The Branding of America in Public Art: New Books in a Triad of Genres
By Michael KammenMarch 3, 2013
Well Met by Rachel Lee Rubin
World's Fair Gardens by Cathy Jean Maloney
Thomas Nast by Fiona Deans Halloran
All Thomas Nast images courtesy of the University of North Carolina Press
From Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons
San Francisco Fillmore image courtesy of New York University Press
From Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture
FOR MORE THAN A GENERATION now, public art has been quite prominently on display, sometimes warmly welcomed, while at others, gnarly controversial — explosively so at times. Starting in the 1960s, commissions from the General Services Administration of the federal government as well as the National Endowment for the Arts have provided works that are often gorgeous, occasionally grotesque, but sometimes just blah. Alexander Calder’s great city stabile in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1969), comes promptly to mind as a huge success, as does Richard Serra’s reviled Tilted Arc in New York City (1981), placed on public trial and eventually disassembled. (For particulars, see my Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture .)
Art stews are hardly new, however, and neither is public art. Graphic political cartoons in this country date from the 18th century, but they flourished in fresh ways during the later 19th. Public parks predate that era, but public gardens created as a colorful feature for world’s fairs, hosted by American cities, delighted and evolved between 1876 and 1940. As we shall see, while they too could generate controversy, what’s most notable about them may well be the ways they became increasingly commercialized even as they were institutionalized by corporate branding.
Similarly, Renaissance faires, which had their genesis in the Los Angeles area in 1963 and endure nationwide to this day, have also undergone commercialization as they too have been purchased, expanded, and sanitized. In a peculiar twist, they haven’t lost their innocence; rather, as they developed they became more regulated and lost their initial lustiness, prompting nostalgia for the unchaste early days when Eros, Bacchus, and dope reigned, especially after hours. Things just haven’t been the same since the good old knights and nights were tamed. Knights, for example, with chain mail condoms. Ouch!
“A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound.”
— Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)
“A politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man.”
— E. E. Cummings, One Times One (1944)
Although Thomas Nast did not originate the donkey as an emblem for the Democratic Party, as some have assumed (it actually appeared in the Jacksonian era), he does deserve credit for the Republican elephant and much, much more, for many wildly popular, sentimental versions of Santa Claus and irreverent depictions of New York’s William Marcy Tweed in the early 1870s. Perhaps because Nast himself had a considerable gut, he liked to portray other figures grosser than himself, like Santa and the “Boss.” (See “Two Great Questions,” Harper’s Weekly (1871), p. 135 in Nast.) As Fiona Deans Halloran asserts in her bright book, Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons, Nast’s contribution to American political cartooning is unequaled (with the possible exception of Herblock after World War II). “Today, Nast’s position as the father of American political cartooning goes unchallenged.” His work is widely available in monographs and compilations, as well as on the Internet. “However, the complexity that characterized Nast’s life, work, and ideas has been diminished with time.”
Above: Thomas Nast, "The Sacred Elephant"
Harper's Weekly, March 8, 1884
Below: Thomas Nast, "Two Great Questions"
Harper's Weekly, August 19, 1871
His powerful art reached a mass audience, influenced presidential elections, and revealed the social realities and political crudities of Gilded Age America. He was a fierce critic of slavery and of the vile treatment of freed blacks following the Civil War. He fought to maintain his editorial freedom and to have political art taken seriously. As Halloran puts it very well, “Cartoons straddle the problematic boundary between the elite and the street. Consumed by the rich and the poor, the educated and illiterate, the male and female, cartoons were a form of popular political expression that illuminated the interactions between classes, genders, races, and immigrant groups.
Thomas Nast lived the American dream until it dimmed and ultimately became a nightmare as his popularity waned in the later 1880s and then his investments went sour, just like those of his two fine friends, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain. The Gilded Age was not a time to gamble on the trust of please-invest-in-my-schemers. Prudence was not then in the air. Conning was, and Nast a naïf.
