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Scott was up early, showered, dressed, had breakfast, and was out the door. Today he was making his presentation before Young Art. He was nervous. But since he decided to be a professional historian, both as a writer of history and eventually as a professor, he had to deliver his first classroom lecture sometime. So, at the request of the Dr. Sargon and the Young Art group, he was about to discuss the relationship of art and history.
Scott was ready. He had spent much of the evening clarifying his ideas and preparing materials to support his interpretations. He was happy that he had discovered the stamp collection few days earlier. Being a collector of postage stamps himself, he was at ease selecting specific examples from the album to show the students. He also took with him a few Museum films that he recorded to cement his argument.
As he entered the Art Building and proceeded to the meeting room, however, Scott grew more uncertain. This was a big thing he was about to undertake, and he understood that. Upon entering, he recognized most of the Young Art students whom he knew or at least had met. With them was a young woman, obviously a university professor working with the group.
“Good morning, Mr. Tennyson,” she said pleasantly, “I’m Dr. Miriam Walsh. I’m from the Department of Art, and I’m with the Young Scholars program. We want to welcome you this morning and express our gratitude that you could be with us.”
Scott shook hands with Professor Walsh and the four students waiting to hear from him. “I am a little tense about being here,” he admitted to the class, “because I am really one of you. But the university’s Museum of History and Culture asked me to be their representative today, so here I am.”
“Well, Scott, welcome to our group,” said one of the students. “I’m Gloria Santana from Cedarville High School, about 75 miles east of here. “Some of us are a little skeptical about what you may be going to say. We understand that art has a history, but we see that as being a history of style, innovation, and execution.”
“That’s right,” added another Young Art student. “My name is Martin Maloney. We discussed the topic yesterday and concluded that within the major categories of art such as painting, sculpture, and architecture there has been historical change, but no painting or statue ever started a war, and no building ever created a social movement. We don’t see art as an influential aspect of history.”
“Martin is right,” remarked group member. “Hi, I’m Jack Suzuki. As artists we’ve concluded that art is pure and apart. Art is not a scientific invention like the atomic bomb. It’s not a human leader like the President of the United States. Art doesn’t make history.”
“Wait a minute,” the last Young Art scholar protested. “I didn’t agree with you yesterday, and I still don’t.” She turned to Scott who was passively watching the students debate. “I’m Stephanie Patel from University High School right here in town. I contend that the arts have their own history, sure, but they also play a role in the greater history of humanity.”
Scott had entered the classroom tense, and the aggressive doubt he encountered only increased his apprehension. “Well, it looks like I’m in the wrong room,” he said. “I was supposed to talk before Young Art, but I think I’ve mistakenly found Young Skepticism—at least for three out of four of you.” The quip made several of the students laugh. Even Scott smiled at his impromptu joke. But Martin Maloney was not among the amused.
“Well, Mr. Tennyson,” Professor Walsh said, “the challenge has been made. We await your presentation. How do you answer Young Skepticism? How do you convince most of us that art and history are related?”
Scott got to his feet. He felt better facing the critics while standing. He had brought with him a briefcase filled with photographs of stamps and a few DVD recordings he prepared at the Museum. These images and his words were all that existed between him and his cynical colleagues. Scott had always believed in the personal motto, “act like you know what you’re doing and no one will doubt you.” But in this situation, he knew he had to do more than act—he recognized that he needed to know what he was doing.
“Look, I know that painting has a history that extends from cave drawing in the ancient past to contemporary art,” he began, “and sculpture and architecture have histories that tell of evolving styles, techniques, innovations. But art is more than painting and statues and buildings. And just because something isn’t hanging on the walls of a museum, it doesn’t mean that it’s not art.
“Let me suggest a broader definition of art that includes, for example, commercial design. Is the design of radios and TV sets not art? If you buy a new radio or TV, you want it to fit into your world. You want it to be attractive, esthetically pleasing, and functional. You want it to work because you buy it for the entertainment and information it will provide. But you also buy it based on the beauty of the product’s design, the art that encases the technology. So, in this case, art drives the purchase, art is an economic force. And is economics not part of history?”
Before he received an answer, Scott continued. “How about telephones?” he said. “Their design has changed throughout the century. No one can deny that the telephone has played a role in history. So, I ask, can you separate the art of telephones from the scientific product we agree is historical?
“But, I’ll give you a better example of something that involves design, widespread use, and historical significance: the lowly postage stamp. Did you ever think of stamps as art?” he asked the group. “Or do you just lick ‘em and stick ‘em?
