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A Tiny Bit of Artful Government

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By George F. Will
Thursday, December 25, 2008

In Winslow Homer's 1865 painting "The Veteran in a New Field," a farmer, bathed in sunshine, his back to the viewer, his Union uniform jacket cast on the ground, harvests wheat with a single-bladed scythe. That tool was out of date, and Homer first depicted the farmer wielding a more modern implement. Homer then painted over it, replacing it with what evokes a timeless symbol of death -- the grim reaper's scythe. The painting reminds viewers how much Civil War blood was shed, as at Gettysburg, in wheat fields.

Homer's painting is one of 40 works of art that the National Endowment for the Humanities is distributing, in 24-by-36-inch reproductions, with teaching guides, to all primary and secondary schools and libraries that ask for them. About one-third have done so, according to Bruce Cole, the NEH's chairman.

So as Washington's dreariest year in decades sags to an end -- a year in which trillion-dollar improvisations that will debase the dollar have been bracketed by a stimulus that did not stimulate and a rescue that will prolong automakers' drownings -- at the end of this feast of folly, consider something rarer than rubies. It is a 2008 government program that costs next to nothing -- $2.6 million this year; a rounding error in the smallest of the bailouts. And "Picturing America" adds to the public stock of something scarce -- understanding of the nation's past and present.

The 40 works of art include some almost universally familiar ones -- John Singleton Copley's 1768 portrait of a silversmith named Paul Revere; Emanuel Leutze's 1851 "Washington Crossing the Delaware"; Augustus Saint-Gaudens's bronze relief sculpture "Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth Regiment Memorial" on Boston Common. But "Picturing America" is not, Cole takes pains to insist, "the government's 'top 40.' " Forty times 40 other selections of art and architecture could just as effectively illustrate how visual works are revealing records of the nation's history and culture, and how visual stimulation can spark the synthesizing of information by students.

The colorful impressionism of Childe Hassam's flag-filled painting "Allies Day, May 1917" captures America's waxing nationalism a month after entry into World War I. And it makes all the more moving the waning of hope captured in Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph "Migrant Mother." This haunting image of a destitute 32-year-old pea picker, a mother of seven, is a springboard into John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath."

One of the images in "Picturing America" is more timely than Cole could have suspected when the project was launched in February. It is a photograph of Manhattan's Chrysler Building.

Built between 1926 and 1930 -- between the giddy ascent of the '20s stock market and the crash -- this art deco monument to the might of America's automobile industry is decorated with motifs of machines and streamlining. There are winged forms of a Chrysler radiator cap; an ornamental frieze replicates a band of hubcaps. The stainless steel of the famous spire suggests the signature of the automobile industry in its salad days -- chrome.

To understand the animal spirits that drove New York's skyscraper competition -- the Chrysler Building was the world's tallest for less than a year, until the Empire State Building was completed -- is to understand an era. Two eras, actually -- the one that built the building, and ours, which has reasons to be reminded of the evanescence of seemingly solid supremacies.

After seven years of service, Cole, the longest-serving chairman in the 43-year history of the NEH, is leaving to head the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge. America has thousands of museums, including the Studebaker National Museum (South Bend, Ind.), the Packard Museum (Dayton, Ohio) -- yes, Virginia, there was a time when automobile companies were allowed to perish -- the Hammer Museum (Haines, Alaska), the Mustard Museum (Mount Horeb, Wis.) and the Spam Museum (Austin, Minn.) featuring the sort-of-meat, not the Internet annoyance. There is, however, no museum devoted to the most important political event that ever happened, here or anywhere else -- the American Revolution.

Cole says there will be one, at Valley Forge. It will be built mostly by private money, for a tiny fraction of the sum of public money being lavished on corporations. Perhaps a subsequent iteration of "Picturing America" will feature a thought-provoking photograph of the gleaming towers that currently house, among other things, General Motors' headquarters. Looming over Detroit's moonscape desolation, the building is called the Renaissance Center. Really.

georgewill@washpost.com


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