Coming as a child from Bavaria, young Tom turned into a gifted sketcher who started at Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as a mid-teen, internalized the liberal ideals of the 1848 revolutions, was sent to Europe to cover Garibaldi’s early attempt at Italian unification in 1859–60, returned brimming with ambition and a potent work ethic, covered the Civil War at home, was noticed (indeed, closely observed) by the noted biographer James Parton and his prolific wife, Fanny Fern, and came of age in 1864 (aet. 24) with “Compromise in the South,” a drawing rather than a cartoon, in which a Union soldier, head bowed, reluctantly shakes hands with the Confederacy over the grave of Union men who had fallen for a capricious cause. That piece urged a strong vote against Democrats who supported peace through conciliation with the Confederates. By 1865 this energetic young man, along with Winslow Homer, had become the best-known artist at Harper’s Weekly. His radicalism appeared clearly with his embrace of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and his subsequent support for black civil rights.
Because Nast lacked much formal education and left so few letters and no journals, Halloran meets the challenge in masterful ways and pieces together the major influences on her subject, such as William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, and James Gillray, but especially John Tenniel, the man who illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, as well as making cartoons and drawings for Punch, a British magazine devoted to political as well as social commentary.
Nast used his wicked wit to ridicule the religious pretensions of sanctimonious businessmen, papal infallibility, the Ku Klux Klan, unreconstructed southerners, violence against the Chinese, and, most famously, a campaign against the corruptions of Tammany Hall, embodied literally as well as figuratively by Boss Tweed and his ring. Doing so made Nast a national celebrity. At the peak of his intense productivity in 1871–72 he produced a drawing a day. A retaliatory attack by Irish People, a Democratic organ, was reprinted in The New York Times — such was Nast’s notoriety:
Let Harpers grunt and groan away,
Until they crack their pygmy throttles;
Nast must care his thirsty throat,
’Tis that keeps him in empty bottles.
The Times, Harper’s, and Nast ploughed full speed ahead and carried the day.
In 1871 and 1872 Nast received compensation on a per-cartoon basis. By the end of the second year, more than 140 cartoons appeared per annum, including 32 on covers. Samuel Clemens wrote that the “pictures were simply marvelous.” Nast earned $18,000 in 1872, including the $1,200 he received in royalties from Nast’s Almanac, published by Harper and Brothers — a truly remarkable sum for the 32-year-old. In 1873 he moved with his family from Harlem to historic Morristown, New Jersey, where they lived elegantly in Villa Fontana. He was soon lured into going on the lyceum circuit for a seven-month stint. He talked and drew characters on a chalkboard, a great success despite his shyness, which I could not have predicted given the boldness of his cartoons. He felt assertive in his studio, but much less so in public.
Secure in his work, family, and popularity, he could comment on any topic he liked. In 1874, for example, he criticized the US reduction in defense spending in a wry cartoon titled, “Our Living Skeleton Standing Army.” By then, however, tensions had begun to mount between Nast and George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, a man who shared most of Nast’s political views yet was cut from entirely different cloth in terms of class, education, and gentility. He lived on Staten Island and bridled at Nast’s independence of Curtis’ editorial line and style. Nast’s pencil shaped broad and fine lines, but he craved greater editorial autonomy.
Thomas Nast, "Our Living Skeleton Standing Army"
Harper's Weekly, June 27, 1874
Curtis became increasingly concerned about the coarseness of some cartoons, about Nast’s attacks on certain public figures (such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner), and his insufficient interest in civil service reform. By the end of 1877 ongoing conflict between the two men erupted as a public clash, eventually undermining Nast’s relationship with the magazine and the Harper family. When Fletcher Harper died and his two sons took charge, Nast lost his leverage in the battle with Curtis. The two strong-willed men butted heads from 1877 until 1886.