“As you know, many of people actually collect postage stamps. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was an avid stamp collector. I have a stamp collection at home. Collectors are attracted to postage stamps for their artistic beauty and because they are historically rich.”
Scott then reached into his briefcase and pulled out the photographs he had brought. “What do you see in stamps when you approach them as forms of art? Well,” he continued, “I see countries honoring their own cultural creativity. Take, for example, these stamps from Chile praising the ancient art forms that are found on Easter Island. See the giant carvings left by a race of people who have disappeared from the Island. You’re not in a museum now, you’re looking at a postage stamp.
“Or look at these beauties from Canada. They spotlight the art of the Eskimo people. Not only are these stamps artistic in themselves, but they depict art that you would probably accept as real art—folk carvings from northern Canada.
“Of course, the Greeks celebrate their classical culture in stamps, as you can plainly see. And in these postage stamps from England, or I should say the United Kingdom, we can see a depiction of the stories of King Arthur and the Roundtable, a British literary legend that reaches back to the sixth or seventh century A.D.
“Art is so important that sometimes countries place the creations of other nations on their own stamps. Take for example this Cuban stamp,” Scott said, “it celebrates a painting by the Spanish artist, Francisco Goya. And here is a West German postage stamp that spotlights the Mona Lisa by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. These are representations of great art. But they are on stamps which, themselves, are art.”
The students seemed a little overwhelmed by Scott’s presentation. After a few seconds of quiet, Jack Suzuki remarked, “When a postage stamp shows great art, isn’t that just the equivalent of a book with nice reproductions.” he said. “Shouldn’t it be only appreciated as a cheap facsimile, like a framed reproduction of great painting bought in a bookstore and used as a wall decoration?”
“That’s unfair, Jack,” complained Stephanie Patel. “Scott hasn’t completed his argument. We all have to listen and make decisions after he finishes.”
“Thank you, Stephanie. Please let me continue before you close your minds for good,” Scott said. “Postage stamps reflect what humans and nations respect in their cultural life. May I suggest one such cultural focus? There are many countries that pay homage to that greatest human recreation, sports. We can see national sports as well as an endorsement of sports in stamps such as these from Nicaragua. They are from 1948 and offer views of football—or should I say soccer—as well as ping pong, tennis, diving, sailing, bicycle racing, and pole vaulting. The Nicaraguans even salute their new stadium located in their capital city, Managua.
“Here’s another country glorifying sports,” Scott continued. “Here you can see that the people of this country honor boxing, fencing, bicycling, gymnastics, motorcycle racing, track, and soccer. These are from San Marino. San Marino? You say you don’t know where San Marino is? Never heard of it? Well, look it up.”
Scott was on a roll now, and he felt as if he were beginning to convince the non-believers in his audience. “Maybe you will recognize the convergence of art and history in postage stamps if you look at how they praise historic figures or great events,” he explained. “The United States frequently honors historic achievers by placing their portraits on stamps. Clara Barton, for example was the founder of the Red Cross. Francis Scott Key was a poet whose most famous poem became the lyrics the U.S. National Anthem. George Washington Carver was an important scientist who was most famous for his agricultural research on the uses of peanuts. And George Rogers Clark was a celebrated military leader during the Revolutionary War.
Here is Christopher Columbus. Everyone knows who he was. He is honored in Spain with these triangular stamps. And here’s a series of stamps celebrating his achievements. These are from San Marino. You still don’t know the country? Again, you’ll still have to look it up.”
The students laughed at this repetition in Scott’s presentation. None of them knew where the country was located, so the command to “look it up” quickly acquired a comedic tone.
“We have more,” he continued. “You should recognize George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt on these stamps from Monaco. From China here is Sun Yat Sen, the first president of the Chinese Republic, modern China, which was created in 1911 after centuries of emperors and empresses. And here is a stamp from Russia before the Communists seized power. It bears a portrait of Nicholas II, the last czar, who was overthrown and executed during the Bolshevik revolution. Lots of history here; and they’re nicely-designed stamps, too. There is a relationship.
“Then we have the inspirational Giuseppe Garibaldi, the guerrilla leader who helped to create Italy as a unified and independent country in 1860—and also a man who also fought in South American wars of independence and assisted in the creation of Uruguay as an independent country. Here he is on another postage stamp from San Marino. When you look up San Marino, look up Garibaldi, too. He’s worth knowing about.”
“OK, I’ll accept that stamps are art forms, and they’re also little windows through which we can learn of the past. But that’s true of a history textbook, too,” Gloria Santana declared.
