« America’s twisted civilization » – Sandra Zgheib
Although the United States is considered a young nation, the land where it is established was home to native people since thousands of years ago. The story of the discovery of the land is known to everyone but the invasions, conquests and massacres committed against the natives are subject to misinformation and misinterpretation. This fact is written in books, seen in movies, and embodied in art. Various works, such as paintings, sculptures, novels, poems and songs have deformed the reality of history in order to transmit the idea of the supremacy and heroism of America.
Among these works is Thomas Crawford’s pediment sculpture Progress of Civilization that is situated above the senate doors on the east front of the U.S Capitol. This structural group has several elements that are irrelevant to reality and shows the discrimination, racism, arrogancy and lies of the Americans. This work, if contrasted with unbiased history and other paintings such as Ferris’s The First Thanksgiving 1621, highlights a deformed version of history.
Native American people have inhabited the land that was later known as America since the ice ages. They respected the land and wisely used its natural resources. Nevertheless, they never officially owned any land. They mastered several skills that enabled them to survive such as fishing, hunting, growing crops and building homes. When they encountered the first European settlers, they were fascinated by the tools they had brought with them such as steel knives, copper kettles and mirrors. They were very hospitable and helped them survive the harsh conditions by teaching them their own skills.
Native American people were healthy, they weren’t accustomed to diseases, therefore their immune system didn’t have the proper defense against the diseases that Europeans brought with them. The vast majority of the population; 90 to 95%; died due to these diseases which allowed the Europeans to conquer and colonize more lands easily. Native Americans were massacred and held captive by Europeans and the small percentage that survived were expelled outside their habitat. In 1776 the American colonies gained their independence from Britain and the United States of America was established.
When asked about the discovery of the land of America, the U.S government and officials have always twisted the facts claiming that their invasion was to bring civilization to the natives, those same natives who were able to survive for thousands of years away from modern world civilization. What is more shocking, is using literature, art and representations as a means to spread their version of the story. Thomas Crawford’s Progress of Civilization is a mere example of this.
Thomas Crawford was an American sculptor born in New York city in 1814, he studied at the National Academy of Design then moved to Rome. A while later, he established his own studio and made his career there. Nevertheless, he kept a strong bond with his native country and was commissioned to design, among other works, several statues for the U.S Capitol- the Statue of Freedom, the pediment sculptures Justice and History, and Progress of Civilization- His poor health haunted him for the majority of his life to finally succumb to his eye cancer at the age of 43.
The pediment sculpture of Progress of Civilization was designed in 1854 in Rome, its sculptures were later carved from marble between 1855 and 1859 at the U.S Capitol. It was erected in 1863 and measures 80 feet long. The pediment is a sculptural group assigned to Crawford by Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, the supervising engineer of the Capitol extension program. In a letter to Crawford, Meigs highlights the main idea behind the structural group: “in our history of the struggle between civilized man and the savage, between the cultivated and the wild nature, are certainly to be found themes worthy of the artist and capable of appealing to the feelings of all classes.” Through this work of art, people in charge of the project; who got their instructions from the Congress; wanted to contrast between life before the European conquest and present day America. Their aim is to emphasize the importance of the colonization and how it brought prosperity, civilization and education to a “savage” population and transformed the land into the prosperous United States.
In her book Art and Empire, Vivien Frye criticizes art in the Capitol in general: “much of the sculpture and painting in the U.S Capitol forms an iconographic program that outlines the course of North American empire by promoting and legitimizing the subjugation of the Native Americans” (Dippie 1456). The Congress, at that time, wanted to glorify its image; and because they were fundraising art in the Capitol, they were able to impose certain ideas. Hence, they promoted specific subjects and excluded others. Due to this selection, “the Capitol’s art promulgated a mythologized collective history celebrating civilization’s displacement of savagery” (Dippie 1456). The image of the Native Americans is unified in art works at the Capitol; they are represented whether as dangerous savages or as doomed individuals, either ways to prove the legitimacy of conquests and colonization.
The pediment features a right side that supposedly represents life before the “civilization” imposed by the European conquerors. A left side that represents the prosperity and civilization that the country has reached. In the center is erected the statue of America, she is wearing the liberty cap and holding in her right hand a laurel and oak wreath, symbol of military success. An eagle, the symbol of freedom stands by her side. This same eagle has symbolized freedom, courage and honesty for the natives since the antiquity. America’s eyes are looking upwards to the sky, and her left hand extended towards the pioneer. On the left side we have a statue of this Pioneer, swinging his axe in the air and cutting the tree trunk in front of him. The pioneer represents the people who migrated to the west and settled in the territories inhabited by native Americans. The act of cutting the tree proves their domination over the underdeveloped society, it also represents the overcoming of all the obstacles in order to settle on this land. The position of the statues and the swinging of the axe underlies that the pioneer massacred and eliminated the native Americans.