Halloran’s chapter 10, “Conflict with Curtis,” is unexpectedly one of her most intriguing. As she observes, “Nast withdrew more and more to his home in Morristown, and his attempts to secure a contract with another magazine or to collaborate with publishers and authors were frustrated by a mystifying series of rejections.” Thereafter he became increasingly bitter about his inability to maintain or recapture the creativity and acclaim he had experienced during his glory years at Harper’s. He created Nast’s Weekly, which failed, and eventually, in 1895, three years after Curtis died, resumed work for Harper’s, but the magic was gone.
Halloran sets some delicious scenes. Following the bitter presidential campaign of 1884, when many disillusioned Republicans turned away from the tarnished nominee James G. Blaine in favor of Grover Cleveland, a Democrat bearing public rectitude but private turpitude, the exhausted Nast took comfort from friendships. Mark Twain came through Morristown on tour with George Washington Cable, and the Nast family fed them fresh oysters. Twain enjoyed them so much that Nast offered seconds. “Don’t care [mind] if I do,” the humorist replied. “Thirds?” “Come to think of it, I believe I will,” said Twain. Eventually, after five rounds, Twain conceded that he could eat no more. “Look here, Nast,” he declaimed, “I didn’t know you had an oyster ranch in your cellar.” You can just picture the scene; perhaps almost taste it too.
At his best, Nast produced almost 200 drawings a year, meaning that he drew an average of four a week, some of them very detailed. Doing so required that he read the news, consider and discuss it, and then conceive the art. “Once the idea struck, Nast had to sketch, refine, clarify, and perfect.” It eventually caused considerable pain in his drawing arm. He turned to oil painting in 1893–94. Seven years later Theodore Roosevelt offered him the position of US consul in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast accepted and died of yellow fever there in 1901 — worn out at the age of 61.
This life of intensity, celebrity, and whimsy reflected a willful man with a stick-out Van Dyck who stirs so vividly in the mind, rather like a full-bodied phantom. Nast himself was puzzled by his own creative impetus. “Genius and ideality and inspiration are gifts,” he declared, “and cannot be created.” If an idea came to him in the middle of the night or while traveling, he learned that he could not rely on memory to preserve it. “When an idea comes,” he wrote, “it needs to be secured at once as it is fleeting.”
According to Albert Bigelow Paine, Nast’s acolyte and initial biographer in 1904, “many corners of envelopes, margins of newspapers, cuffs, etc.” provided bits of space for Nast to secure his inspirations when they bubbled up. Halloran has made the best of these in a fine book that almost never nods, as on page 127 when she shows an especially complex political cartoon (involving immigration, liquor, and voting fraud) from 1870 titled “The Greek Slave,” obviously inspired by Hiram Powers’s startling marble nude that toured the country two decades earlier and caused a sensation. That connection in the history of American public art might have been explained, even elaborated. Readers interested in Nast and Gilded Age politics should also consult a book that is underutilized by Halloran: The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast, by Morton Keller (1968). It contains many oversize drawings and cartoons not found in the new book.
Thomas Nast, "Our Artist's Occupation Gone"
Harper's Weekly, November 23, 1872
For I dipp’d into the future, far as human eye could see.
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales.
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue […]
Till the war drum throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furled
In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.
— Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall (1842)
In November 1878, Nast, disillusioned and depressed by the beginning of his decline, turned down invitations to lecture and took his wife and children (he was a devoted family man) to Paris to enjoy the Exposition Universelle, the third world’s fair in France, a follow-up to several others starting with London’s Crystal Palace Expo in 1851 and leading to the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, the first American fair of any consequence.
World’s Fair Gardens by Cathy Jean Maloney is a fresh, fruitful, and well-informed survey of the major US fairs, starting with the great Exhibition held at Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate a century of progress. Nine carefully organized chapters are bookended by Maloney’s thoughtful introduction and epilogue. Her grounds for choosing certain fairs and not others are clearly stated at the outset. Treatment is based upon five criteria: significant international representation; a substantial horticultural component; representation of a “popular era” (a bit misleading because 1893 and the 1930s were times of deep economic depression — very distressing years, yet they encompass three major fairs); planning by a prominent landscape designer; and the existence of some remnant of the fairgrounds today.