“Good point,” Henry responded. “But don’t forget that postage stamps are also historical artifacts. First, they are from specific time periods in specific countries. So they are survivors of particular historical experiences. A stamp from World War I, for example, is a survivor of that time period. A stamp from the Soviet Union reflects the time and culture that produced it. We historian call that a document. Historians study documents for what they teach us of the past.
“Now, if you want to see naked politics, postage stamps sometimes show that. Look at these two stamps,” Scott noted. “First, this is from Libya when it was under the control of Fascist Italy and the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s. The stamp glorifies the alliance of Fascism and German Nazism. Notice the profiles on the stamp. Mussolini is out front with Adolf Hitler in profile behind him.
“Now, compare this stamp from Nazi Germany. It has the same propagandistic goal, celebrating Fascist-Nazi solidarity—or should I say Nazi-Fascist solidarity because, as you can see, Hitler’s profile is on the outside, and Mussolini’s profile is behind Hitler. What does this tell you about the relationship? Nice stamps—historically suggestive, too.
Here are a few more to think about: when the Germans conquered Eastern Europe beginning in 1939, they often used their own stamps to mail letters from the defeated countries. They just printed the name of the occupied country over German stamps. Sometimes the Nazis printed the generic word OSTLAND—meaning East Land—which could be used in many conquered country in the East, including Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and parts of the Soviet Union. Maybe they thought they would be staying for a long time, because in some cases the Germans actually designed new postage stamps for use in subjugated countries such as a section of Poland they called General Government, and the Czech-dominated parts of Czechoslovakia which they renamed Bohemia and Moravia.
Here are my favorite stamps that illustrate history. They come from Germany, but a decade before Hitler took power. Germany in the early 1920s endured an economic inflation that made its money, the mark, practically worthless. Prices rose so rapidly that people were sometimes paid every hour or so. This allowed them to take their money and make purchases or pay bills immediately. Here’s a group of a German postage stamps from that time. Take a look at their prices. Here’s one for 30,000 marks, another for 100,000 marks, and another for 50 million marks.”
“Do you mean it cost 50 million marks to mail something in Germany at this time?” asked Jack Suzuki. “That’s a lot of money in any currency.”
“And it’s all here, documented in a simple little postage stamp, a historical participant of this time and this country,” added Scott.
“But if you really want to see history and art together, look at these attractive stamps from the age of great empires,” he continued. “It was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Well just the geography of these stamps proves that point. As you can see the British had imperial holdings from Asia, to Africa, and even the Latin America.
“But, they weren’t alone in grabbing up and ruling foreign peoples,” continued Scott. “Their greatest rival for other people’s lands was France. The French empire also extended from Asia, to Africa, and to North and South America.”
“What are the dates of these great empires?” asked Martin Maloney.
“Colonialism or imperialism, call it what you will, started with Columbus and continued to exist into the 1960s if not later,” Scott replied. “These stamps are from the 1930s through the 1950s.
“But there’s more. If you liked Great Britain and France as imperial power, you’ll love the others,” Scott said lightly. “Here is Spain with colonies in Northern Africa. Portugal operated primarily in Africa. The Netherlands had colonies in Asia and South America. Belgium had possessions in southern Africa.
“Wait. Don’t forget the United States,” he added. “After the original thirteen United States spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, American conquerors went overseas. They appropriated such places as the Philippine Islands which are now an independent country, and the Canal Zone which reverted to Panama in 1977. And let’s not forget the Virgin Islands which the Americans purchased from Denmark; and Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa which remain U.S. territories.
“Oh, there is also Hawaii which, as the postage stamps show us, had an interesting history. For most of the nineteenth century the Hawaiian Islands were an independent kingdom. A military assault on the Queen by U.S. Marines in 1893, however, lead to a coup d’état and establishment of a civilian provisional government eager to join the U.S.
“When that didn’t happen, the Republic of Hawaii was formed in 1894. The Republic had its own written constitution. But its leaders remained eager to be absorbed by America.
“Finally in 1898 the United States formally annexed the Republic and made it a territory. Unlike other U.S. territories, however, Hawaii actually became a state in 1959.
“As you see, much of the Earth was carved up by the technologically-advanced nations of the world,” continued Scott. “And those lowly postage stamps, those little pieces of graphic art, demonstrate the history of this military and political expansionism because stamps were part of it.”
“Well, Scott, you’ve convinced me” conceded Jack. “I see the relationship pretty clearly.”
“But I don’t,” Gloria asserted. “Even if a stamp can be considered an art form as well as a part of history, your focus seems too narrow to convince me that commercial products—like postage stamps—are real art, I mean that they were created as art.”
