In trying to think about how one can conclude a discussion of the Image of the West, I find myself standing at a kind of fork in the road. On the one side is a desire to keep on traveling deeper into the territory, and on the other is the need to point out all the roads we didn’t take. So, I’m going to venture down each fork in the road a little, and then circle back to build a sort of road sign for the other sojourners on the trail.
On Traveling Deeper into the Territory
Underneath each discussion we’ve had here concerning the images of the West has been the slipperiness of that little word, “of.” “Of” can mean “about,” but it can also mean “belonging to” and “from.” For the purposes of illustration, imagine the vastly different meanings of two ways of interpreting the phrase “images of the West”: one, as “images ABOUT the West,” and the other, as “images FROM the West.”
In the former, the “about” means that the images may document real tangible characteristics, or that they may be something made or even falsified. “About” can encompass virtually any point on a continuum between absolute truth and absolute lies. Images “about” can be produced by anyone, from anywhere, about anything that represents the West (and represents it to anyone). These images “about” the West can even be produced outside the West (for instance, when a Hoboken rooftop or a New Jersey wood can stand in for the West in Shreyvogel’s paintings or Porter’s The Great Train Robbery). One of the ways that traditionally presents itself to differentiate between “truer” and “less true” images ABOUT the West has been to judge whether people from the place claim them as their own – a sort of “let’s see which one got asked to dance” approach that is ultimately unsatisfying (not to mention contemporizing). That’s where the “of” is interpreted as “belonging to.” This “belonging” can be judged by the process of claiming an image as the West’s own (questions of authenticity), and it can also be traced through the factual correctness of the image (questions of accuracy). We’ve engaged in both of these practices here.
In the latter version of “images of the West,” the “of” means “images FROM the West.” In this iteration, the autobiographical quality of images of the West become their source for validation and valorization. The Western-ness of Mark Klett or Chuck Forsman, or the spatial belonging of Yolanda M. Lopez and Helen Hardin/Tsa-Sah-Wee-Eh, become a way of documenting the reality of the image that they convey of Western places and people. This is, in essence, what I was doing when I placed the three “cowboy” artists – Schreyvogel, Remington, and Russell – in a ranking by order of their degree of experience in the West. But something else, which we haven’t done that much of, is the documenting of the West as a site of production of images FROM the West. One could do this with a visual documentation of, for instance, Lois Rudnick’s argument that the Southwest was the birthplace of American Modernism. One could also look at the emergence of the conservation movement on Western lands (as reflected in the images produced by Westerners to argue for the conservation of Western wildlands) as a way to document this intellectual production FROM rather than simply ABOUT the West. Both of these stories carry with them the added value that they avoid the sort of creeping “regional essentialism” or even “regional separatism” that threatens this sort of approach, in which one’s identity as a Westerner trumps all other concerns. John Muir was born and raised in the industrializing Northeast; he woke to his sense of man’s place in rather than above nature as nearly everything tried to eat him in the Florida Everglades; he ultimately found his calling in the mountains of California. Is he a Westerner? In the sense that he lived and wrote and died for it, yes. But he wasn’t born there. I would argue that this should not disqualify him as being “of” the West. (I must admit some personal sensitivity on this point – as a fifth-generation Californian who received all of her degrees from a Western land-grant institution and spends every possible moment in the West, I still find myself regularly called upon to prove that my current location as a tenured scholar in New York City does not disqualify me as a Western scholar.)
If, then, we take the “images of the West” phrase to mean “images PRODUCED IN the West,” direction, from East to West. This parallels the larger argument for understanding the movement of ideas in American culture, not as something passed down from intellectual elites to the lower orders, or from whites to non-whites, as a process of uplift and civilization, but rather as a marketplace of interchange, in which ideas and conceptualizations are borrowed in all directions, with mechanisms like the media regulating the flow. Just as labor historians have documented the ways that the culture of workers has affected that of the privileged classes, focusing on the production of imagery in the West is a way to document the rich and less “top-down” history that in fact did exist in the region and nationally.
On The Roads We Didn’t Take
When thinking about the roads we didn’t take, I think I am mulling over topics for a Picturing United States History II – areas for further illumination, by scholars who have specialized in these specific issues which are tangled around images of the West. The ten-lane superhighway that we didn’t take and which looms largest in my mind is this: a serious consideration of images of Native peoples in the West. There are many lanes on this highway – that Native peoples have sometimes been represented as if they were the Western lands themselves (consonant with the placement of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Department of the Interior); sometimes as barriers to settlement; sometimes as reasons to go there (for instance, in Santa Fe Railway and Harvey House ads). Sometimes they are the rightful heirs, sometimes only placeholders waiting to turn it over to whites, sometimes absent or hidden. I would argue that this issue – images of Native peoples in the narrative of U.S. history – is a topic so rich and complex that it deserves treatment on its own, and as I could not hope to do it justice in this forum, I have only alluded to it obliquely – choosing instead to make a plea for seeing Indians as central to the twentieth century West. A second road not taken is the promise specifically of focusing on illustration, especially as it appeared in illustrated newspapers; in the comments in this forum, Josh Brown and John McClymer have provided examples of how powerfully that category of images could work in conveying perhaps more nakedly the intentions and values of those who produced, published, and consumed such images. A third road, and one which ideally transcends the regional history of the West, is the role of the federal government in producing and disseminating the images that have come to shape our view of specific regions, sites, and events, in national history. In the age of the visual internet, when the Library of Congress has become the source for a large number of the historical images which populate sites like Wikimedia’s Commons, this is an important issue. I’m certain there are many other roads branching off into the wilds; I invite the participants to suggest those that they see there.
