State of the Art: Closing the Frontier
‘Go West, young man, go West! Grow Up with the Country!’ Horace Greeley c. 1844
frieze, Issue 88, Jan/Feb 2005
There is a lake in the heart of New England, not far from Henry Thoreau’s Walden and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s failed Utopia at Brook Farm, with a name as long and unassailable as a typographical boundary fence:
Depending on who you believe, the Nipmuc Indian name means either ‘you fish on your side and we fish on our side and no one fishes in the middle’ or, as 17th-century Puritan settlers might have interpreted it, ‘a neutral fishing ground between the English knifemen and the Nipmuck’. In Mexico it transpires that the original meaning of the word ‘Yucatán’ is ‘I do not understand what you are saying’. It was what the native population said to the Spanish conquistadors who, like lost tourists, kept asking ‘Donde estamos?’ (‘Where are we?’). Mutual bafflement became a permanent place-name, as if to memorialize unwittingly the gulf of confusion (which itself sounds like a feature on a 17th-century carte de tendresse, a whimsical map plotting the sentimental topography of the human heart in degrees of longitude and latitude).
Misunderstanding lies at the heart of the American concept of the frontier, a term that has been used to justify everything from liberating Utopian fantasies to genocidal land grabs. It is mythic, nationalistic, transcendental and escapist, but most of all it suggests a disposition of mind as much as a geographical reality, a liminal place of expectancy where what is known bleeds out helplessly into something unknown.
Crossing over to the other side and sending missives back to the rest of the world is what artists and writers have always done. Artists can be relied on by property speculators to serve as the nomadic vanguard of urban gentrification, or by the commerce committees of second-tier cities across the globe to funnel in hard currency and cultural cachet in the form of biennials and triennials (the Nome Video Festival anyone?), so it is perhaps not surprising that it was Thomas Cole, with his early 19th-century paintings of the wilds of New York’s Catskill Mountains, who was pivotal not only in shifting the average American’s idea of nature from something to be cut down in a hurry to something to stand before in reverential awe but also in opening up the frontier to tourism. When Donald Judd turned his back on the art establishment, he didn’t head for the cushy Hamptons; he ‘lit out’ for the territories and set up his own super-hacienda on the range for an art that brooked no quarter. More recently Andrea Zittel established A–Z West, a creative base camp in the Mojave Desert where she set about fabricating her ‘A–Z Homestead Units’, portable and potentially mass-producible cabins for anyone with a plot of land and a dream of self-reinvention. Like snap-together pioneer wagons, they embody a view of the frontier that is Pascalian in its precept that the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere. The only manual needed for such a shelter might be Lewis Carroll’s map for The Hunting of the Snark (1876), a blank sheet of paper bounded only by the cardinal points and peripheral indications of zeniths and nadirs.
Greeley’s exhortation to leave the East behind may in fact have not meant going any further west than Red Bank, New Jersey. It was there that in 1843 Greeley helped found a Utopian settlement based on the principles of the proto-socialist Charles Fourier, which called for land to be shared and private property abolished. It was a Paris Commune just across the Hudson River, and it failed within two years. To this day, as Paul Chan recently illustrated in his video animation Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (2003), the distance between American attempts at Utopia and fundamentalist madness is not great. For every self-reliant Thoreau there seems to be a Unabomber, for every Brook Farm or Shaker village there is a Manson Family or a Jonestown: fruits groaning from different branches of the same Liberty Tree. Chan’s work discovers that the epic visions of the reclusive outsider artist Henry Darger and the cosmologically ordained communist fantasies of Fourier describe a similar world, an Arcadian frontier stretching to a horizon both ecstatically millennial and insane. (Fourier promised an era of ‘Perfect Harmony’ populated by millions upon millions of artists, poets and dramatists enjoying 80,000 years of bliss.)
Another abandoned Fourierian experiment situated on the old Mason–Dixon line still exists: the tiny, still extant town of Utopia, Ohio. I wondered what, if anything, was happening there on the evening of 2 November, as we watched the televised presidential election maps show Ohio swing crimson red. It was then that Americans fully understood that a divisive frontier had opened in their midst, as the nation separated itself into red and blue camps of mutual antipathy (roughly along the lines between the Confederacy and the Union, an irony lost on neither side). As the puzzle pieces slipped into place, the latest redrawing of America’s culturally incompatible psycho-geographies became clear – and a carte de tendresse it was not.
While blue-staters discussed with nervous jocularity the options of exile and expatriation, the more creative among them immediately began satirically remapping North America along more sensible boundaries into the United States of Canada and the red nation-state of Jesus-land, which is left to attend the Last Judgement on its own. But what would a Northern secession do for urban ‘élitist’ culture? Coastal artists have always used the ‘other America’ as ready-made fodder, photographic carpetbaggers repeatedly scouring the highways and byways of ‘Freak America’ as if it was a sideshow of redneck attractions just waiting to become subject matter. What would William Eggleston or Lee Friedlander be without the Deep South? What would Steven Shore have done without his ‘Uncommon Places’ of deferred ideals and empty promises? This is the view of America that European cultural critics in a Baudrillardian vein eat up with a big condescending spoon, a dish of Darkest America that, despite themselves, Americans keep serving up for the world with each heavy-handed Imperial misstep on the geopolitical stage and every cultural regression at home.
As this magazine’s sole American staff writer, I must admit to a lingering romance for what remains of the idea of the frontier, despite there being so little left to salvage. As a kid, I pored over an 18th-century map of what would eventually become New York State and realized that the upstate town where my grandparents lived was mostly blank, dimpled parchment inscribed with a few conveniently placed shrubs or a fragment of cursive script admitting that the area had not been surveyed. Such lack of resolution was the essence of the frontier, and I knew it was still there, cradling my grandparents’ house, dormant beneath the Interstate that led us there. The country where I grew up is now more polarized than at any point in my memory – the island of Manhattan anxiously adrift off the coast of America. But the idea of the frontier as a page yet to be filled need not be consigned to the dustbin. It may be the only hope there is.
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