Beside the tree trunk, a snake coiled in the grass as a proof of the dangerous and wild aspect of the land and a justification of their inevitable invasion. Next to the snake stands a native hunter returning from the chase with his catch over his shoulder and his dog by his side. Hunting is one of the skills of the natives, but in this sculpture, it is supposed to represent their savage way of surviving. Alongside the hunter is the chief of the tribe whose posture shows deception, fear and grief. He is sitting on a rock with his face down and his head laying on his hand. This sculpture signals the defeat of the natives and their subjugation by the conquerors. Leaning against his seat, is his wife with their baby clasped to her chest. The final representation is a native tomb signaling the death and the extinction of the natives’ civilization and population.
On the right side stands a soldier carrying a sword, a symbol of military progress and conquests. Next to it is the statue of the merchant, he has his hand on a globe and his foot on a box. It implies that the American trade travels the world and that the prosperity of the country, symbolized by the coins and the 28000000$ inscribed on the box is a result of merchandising. Beside the merchant are two youths “in the act of offering themselves to the service of their country” (Cosmopolitan Art Journal 28). Next to it is an instructor and his pupils, a symbol of education and civilization in opposition to the uneducated natives. The final statue is that of the mechanic with his arm on a cog-wheel. This mechanic symbolizes industrialization and what it has brought to the country. In the right corner lays sheaves of wheat and an anchor. Wheat symbolizes fertility and the anchor symbolizes hope.
Crawford had to follow several instructions from the Congress, therefore, several elements in this sculptural group have been diverted from reality in order to glorify the country. The first element that is twisted is the symbol of the eagle placed by the side of the figure America. The eagle has always been sacred for the natives, it is their symbol of freedom and success. Eagle feathers has always been present in the natives’ head bands as a symbol of success in wars. In 1782, the eagle was added to the official seal of the united states and thus became the national bird symbol. Americans found this bird on the land of the natives and it was the latter’s symbol of freedom nevertheless they appropriated it to themselves.
The second element is the pioneer who, without the help of the natives, wouldn’t have been able to overcome the obstacles of the wild life nor colonize the territories. He is portrayed as the courageous person guided by God but actually, he owes his life to the natives. The third element is the hunter who is well represented but the meaning behind its presence is far more underestimating. Its representation implies wild life and savage means of surviving but on the contrary it should show one of the many skills natives used to have. Another element is the grave, it is a shame to glorify the massacre of a civilization and to boast about the fact that the United States was established to the detriment of the natives’ civilization.
The final element and the most important one is the sheaves of wheat, placed on the right corner of the pediment. Wheat should be placed on the left, beside the natives, because if it wasn’t for them, pilgrims, who are represented by the pioneer, wouldn’t have learned how to plant crops and wouldn’t have survived. If we take a look at the story behind Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ “The First Thanksgiving”, we would understand exactly to which extent Americans owe their lives to the natives. Moreover, we would realize why wheat is a misplaced element. Nearly 2000 years before the discovery of America, the natives used to have a harvest feast after storing their harvest for the winter. During the first year of their arrival, half of the pilgrims died because they weren’t accustomed to this life and because they didn’t have enough food. Natives taught them how to build houses and grow crops and after the harvest pilgrims invited the natives to thank them for teaching them how to survive. This story has many sides, but what everyone agrees on is that natives taught the pilgrims how to grow crops, and thanks to them, they were able to survive. Therefore, the sheaves of wheat are neither the skill nor the merit of the Americans and although it is a symbol of fertility, I strongly believe that the natives should have the credit for it.
As we have seen earlier, this work was highly criticized because it was directed by political and governmental purposes. “art in this land of liberty is under the control of a military chieftain, an officer of engineers, who has the chief direction of the works of art at the Capitol” (The Crayon 12). Art in the Capitol in general and this sculptural group in particular was realized to glorify the country, its accomplishments and its history, while demeaning other civilizations. American people have always sought supremacy and superiority over other civilizations such as the Native Americans or African Americans. “Progress and Civilization” was highly praised for its artistic details, Nevertheless, it remains a somehow biased work that praised the United States to the detriment of the natives.
Sandra Zgheib (Master 1 Anglais)