And Back Again
For most of the twentieth century, Westerners have enjoyed marking roadside attractions with odd sculptures. Jackalopes in silhouette on a Wyoming hillside, Neon cowboys waving from Nevada casino signs, even California’s giant Randy’s Donuts or Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand have served as signs – and not only of the sad reality that much of Western Americana – like antler furniture – is actually more kitsch than culture.
And so I’ll offer as my roadsign something that exists somewhere along the line where kitsch and culture meet – one of my favorite images made in the West. This is a Mickey Mouse Kachina, produced sometime after 1930, and held in the Smithsonian’s collections in Washington, DC (although not currently on view). The Smithsonian acquired it from the Delacourt Gallery in New York in the early 1950s; it had been owned previously by Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., a collector of folk art.
Here’s what I like about the story of this image’s production in the West: although we don’t precisely know who made this, a fair assumption is that the person who made it was a Native person. The main reason for its collection, then, is the surprising juxtaposition of its form (traditional) and its content (modern). But it is held as part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, despite the fact that the Smithsonian has a branch, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), dedicated specifically to the cultural production of Native Americans. In that museum, works are attributed as carefully as possible to the person who made it, and if that kind of precision is not possible, then every effort is made to date the piece, to locate it geographically, and to, at the very least, be culturally specific about the piece’s origins. This kachina is not in the NMAI in part because it cannot be located in that way. It cannot even be definitively linked to a specific cultural group with any surety (although both curator Rayna Green and museum educator Elizabeth Shear Bredin have stated in print that it is a Hopi artifact). And yet, despite this less-than-pristine provenance, it is called, not a sculpture, but a “kachina.” A kachina is not simply a kind of sculpture – it’s a sculpture imbued with sacred significance to the person who made it and the specific group to which that person belongs. At the same time, the “shock of the new” that led to its inclusion in the collection of the Smithsonian assumes that Mickey Mouse and the maker of the kachina belong to separate worlds – yet, we also know that Mickey Mouse (the real Mickey Mouse created by Walt Disney) is a cultural product made in the West.
Seeing an image that has come to mean a kind of globalized homogeneity (consider the term “Disneyfication” here) captured in the (assumed to be) authentic cultural product of a Hopi Kachina suggests the complexity of intraregional Western cultural exchanges. In my own research into ethnographic narratives in the American Southwest, I was surprised myself when Mickey Mouse made several appearances in anthopologists’ field notebooks recording Tewa partum taboos. This was in part because I hadn’t expected to come across him in the midst of folklore, and in part because I had read the published versions of these stories which had edited out the Mickey Mouse references. But in the field notes, Tewa women told each other that, in addition to avoiding skinning rabbits during pregnancy lest the child be born with nicks on its skin, pregnant women should avoid watching Mickey Mouse movies lest their babies come out “jumping around and making no sense.” Rayna Green, in her discussion of the Mickey Mouse Kachina, argues that the use of Mickey Mouse as the face of a Mudhead clown in the carving of the kachina is an evocation of the Hopi tradition of Tusan Homichi, the mouse who saved the Hopi from starvation by fighting off the Hawk who was stealing their chickens; in this tradition, Tusan Homichi is a kind of Trickster who, through his clowning, teaches important lessons. Green argues, “When Disney Studios put its version of the Mouse spirit on the silver screen, it must have been wonderful for Hopis to see him sing, dance, and perform brave and Clownlike acts, just as in their old stories and in his then infrequent appearances in Hopiland…. In this instance [Hopi people] expropriated a symbol of power from the other culture, just as theirs had been expropriated for centuries by bahanas, the whites who’d come to Hopiland so long ago.
After Mickey Mouse began to appear in the thirties, how long or how often the Mickey Mouse kachina danced in the winter dances with the other masked spirits is not known. No one has seen him dance since the late fifties.” [Rayna Green, “The Mickey Mouse Kachina,” American Art, Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (Winter-Spring 1991): 208-209, p. 208.]
What would this particular road sign mean? Probably something along the lines of, “Come on In; Many Languages Spoken Here.”