Art and Commerce Collude: Together, They Rape the Land

Artists have always been real-estate pioneers. You know the routine: Seeking studios in which to work, and at a price that fits a meager budget, artists gravitate toward underdeveloped areas where space is plentiful and rents are cheap. They settle in and create a community of like minds, transforming an unappealing and perhaps dangerous neighborhood into a haven for culture.

Where culture blooms, money follows. The neighborhood begins to buzz; high-end development schemes are hatched; and, sooner or later, the artists are priced out of their studios (unless they had the foresight and the cash to buy their space when it was still a dump).

The exhibition Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape, on display at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, tells a related story. In the catalog, curator Gail Davidson draws our attention to an 1883 essay by Edwin Lawrence Godkin, editor of The Nation; she also cites Hans Huth’s Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (1957). Godkin’s satirical essay, “The Evolution of the Summer Resort,” follows that same narrative trajectory as Huth’s book: Artists set up their easels or notebooks on a site rich with natural wonders; local farmers and hoteliers take note of the increasing flow of refined folk coming to their area; and, well, therein lies the root of an “elite clientele,” “class divisions” and more tourist tchotchkes than you can shake a dowsing rod at.

Tourism and the American Landscape details, in other words, the origins of what is now commonly referred to as eco-tourism, wherein the splendors of the natural world are marketed as a destination for sightseers.

Ms. Davidson tells us that 19th-century landscape painters “pioneered the quest for ‘sublime’ sights, seeking to convey … a divine presence in the marvels of nature.” This is the standard line regarding American landscape painting, particularly that of the Hudson River School, and it’s not untrue.

Yet Ms. Davidson and her fellow essayists aren’t all that interested in how nature and art can exemplify and embody higher powers or higher modes of feeling; they’re interested in economics. As the title makes plain, Tourism and the American Landscape is about commerce. Art is merely an adjunct—and it plays a sinister role.

Artists helped “to stimulate the burgeoning tourism industry by promoting interest in … natural icons” like Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks and the Grand Canyon. Contrary to popular opinion, they were not sensitive souls wowed by the beauty of a babbling brook or a dramatic mountain peak; they were happy co-conspirators in the commodification of nature. Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran are, in this light, hucksters exploiting the natural world for the sake of a buck.

The introductory wall label tells us that “artists encouraged America to become a nation of tourists.” Reading on, we learn that they “recorded, romanticized and sometimes embellished” the motif at hand. That’s not the worst of it: The catalog informs us that the painters “helped to further” the “demise” of the American landscape. Not only weren’t they tree-huggers, they were rapists of the land! Who knew Winslow Homer had it in him?

No artist is pure. For good and ill, practical considerations make a dent in artistic practice. Did Thomas Moran allow his image to be used to advertise a tour of the Grand Canyon (offered as a side trip on the “luxurious and newly equipped California Limited”)? Maybe. But that’s not to say we should automatically tether art to the intentions of the artist or to the wiles of advertisers and curators. Art has its own curious life. This is what Tourism and the American Landscape does its utmost to stifle.

Someday, an enterprising young soul with a strong stomach and a clear eye will undertake a sociological history of how, when and why artists became the adversaries of those whose duty it is to safeguard their efforts. The Cooper-Hewitt show is only a mild manifestation of the trend. The exhibition, on the whole, is blandly efficient, which is no mean feat given the abundance of items on display: vintage postcards, prints, menus, plates, 19th-century wallpaper featuring Native Americans and—oh yes—paintings and drawings of varying quality.

It’s all but pointless to talk about the art here except in the broadest of terms. For what it’s worth, Tourism and the American Landscape confirms that Homer is an American master, and that Church and Moran are worthy minor artists, particularly when working on paper.

The most notable aspect of the exhibition, alas, is its disbelief in awe. Floramae McCarron-Cates, the museum’s associate curator of drawings, prints and graphic design, writes of the “mediated view” of nature offered by art. Ms. Davidson mentions, in passing, an “imagined … world of pastoral beauty and virtuous simplicity.”

Artists can play things up, that’s for sure. But if you could airlift Ms. McCarron-Cates and Ms. Davidson out of the cloistered environs of the Upper East Side and plunk them down at the edge of southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon, they’d soon stop bloviating about mediation and imagined worlds.

Nature, as it turns out, can play things up too—big time. To suggest that artists can’t draw honest inspiration from the land isn’t only a cheat on art; it’s a cheat on experience. Tourism and the American Landscape contains a kernel of truth—particularly as it concerns national identity. But, ultimately, it’s little more than a handsomely mounted exercise in cynicism.

Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape is at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, until Oct. 22. Art and Commerce Collude:  Together, They Rape the Land