“I’m so glad to see that there is still some skepticism out there,” replied Scott. “I figured that I couldn’t convince everyone with a few postage stamps. So, let me now offer a film to help prove my point. It’s a very old movie that’s from the university museum. I think you’ll find it relevant.”
“Let me go back to a point I made earlier concerning commercial products as art,” Scott began. “A new automobile, a new refrigerator: have you ever thought of such products as art? Who designed the latest models of cars? Who created the ’look’ of the newest refrigerators? I’m not talking about what’s under the hood, the machinery. I mean the “case” in which the latest Frigidaire or Cadillac is housed.
“Well, this industrial short film from General Motors in 1936 will show you that the designers of such consumer products are artists, gifted creators whose masterpieces were functional as well as beautiful. The short is entitled The Art of Styling. I think you’ll find it challenging as well as informative.
Scott was correct. The Young Art student did find the film provocative. It sparked a round of debate over whether art and commercialism were compatible, or whether involvement in commercialism banished an artist from consideration as a master.
Some students admitted that Scott had convinced them that they had been too narrow in their understanding of art and the role it places in society. But one Young Art scholar remained unconvinced. “I see your point,” Gloria Santana said, “but it doesn’t change my original position. What you’re describing in that film, and even in the postage stamps, is commercial graphic design. What I’m talking about is great art. I am speaking of giants like Michelangelo, Titian, Poussain, and Picasso. Now, these artists are giants in the history art, and they’re all too great to be as commercial as those men designing appliances and cars.
“I grant that many great artists had wealthy patrons who purchased their works, but their works was not commercial, “she continued. “I’m speaking about esthetics, the noble purpose, art as beauty, art for the sake of art. You’re saying that everything is art, and that it plays a role in history.”
Scott could see that he hadn’t convinced everyone. Gloria seemed unmovable. Fortunately, he had brought more ammunition for the battle. He was now ready to reveal his most persuasive historical evidence.
“Your argument seems to be that renowned artists operate apart from the everyday world,” he said to Gloria, “that they are driven by artistic motives and, therefore, their paintings and sculptures are purer than those artists—if you would even call them artists—who design for a salary. Well, I want to show you another short film that might finally change your mind.
“Think about this: art pieces as commercial products,” Scott began. “What if I told you that some of Gloria’s great artists, as talented as they were, were also shrewd businessmen? Certainly, they accepted commissions and often sold their paintings, drawings, and sculptures to wealthy patrons of art.
“But would a true artist ever license his art for common business exploitation? For example, would Pablo Picasso allow his art to become the design on a woman’s bathing suit? Would the great artist Marc Chagall sign away the rights to reproduce his art on fabric for a common seamstress to fashion skirts and dresses? How about Raoul Dufy, Joan Miró, and Fernand Leger?
“I can almost hear you saying under your breath, ‘No, of course not. These are the most esteemed masters of modern art in the twentieth century. They are what art is all about. They would never tarnish their craft with base commercialism!’
“Well, let’s see. You probably have never heard of the Fuller Fabric Company. But it was a business in New York City that mass-produced designed fabrics for use in the manufacturing of clothing,” Scott explained. “In 1955 the company signed contracts with five of the most respected names in the art world. For a fee, these masters permitted Fuller Fabric to reproduce on cloth some of the most famous designs found in their art. Then the company president and his wife flew to France to meet their clients—and to produce a self-congratulatory film about their new business arrangements.
“You are about the view that corporate movie. It’s called Fabrics from Modern Masters. And given your opinions about art and its relationship to bad old money, it should raise many questions about the role of art and artists in society.
Needless to say, Fabrics from Modern Masters swayed the entire group to Scott’s point of view. “I concede,” said Gloria good-naturedly. “You’ve placed me in an awkward spot. I have to deny the greatness of Picasso, or change my views about art and history and commercialism. And I can’t deny Picasso—or Miró, or Dufy, or Leger, or Chagall.
“Therefore, Scott, you win. I am convinced by your use of these original materials,” she admitted.
The rest of Young Art erupted in applause as Gloria smiled and nodded her head in a gesture of concession.
As he was gathering his material to leave, Scott was inwardly pleased with his performance. But he realized that this presentation owed much to Dr. Papadopoulos, his mentor. It made Scott feel a little sad that he was enjoying this intellectual achievement with Young Art just after bidding good-bye to Dr. Pop, forever.
|Copyright © 2010 J. Fred MacDonald-All Rights Reserved.|