloody ground of Gettysburg and Antietam, and the American landscape the optimists had painted could not survive its littering with unheroic corpses.  That, anyway, is the conceit of this exhibit: painters, who did so much to shape what Americans saw, had to reimagine the national landscape as a place of carnage and waste.

Whether or not this is just how it happened – and surely something like this happened – the show is a brilliant instance of the great American habit of passing every contemporary anxiety through the twin lenses of the Founding and the Civil War.  (Lincoln, whose face was a kind of stony landscape unto itself, makes a gratuitous but bewitching appearance, standing among General McClellan’s staff, but so uncannily apart that one understands the impulse to cast him as a vampire hunter.)  We are going through what the Smithsonian claims they went through: familiar ways of seeing nature are shattering in our hands.  Deliberately or not, we will have to learn new ways to see the world.

iceburgs churchIn the way, this Civil War exhibition is about climate change, as other treatments of US history have been about the Civil Rights movement, or the Cold War, or whatever else has fixed the moment’s attention.  That is the force that is shattering our familiar nature.  It isn’t just that everything is changing, becoming more unpredictable and extreme.  Yes, we are losing our familiar nature in that way; but even more basically, we are losing the power to believe that nature is apart from us, its own thing, an order that abides.  Instead, our marks are everywhere.  From the upper atmosphere to the deep sea, we have changed the chemical order of things, the basic metabolism of the planet.  In environmental and scientific circles, it is increasingly common to say we that we live in the anthropocene, the epoch of humanity.

The anthropocene is the age when humanity becomes a geophysical force, not just another successful species (which always change the landscape), but something more like an element, a catalyst, or the kind of thing some of those Civil War painters still half-imagined a comet to be: a portent tied to the basic powers of the world.  This momentous sliver of history, the anthropocene, is a neologism of necessity, tacked onto the Pleistocene (“new epoch”), Pliocene (“newest epoch”), and Holocene (“wholly new epoch”), and all within the Cenozoic Era (“era of new life”).  Novelty having exhausted itself as a naming strategy, circumstances require getting specific.  This epoch is not just wholly newer still; it is ours.  How will we learn to see it?

narwhalsMy first thought, maybe prompted by those photographs, is that we need an aesthetic of imperfection, decay, and damage.  Aldo Leopold, the great literary ecologist, remarked that an ecological education meant living alone in a world of wounds, seeing the harm that others took for granted.  He also said that humans would save only what we loved.  In a world where nothing is undamaged, where even the line between destroying and creating can be obscure, we had better learn to see a kind of beauty in landscapes that are repositories of wounds, palimpsests of disruption.

Natural beauty, after the Civil War as well as before, has been mostly about peaceful and pastoral landscapes on the one hand, wild and pristine ones on the other.  People being what we are, both landscape ideals are really about us; they are ways of imagining ourselves more gentle and orderly, or more pure and free.  But the nature we must learn to see now is neither peaceful nor pristine, and what it shows us about ourselves is not an image most like to encounter. Like the images of the Civil War dead, if more obliquely, portraits of melting ice caps and tidal surges show us our monstrosity, our brutality. Yet perhaps—we might hope–confronting these facts about ourselves in the land around us will help us learn how to confront and manage, rather than deny, those parts of ourselves. Maybe the anthropocene will help us to tend to our own damage and imperfection, both what we cause and what we carry.  Those could be the broken-winged better angels of our nature, the only nature we’ve got left.


Jedediah Purdy: A way with rebar.

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