"By this Axe I Rule"
Graphite on Bristol
27 1/2 x 23 inches
The exquisitely rendered graphite drawings included in "The Good Land," Eric Beltz's recent exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, are sophisticated responses to our American folkways and myths. As darkly funny as they are disarmingly earnest, the graphic works are both exhortations and critiques of our nation's inborn exceptionalism and romanticism.
Of particular interest to Beltz is our American relationship to landscape. In "By This Axe I Rule," a contemplative outdoorsman sits on a tree stump, ax in hand. The bodies of a white-tailed deer, a moose, a opossum, a raccoon and other animals are partially concealed by snow drifts at his feet; a turkey vulture is perched above, wings spread. The man bears a striking resemblance to renowned ecologist Aldo Leopold. The likeness may be coincidental, but is nonetheless pertinent. 2008 is the 60th anniversary of Leopold's death. Like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, Leopold is a lodestar for many contemporary environmentalists. His "A Sand County Almanac," published posthumously in 1949, remains a critical conservation text.
Unlike Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the 1962 bestseller that catalyzed the modern environmental movement, Leopold's "Almanac" is not a call for corporate and federal responsibility. Although Leopold would surely support such measures, his book is principally concerned with our reforging an intimate connection to the landscape we inhabit. "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in," he wrote.
It's noteworthy that Leopold's faith is not of the starry-eyed variety; his "land ethic" includes hunting, controlled burns and other practices typically condemned by preservationists. Contrary to the romantic conception of wilderness, Leopold's ethic acknowledges that the tools invented by humans (the saws, shovels, axes, picks and pitchforks that figure prominently in Beltz's drawings) are not simply cruel agents of mastery. Humans are animals and, as such, we are not apart, but rather a part of a complicated, messy ecology. No matter how we manipulate our environment, dominion remains a comforting delusion.
Yet most of us do not conceive Nature in this way. Just as we distinguish between the self and the group, so too do we draw a hard-line distinction between humanity and the “natural world.” William Cronon, a respected, if controversial environmental historian, argues that we must alienate ourselves from Nature before it can be understood as something pristine, virgin or more wild than ourselves. In his celebrated 1983 book, “Changes in the Land”, Cronon reveals the quixotic quality of preservationist impulse.
"If the nature of Concord [Massachusetts] in the 1850s - a nature which many Americans now romanticize as the idyllic world of Thoreau's own Walden - was as 'maimed' and 'imperfect' as he said, what are we to make of the wholeness and perfection which he thought preceded it? It is tempting to believe that when the Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Land, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands. Nothing could be further from the truth....the land was less virgin than it was widowed. Indians had lived on the continent for thousands of years, and had to a significant extent modified the environment to their purposes…The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem."The preservationists' dualistic attitude (i.e., Humanity vs. Nature) provides only simple answers to our complex questions. By contrast, Beltz’s allegorical drawings shirk simplistic moralizing in favor of contradiction, ambivalence and multiplicity. His scenes speak to an active communion with Nature, albeit one that includes suffering, death and a melancholy nod to the essential absurdity of existence. By turns, Beltz eulogizes, champions and satirizes Thoreau's self-sufficiency and Andrew Wyeth's rural romanticism.
Graphite on paper
17 x 13 3/4 inches
Beltz critiques America's religious and economic landscape, as well. Four of his drawings comprise a series entitled “Back to Eden.” In each, a headless body clothed in overalls, workman boots and a shirt with rolled up sleeves – the uniform of the outdoorsman-farmer - is slumped in or alongside a pile of cut logs and other vegetation. Above each of these tableaus, Beltz has written one word in cursive: Asthma; Hysteria; Cancer; Delirium.
Considering the series, I recall Adam Smith’s ignored admonition concerning the dangers of loosely regulated capitalism. Smith, the 18th century Scottish philosopher best known for his influential treatise "The Wealth of Nations," is canonized by contemporary capitalists for laying down the principals of free market economics, but he entertained doubts and acknowledged the shadows cast by such a system.
"Power and riches," Smith wrote, "are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death." Smith’s misgivings were warranted. Contemporary life is rife with social ailments and, in combination with our alienation from Nature, secular capitalism is a principal causative factor.