The Philadelphia fair, designed to commemorate a century of American independence, has already been written about at great length, especially in terms of new inventions, grand machinery, and colonial kitchens, but not about in terms of its carpet bedding of flowers or widely praised horticultural hall. It’s interesting and significant that native plants were not featured in 1876, though that would change over time and serve as a theme that Maloney, senior editor at Chicagoland Gardening magazine and author of three monographs in garden history, might have done more to highlight. By 1904 native plants would be featured as never before at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. More explicit attention might also have been paid to patterns of change over time.
An 1876 issue of the Philadelphia-based Gardener’s Monthly posed a question for its readers: “Who shall lay out our ornamental grounds?” One subscriber responded that some practitioners “were actually ashamed of the term gardener. They had themselves printed [cards] and called [themselves] landscape architects, landscape engineers, rural architects, artists in grounds, etc., etc.; anything but landscape gardeners.” Another reader wrote that “we want no more of jobbing gardeners, who work physically, and claim to be landscapists; nor do we want engineers, who perhaps are capable of running a straight line, but know no more of a graceful curve than the mule Nebuchadnezzar.” Inchoate American professions were in the process of being defined.
It should be noted that Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, from which the Centennial Exhibition was carved, spanned 2,700 acres (fourth largest park in the world), and was by chance the very same size as the second home of the Southern California Renaissance Faire in 1965, its first permanent venue (more on that coincidence anon). The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, held at New Orleans in 1884–85, also sat within 2,700 acres.
Yet another pattern: railroad companies were crucial sponsors for each growing region. Corporate sponsorship of various fair halls and exhibitions became steadily more prominent, and in some respects, problematic. We also find concessionaire kiosks in 1876. Watch for an exponentially growing trend. It’s not that visitors are quite so anxious to eat and buy as vendors are eager to capitalize on their presence.
At New Orleans in 1884–85 we find a surging increase in the presence of Mexican plants, and the so-called Mexican pagoda appeared as fanciful as it was colorful. The prominence of rhododendrons in Philadelphia gave way to great displays of cacti in New Orleans. A splendid allée of live oaks thrilled visitors, and the American Horticultural Society got its name on that occasion. The fairgrounds became Audubon Park in 1886, a very fine legacy.
The World Columbian Exhibition of 1893 (sometimes called the Great American Fair) has also received monographic coverage (not to mention Erik Larson’s, The Devil in the White City, now in its sixth year on the paperback bestseller list), but none with Maloney’s orientation. Frederick Law Olmsted emphasized the overall landscape far more than gardens per se, which became subordinate. He resisted any appeal for the riotous colors of massed flowers.
One symptomatic conflict in the planning stage occurred because the goals and membership of the horticulture department differed from those of the buildings and grounds committee. The sheer scale of displays must have been mind-boggling to set up as well as witness, such as a California citrus pyramid made of 31,150 oranges. Gigantism predictably became a growing feature of American fairs. As the author observes, the Columbian show “influenced future fairs through its harmonious combination of architecture and landscape, and left a permanent legacy in the park planning for Chicago and the nation.”
The Pan-American Exposition held at Buffalo in 1901, however, was notable for its neon rainbow of colorful flowers. It also provided the occasion for the first attempt at artistic artificial lighting of the landscape. Plants were illuminated at night so that henceforth “landscape lighting would become a key element of future fairs, most notably the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933.” The Horticulture Building in 1901 was designed as an almost absurd massif of architectural eclecticism. As its supervisor predicted, “Our building, I believe, will be the most cosmopolitan of any upon the grounds, because it will portray in an horticultural way, the accomplishments of all our states and of the Pan-American countries, and spread them out like a panorama.” Cosmopolitan indeed. After Italianate-Orientalism in architecture, the meaning of excess required redefinition.
