Oct 15th 2020

The American Struggle: Jacob Lawrence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

by Sam Ben-Meir


Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.


“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme.

Jacob Lawrence is among the most recognized and celebrated African American painters of the twentieth century. Yet the series to which this exhibition is devoted – Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954-56) – has received relatively scant attention. Lawrence intended an immensely ambitious project: a series of sixty paintings beginning with European colonization and ending with World War I and America’s ascendance to the world stage. Ultimately, however, the series would comprise thirty small-scale tempera paintings on hardboard, detailing significant historical moments in the period lasting from 1775 to 1817; moments which will often underscore the role, and the experience, of people of color in the creation of the republic and its formative years.

The panels commence with a painting that draws its title from Patrick Henry’s famous “liberty” speech defending the colonial cause: “…Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” We begin, then, with the stirring scene of a crowd that stands roused, their arms upraised, their fists clenched, and their eyes fixed on the commanding orator elevated above the rest. Henry’s right hand grasps a bayonet, while his left hand hovers above the chaotic scene, drawing the viewers eye to a dark wall that drips with blood, reinforcing our awareness of the bloody conflict that is to ensue.

This painting is immediately followed by the “Massacre in Boston” – particularly notable for its central foregrounding of a dying Crispus Attucks, the seaman of African and Wampanoag descent who escaped slavery to become the first martyr of the American Revolution. The fifth panel confronts the experience of slavery head-on, drawing its title from the petition of an enslaved man to the Province of Massachusetts Bay: “We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!” It is a frightful scene of violence, with bayonets and knives flashing, naked brown bodies dripping blood, accentuated throughout by Lawrence’s sharp, angular lines.

The ninth installment is “Defeat”, a deeply moving reflection on the physical and emotional toll that military setbacks and the brutal winter took on Washington’s army. We see the backs of the men as they turn away from the dying warhorse that lies partially covered in the foreground, a poignant symbol of their desperate condition. It is an excellent example of Lawrence’s brilliant sense of economy, his ability to compress the greatest amount of meaning and emotional energy within the smallest surface. We are clearly in the presence of an artist who has thought long and deeply about his subject – and indeed we know that he spent “long hours” researching the period at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Each of his compositions require an active participation on the viewers part, a readiness to engage with Lawrence not only in the exercise of our historical imagination, but in reexamining the ways we reconstruct, and mythologize the past – what gets left out, what is elided, and what is buried.

The next painting – about the crossing of the Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776 – is a case in point. Lawrence takes a theme which was immortalized in Emanuel Leutze’s, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851), also in the Metropolitan Museum, and transforms the meaning of the event – where it is less about the heroism of one man, General George Washington, and more about the “excessively severe” night, “which the men bore without the least murmur” – to quote from Washington’s military aide Tench Tilghman, whose firsthand observations served as a key source.  In other words, Lawrence underscores the shared, collective struggle, and the bravery, resilience and sheer nerve of all the men who took part.

“And a Woman Mans a Cannon” is an important addition to the series because it reminds us that women also took part in the fighting – in particular, Margaret Cochran Corbin, who took her husband’s place when he fell in the Battle of Fort Washington. She boldly fought on until wounded and captured. Lawrence emphasizes her spiritedness and bravery – with her dead husband at her feet, and a pistol at her side, her standing figure extends almost the full height of the panel, imposing, dauntless and resolute.

The fifteenth painting takes its title from the preamble of the Constitution – “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility…” – and once again Lawrence challenges the tendency to idealize, or in this case to mythologize the making of the constitution in Philadelphia 1787. In Lawrence’s depiction, the delegates are not bathed in heavenly light but in a dark room; they are not all standing erect as if modeling for a statue, but so utterly exhausted they can hardly sit upright; they are not cordially interacting and observing decorum, but gnashing, panting and gesticulating madly as the sweat rolls off their faces. Is it realism then Lawrence is after? Far from it. Seven sword hilts gleam in the foreground, symbolizing the seven states that were needed for ratification. Lawrence is also guided by an idea – the idea that this country was born out of struggle, and conflict, whether on the battlefield or in the halls of state. These delegates who are giving birth to the constitution look as though they are literally suffering the pangs of labor. Lawrence, to his credit, has not forsaken idealism – he has given us an idea that can inspire us today; one that is rooted in action, and sacrifice, courage and perseverance in defeat.