Curiously, free market capitalism is close kin to Manifest Destiny, the divine doctrine of conquest and consumption. Capitalism is exported with no less zeal than our cruel spread west from the colonies. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 19th century novelist best remembered as an outspoken proponent of abolition, wrote that America is "a nation specifically raised up by God to advance a cause of liberty and religion." She did not say “liberty of religion.” America was founded by Protestant fundamentalists fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Arriving on these contested shores, they took names like Ezekiel, Jacob, and Issac, and likened their journey to the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. These religious settlers are the forebears of a great many contemporary Americans.
Appropriately, Beltz’s drawings incorporate Biblical texts and his subjects are recognizable as America's founding fathers and God-fearing, anonymous farmers. But Beltz draws from a peculiarly American well, the proverbial melting pot. Each drawing is suffused with currents of Eastern philosophy and shamanism. His farmers and historical figures are also mystics. American philosophy is more plural than we care to admit, and Beltz's admixture of East and West, allegory and history, supernatural and natural is a fair reckoning. (American transcendentalism, for example, the philosophy so vital to Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a hybrid of Protestant Unitarianism, Romanticism, Hinduism and European intellectualism.)
"Tree of the Evil Eagle"
Graphite on paper
40 x 30 inches
Still, the Bible is the first book of the United States, and many Americans regard the Constitution and founding fathers with astonishing reverence (to the extent that, in some circles, the former is sacrosanct). But documents and philosophies are of a particular time. Guarded by strict interpreters, the Constitution of the United States can become as regressively dogmatic as any primary religious text. Without thoughtful interpretation of Constitutional scripture, the significance and relevance of the founding fathers' enterprise will wane.
But most Americans (politicians and citizens alike) are in the business of denying the inevitable, be it the death of a loved one, an unregulated economy or an ideology. Rather than confront our heavy history (and with it our future), the United States cloaks itself in exceptionalism. We remove ourselves from a fact-based historical narrative so that the road to future success is understood as an unyielding continuation of the present, divinely-ordained course. Like the empires that rose and fell before us, America's clarity of vision is obscured by global power and a history that privileges mythic glory over fact. Because we make history, many of our leaders feel strongly that we don't need to know it. Moreover, the history we make is irreproachable because it is consecrated.
Yet the secular capitalist world view strives to replace religion and the supernatural with consumerism. Manifest Destiny Version 3.0 is not ordained by God so much as by the Almighty dollar. And the replacement worked, more or less. The secular capitalist model is today the global standard. But sociologists, anthropologists and, now, some neuroscientists agree that the substitution is inadequate. This deficiency is most apparent in a religious nation like the United States, where fundamentalism and cultism, reactionary responses to the secular world, are thriving. Despite our founding fathers' dismissal of the New Testament's Book of Revelation (Thomas Jefferson described it as "the ravings of a maniac"), a 2002 CNN/Time magazine poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe the prophecies therein are real and that the gruesome judgment of the Second Coming is imminent. James Watt, former President Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, is among that majority. He famously stated that protecting our nation's natural resources was not a priority because Jesus Christ would return only "after the last tree is felled."
Yet some fundamentalists are more fair-minded. They focus instead on the Bible's call for stewardship, and argue that the success or failure of the environmental movement depends on which interpretation gains the upper hand. Will we embrace a dominionist or stewardship theology?
The crux of that question is the American notion of wilderness. Cronon writes, "the flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate...and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world...Non-use is not an option: to live in nature is to use and change it by our presence. The choice we face is not to leave no marks - that is impossible - but rather to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave."
"The Good Land"
Graphite on paper
30 x 40 inches
Beltz's meticulously rendered works don't offer any answers, but neither do they shrug off the dilemma. With a richly ironic sensibility and a sensitivity to the complexities of our national character and (natural) history, Beltz embraces our clusterfuck approach even as he skewers it. "The Good Land" is sublimely ambivalent.
Photo credit: all images ripped from the artist's website
(Note: This post originally appeared on the art blog, Hungry Hyaena.)