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition held at St. Louis in 1904 was the largest in terms of acreage and especially notable because many of the gardens were facsimiles of private foreign ones. There were many more foreign participants than previously and their impact became very visible. Japanese gardens were especially in vogue and would continue to be right through 1940 in New York City, where the Japanese Pavilion and gardens became the only foreign structure retained in the post-fair park. On September 18, 1940, the Japanese Commissioner wrote to Robert Moses that keeping the pavilion and its garden “is greatly appreciated by the Japanese […] They will be a monument truly indicative of the friendship between the United States and Japan.” Maloney allows this quirky irony among gestating enemies to lie rather flat. Well, understatement can be cool, I suppose.
By 1904 the commercialized aspect of the St. Louis fair became increasingly explicit. A report from the horticulture department explains the desired design philosophy as one of compromise.
When exhibits are placed, three elements always come into play: the exhibitor, the exposition, and the visitor. An exhibitor has a right to expect his material to be so placed as to meet the eyes of a reasonable number of visitors, among whom it is expected will be purchasers. Management desires that, with the least possible expense, landscaping results harmonize with the structures erected to receive the exhibits of merchandise.
Missouri had the largest pomological exhibit at that fair, put up in precise pyramids. Fair lore has it that the phrase “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was coined by a Missouri horticulturist at an exposition lecture. Special emphasis on the importance of displaying native plants prevailed in 1904 and would be enhanced at the Jamestown Tercentenary Exposition in 1907, actually held at Hampton Roads in Norfolk. It became a fine example of urban planning by Bostonian Warren H. Manning, cofounder in 1897 of the American Park and Outdoor Art Association. Real estate speculation had been a catalyst for each of the fairs, and this one was no exception. Moreover, paid admissions as well as the amusement and concession areas were deemed predictable moneymakers.
Nurserymen felt very disappointed because the Jamestown fair had no horticultural building. Plantings were intended to be highly naturalistic in accord with design theories that emerged from the new City Beautiful movement. Children’s gardens had just recently become popular, and Manning gave that aspect his personal attention and considerable publicity. Even so, this would be the most militaristic among American fairs. The amusement and concession areas, dubbed “The War Path” at President Roosevelt’s suggestion, was surrounded by military encampments, and Norfolk soon became the largest American naval base following a strong maritime emphasis at this fair.
The United States’ emergence as a world power coincided with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, held at San Francisco in conjunction with completion of the Panama Canal. That fair featured small-scale gardens and many diverse architectural styles. Under the guidance of John McLaren, who had a major hand in three fairs between 1894 and 1940, the spectacular ice plant was used ingeniously as high hedging to provide discrete boundaries.
The Court of the Universe marked the fair’s epicenter and symbolically represented a meeting of the Eastern and Western hemispheres with wondrous eclecticism. In the octagonal Court of Four Seasons, plantings were subdued in contrast to the exuberant colors of the Court of Ages. Most important from my perspective is Maloney’s acknowledgment that because many of the officers of the Exposition Company were “high-profile industrialists, a business focus predominated.”
Moreover, she later observes that “the evolution of U.S. horticulture during an era of increasing industrialization was evident in the displays of horticultural commerce. Instead of mounting the typical ‘five on a plate’ displays of perfect apple specimens, exhibitors were now encouraged to demonstrate how produce moved from field to factory. This world’s fair marked the transition from dependence on small truck-farming outfits to large corporate operations.” There were, however, features on a more human scale. Luther Burbank, for example, held office hours at the fair! The “Plant Wizard” from Santa Rosa had just published Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application in 12 volumes (1914–15). Savvy timing.
Despite the Great Depression, Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition ran for two years, spring to fall each in 1933 and 1934. (You really wouldn’t want to hold an expo during a Chicago winter, though midsummer can be almost as bad — and indeed it was.) Because of the intervening winter, as Maloney puts it, “this was a test of plants and planners alike.”
Thomas Moran, "Chicago World's Fair," 1894
With women agitating for the right to vote on the eve of World War I, a flowering of national horticultural organizations occurred with mostly female membership, among them the Garden Club of America (1913), the Wildflower Preservation Society (1915), and the National Garden Club (1929). These groups became deeply involved in civic beautification, hosting flower shows and garden walks.
