The events of 9/11 sparked many and various expressions of patriotism in the United States. Outraged by the terrorist attacks, many Americans sought retribution, a yearning that helped make way for the ongoing war in Iraq. Legislation such as the US Patriot Act, which sacrifices some personal freedoms for the cause of fighting terrorism, became incorporated into the very idea of devotion to country, although for many citizens and admirers of the United States, those freedoms had long defined our national character. As the war in Iraq has unraveled, for many Americans US conduct has become morally suspect, patriotism increasingly abstract, and our national identity fragmented—compromising a sense of national pride. In this election year, patriotism also is coloring political debate over immigration, national security, abortion, religion, and economics. While these polarizing issues heighten our awareness of the impossibility of either a fixed national identity or collective unwavering pride, they also raise the idea that fissures in a common devotion to county might indicate patriotism in a higher form—the questioning of one’s country in a desire to make it better.
As the war in Iraq has unraveled, for many Americans US conduct has become morally suspect, patriotism increasingly abstract, and our national identity fragmented—compromising a sense of national pride.
“This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land” comes from a song written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 in response to what he felt was the overzealous glorification of the country in the lyrics of Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America,” released in 1938 and wildly popular. Guthrie, who had grown up in a farming family in Oklahoma, was reacting to what he believed was a disconnect between the exalted adoration of the country in Berlin’s song and the reality of social and economic problems that produced the Great Depression and were then amplified by it.
Sixty-seven years later, “This Land Is Your Land” has become one of the most popular patriotic songs of all time. Its call for egalitarianism and its ambiguously ironic lyrics about the grandeur of the American landscape have allowed this originally populist, left—wing song to be fully co-opted by the American mainstream and turned into a well-loved patriotic anthem.
Some of the world’s most revered thinkers and philosophers have been suspect of patriotism. Eighteenth-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Patriotism ruins history,” and in the same century British writer Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” In the 19th century, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaimed, “When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and the purity of its heart.”
The seven artists in this exhibition offer diverse perceptions of the United States and illuminate the difference between blind patriotism and national celebration based on knowledge.
The seven artists in this exhibition—two are American, five are not—offer diverse perceptions of the United States and illuminate the difference between blind patriotism and national celebration based on knowledge. Their artwork refers to some of the most current American concerns as well as some of our most enduring national stereotypes. Often with humor, they use current events and personal observations to comment on the political, religious, and cultural climate of the United States today - In their work they demonstrate that our nation’s character is not homogeneously tribal, but rather a constantly shifting confluence of traditions, stereotypes, and opinions, as seen from both within the country and without.
Peter Granser (German, b. 1970) went straight to the heart of conservative politics, Christian fundamentalism, immigration tensions, and big oil interests when he traveled through Texas in 2006 and 2007 to create his series of photographs, Signs. In images such as a “Welcome Home” banner flanked by two women with children in strollers, a billboard reading “‘Big Bang Theory? You’ve Got to be Kidding Me’ — God,”and a man standing at the border, curiously waving an American flag toward an empty hillside in Mexico, Granser creates a photo essay that is in many ways an unforgiving condemnation of American society. By providing us with evidence of some of the most unflattering, stereotypical aspects of American identity, Granser reminds us that stereotypes, much like photographs, although exaggerated and by nature incomplete, have some basis in truth.
Christian Jankowski’s (German, b. 1968) collaborated with a televangelist he met in Texas named Peter Spencer to create the video The Holy Artwork (2001). In the video Jankowski approaches the stage at the start of a mass, faints, and lies at Spencer’s feet while Spencer delivers a sermon about art and its relationship to God. As Jankowski relinquishes control of the piece to Spencer and the church’s television cameras, Spencer makes statements such as “thank God for video art,” and that the “miracle of art” is made possible “because of the great artist, the great creator who gave us the ability to feel inspiration by his power.” There is a tension between the ironic humor that comes out of the unusual topic of the sermon and Spencer’s impressive and captivating delivery, which holds the attention of his churchgoing constituents as effectively as it holds that of the art viewer.
Also working in Texas, Roberto Bellini (Brazilian, b. 1979) addresses the extent to which we have lived in a climate of fear since 9/11. Videotaping in a parking lot at sunset, Bellini creates beautiful footage of birds flying in and out of his camera’s frame, while a voice-over captures the dialogue between himself and a security guard who comes over to explain that taking pictures in the parking lot, or of any of the buildings or infrastructure nearby, is forbidden. No one mentions 9/11, but it is the obvious reason for such extreme regulation, in a world where even photography, very often a tool of security, has become threatening.
Like Jankowski and Bellini, Bryan Zanisnik’s (American, b. 1979) work stems from collaboration, in his case with his family. His video Family Album (2006) uses footage culled from films he made when he was thirteen years old, in which he asked his family members to play various parts. Fourteen years later while in art school, Zanisnik took the film footage from his archive and re-edited it into satirical, oddball works that distill issues that remain significant today. In Family Album, his grandmother comically plays the part of a revenge-seeking Mafioso murderer, interested in giving Americans a “bad day,” all the while fearing the immigration police.
The thrill of shirking authority is one theme in Simon Roberts’s (British, b. 1974) pictures of illegal gatherings of pyrotechnics enthusiasts in the Nevada desert. Sometimes up to 200—people strong, these events are held in a secret location. Roberts makes dramatic images of the events, including the firing of machine guns, and exploding shells and fireballs that reach up to three hundred feet in the air, with pictures that simultaneously refer to patriotism and war. In his writing about the work, Roberts observes that in this country one can buy a handgun legally, but in many states fireworks are illegal.
Another macho, inane activity is at the center of Greg Stimac’s (American, b. 1976) video Peeling Out (2006), which presents a series of cars peeling out loudly in various American landscapes. The cars, license plates and places change, while the action, simple and comic in its repetition, speaks to a more general American bravado, as well as to our identity as a nation of gas guzzlers, dangerously dependent on oil. Stimac’s video Car Wash Girl (2006), hints at American superficiality as an attractive young woman dressed in pink on the side of the road cheerily promotes a car wash out of view. At one point she lets down her guard and looks completely bored and tired, only to pick up her sunny personality when the next car comes by. Ultimately, the forced optimism and cheerfulness in her demeanor become tragic in their artificiality.
Finally, Caroline Hake’s (German, b. 1968) series Uniglory uses Los Angeles to examine American theatricality and artificiality. A photograph of the Miss World stage speaks of potentially unrealized dreams and a desire for public approval, the beam station from the television series Star Trek of escape to a fantasy world, and a picture of a model of Hollywood that visitors walk on top of, making them feel colossal and perhaps invincible, are all fitting metaphors for our country’s recent presence on the world stage.
—Karen Irvine, Curator