The eighteenth panel captures a memorable moment from the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In August of 1805, Clark recorded in his journal that their translator and guide, a Lemhi Shoshone woman named Sacagewea, was reunited with her brother, Chief Cameahwait, from whom she had been separated since childhood. Lawrence depicts this moment of recognition between brother and sister by focusing our attention on their faces, unmistakably tinged with sadness, even as their eyes interlock. Its tenderness is underscored by Lawrence’s title, which records President Jefferson’s order to the explorers to treat all the natives they encounter “in the most friendly and conciliatory manner…” The painting becomes a painful reminder of how little the country in fact heeded the example set by Lewis and Clark in their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the American West.

Every panel in the series bears close examination and engagement. Lawrence recognizes the significance of those that have been under-represented, marginalized or oppressed. As he observed: “I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the negro.” Unfortunately, some of the paintings have been lost and are only known by black and white reproductions, others have been completely lost and only their titles are known. Still, enough remains that this exhibition is a profoundly rewarding experience, coming at a time when we desperately need to reinvigorate our commitment to democracy and universal enfranchisement, to the struggle against authoritarianism, and the cult of personality.




Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.
==============================================

Unsubscribe olli.raade@factsandarts.com from this list:
https://alonben-meir.us2.list-manage.com/unsubscribe?u=a2e336c40140a3ad66435cef8&id=d62c64f4fc&e=c01e7299c9&c=79e6461788

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: " The devastation of war is a recurring theme in Turner’s work, and unlike his contemporaries Turner is willing to forego the occasion to bolster national pride or the patriotism of its fallen heroes. In “The Field of Waterloo” (1818), Turner’s great tragic vision of war, “The…  dead of both sides lay intertwined, nearly indistinguishable surrounded by the gloom of night.” Near the bottom center there are three women. The one farthest from us is bearing a child and in her right hand a torch which illumines the sea of mangled bodies. Beside her is another woman struggling to keep a third (also with child) from collapsing outright. Turner reflects not only on the dead and dying, but on the widows and orphans that war produces."
May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTARCTS: "Steve Jobs dreaded turning 30, because he knew it would be fatal to his creativity: "It's rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s able to contribute something amazing." ....... "When Ford introduced the Model T, he was 45 years old" ...... "Ford’s Model T arrived only after a series of earlier cars – Models A, B, C, K, N, R, and S." .... "Sam Walton opened Wal-Mart No. 1 in Rogers, Arkansas, at 44, and discovered “that there was much, much more business out there in small-town American than anybody, including me, had ever dreamed of.” At 53, Warren Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that “your chairman, always a quick study, required only 20 years to recognize how important it was to buy good businesses.” "
Mar 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... Christie's web site calls Shot Sage Blue Marilyn [1964], to be auctioned in May, 'among the most iconic paintings in history', " ------ "Andy Warhol's annus mirabilis was not 1964, but 1962. This is recognized both by the market and by scholars. Thus in a paper published in the Journal of Applied Economics, Simone Lenzu and I found that in all auctions held during 1965-2015, the average price of Warhol's paintings executed in 1964 was significantly lower than the average price of those he made in 1962. And in a survey of 61 textbooks of art history published during 1991- 2015, whose authors included such eminent scholars as Martin Kemp and Rosalind Krauss, we found that fully 45% of the total of 137 illustrations of Warhol's paintings were of works from 1962, compared to only 12% of works from 1964. Thus not only do collectors value Warhol's works of 1962 more highly than those of 1964, but so do scholars of art history,.... "