America!

Think of America. The beautiful. The terrible. Land of liberty, land of slavery. Stuff of dreams oof all kinds. This post is about three works of art that epitomise America (to us anyway): Plenty. Power. Paradox.

Plenty & the 19th century

Plenty came first. The century went by the number 19. The world flocked to America, to flog or be flogged. There was too much of everything. Too much liberty. Too much cruelty. Too much land. Too much blood spilled over it. And where Europe had always found itself not having enough, America became the land of inexhaustible plenty. The new people came and tamed the land, tamed the rivers, tamed the mountains, tamed the sea, tamed the seasons. And soon the land teemed with everything they needed.

No painting summarises this American story better than Thomas Hart Benton’s Achelous & Hercules. The self-appointed new masters of the land discipline their dominion. On the sidelines, slaves and new immigrants watch and work. In the background, machines are already taking over, and dark clouds gather unnoticed. Everywhere you look, there is plenty lying fallow.

 

Thomas_Hart_Benton_-_Achelous_and_Hercules_-_Smithsonian

 

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