Review by Joe B. Stevens
We live by myths, by the stories we tell. If
these are flawed, we're in trouble. Writers such as the late
Wallace Stegner have offered convincing arguments that many of our
stories are flawed, that what we think is real gets confused with
what we want reality to be. An exhibit in Denver, called The Real
West, offers us some help in straightening this
The exhibit at the
Denver Art Museum, the Colorado History Museum and the Denver
Public Library is organized around icons such as the tipi, adobe
church and fort. Viewing is aided by eye-level narrative statements
that are pithy and more informative than the exhibits themselves,
and surely inspired by Patricia Nelson Limerick, author of The
Legacy of Conquest, as well as other
effectively developed icon is the Rocky Mountains, since artists
have formed and reinforced our images of the West with powerful
works like Albert Bierstadt's Estes Park, a 15-by-8-foot oil on
canvas. Compare this with the view offered by an 1870s stereograph
to see the artist's overstatement.
The exhibit pulls some punches. Four icons -
cowboy, gold, windmill, Main Street - are the least effectively
developed. They are accompanied by the same materials - the saddle,
lariat, chuckwagon - that helped create and sustain those images
The Real West purports to re-examine.
We're told the windmill is the most easily
recognized symbol of a popular myth: "that of a tranquil
agricultural setting where a rugged pioneer's work is rewarded with
fulfilled dreams." But observers should also be told about the
homestead as false promise: Only about a third of homestead claims
could be "proved up," and more land was sold to settlers by the
railroads than was homesteaded.
The Main Street icon is nearly all about Denver,
but it might also have told us about the changes in farming, mining
and lumbering that have eroded the vitality of many small towns. We
might also have learned about Denver's thirst, which has led it to
reach to rural areas over the Rockies. The statement that "The
West's scarce water resources are jealously guarded and coveted,"
is a bald cop-out. The topic is better covered in another museum
exhibit just outside The Real West exit, a display titled "The
Battle Over Water: A State Divided."
My favorite exhibit item is American Progress,
an 1882 painting by John Gast that features Dame Progress as a
buxom blonde in a long gown, levitating above ground while
stringing telegraph wire into the West. Aside from the question of
how she manages to keep her gown up, there is little uncertainty
about the meaning of this work of art. All the action is from right
to left, from east to west, from civilization toward manifest
destiny. The wild animals and Native Americans are retreating, the
cowboys and miners are advancing, and Thomas Jefferson's yeoman
farmers are close behind.
something is missing from this painting - the Chamber of Commerce.
A key icon is missing from the exhibit itself, an icon that would
reflect the economic boosterism that sold railroad town sites to
settlers and that now sells mountain home sites to urban
expatriates. Two other icons might also have been included: the ski
lift and the condo.
Real West wants us to re-examine our myths and revise our stories,
it needs to recognize the present as well as recapture the past.
This might change the role of libraries, art museums and historical
societies, but we need all the help we can get.
For more information about The Real West
exhibit, which may be viewed until Sept. 15 in Denver, call
Joe B. Stevens is a natural resource economist
at Oregon State University.