Although commercial nurseries began losing interest in fairs, women’s influence in citywide flower shows helped bring about the Century of Progress expo. In 1932, however, its Horticulture Committee was forced to resign because charges of commercialism were raised. Maloney tells the tale.
The Horticulture Committee contended that the Florists’ Concession was a repeat of all previous fairs, would offer nothing new to attract audiences, and, according to the committee’s report, was “a speculative commercial enterprise, subject to all the risks of such ventures regardless of individual integrity. Its primary interest is to make money for itself.”
The chair of the Horticulture Committee then asked that it be disbanded — perhaps this is called self-aborting — and the Executive Committee of the Century of Progress accepted its resignation. It’s not entirely clear, but I think that afterwards business as usual proceeded during the fall of 1932. That fair brought the proliferation of corporate gardens replete with brand logos, such as Sinclair Oil and automotive gardens missionized by General Motors.
Foreign exhibits also blossomed in 1933–34, and particularly intriguing was the International Friendship Garden. Leaders from foreign lands were polled about their favorite flowers, which were then planted “in an eclectic display of international harmony.” Adolf Hitler chose Edelweiss; Mussolini neutrally declared himself a “lover of all flowers”; Sigmund Freud (a head of state?) liked gardenias; and Eleanor Roosevelt, the brand-new First Lady, preferred pansies and roses. What a ballot! Ni fleurs ni couronnes.
The final chapter takes us to the Fair of the Future in 1939–40, assembled by the New York World’s Fair Corporation, situated on 1,200 acres of wasteland in Corona Queens, making it the largest fair since St. Louis in 1904. It aspired to be remembered for its high-tech designs and swishy spiral motifs in flowers and other designs. But the gentle reader should not be the least bit surprised to learn that corporate buildings went bonkers with promotional advertising: the edifice for the Radio Corporation of America was shaped like a radio tube; National Cash Register’s building was topped by a 40-foot-high cash register to ring up the fair’s daily attendance in blazing numbers; the Wonder Bread building was adorned with its trademark bubbles of red, blue, and yellow, and so forth. Architectural critic Frederick Gutheim had this to say in the May 1939 issue of the Magazine of Art: “If a style is born [there] it is the Corporation Style — a bastard dialect of larceny and advertising.”
The largest landscape lesson that looks to have emerged is that Disneyfied Modern meant a mode of bland homogeneity. Yet Maloney seems to have concluded that landscape architecture in the United States had come of age, withal. Perhaps, but I wouldn’t have said so at the close of this fair. I wouldn’t have called it the fare of the future. I’d rather go hungry. And, as you may recall, the Japanese Pavilion was the only one that remained after the fair closed. Pearl Harbor and tragic conflict came and went. If that’s really weird, the author doesn’t nail it.
World’s Fair Gardens is thorough, clear, wonderfully designed, and meticulously edited. If there is a typo or a glitch, I never noticed. I don’t know what it means to “heel” a shrub, but I’m sure that that’s my problem. The author owns a fabulous collection of postcard images from the fairs, and this project is obviously a labor of love. A strong impression lingers that the organizers made much out of terrible wastelands and waterways, but the fairs had to be situated on land (often muck as well) that no one else wanted, and for good reason. Talk about converting dross into, well, maybe brass, even silver, and mayhap gold. Tougher to do than a sow’s ear into a silk purse, or simply into eucalyptus, azaleas, and dahlias by the gazillions. Engineers worked miracles under tough time constraints.
Maloney concludes her chapters with lucid assessments of legacies and “lessons” from each fair. At the end of the text there is a useful biographical glossary of key names, such as American landscape architects, engineers, pomologists, and brave gardeners unafraid to speak their vocational name. I don’t believe the author consulted Philip J. Pauly’s Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America (2007), especially chapter 6, “Mixed Borders: A Political History of Plant Quarantine” — a brilliant book that’s quite relevant because so many species were imported, especially for the first six of the nine fairs narrated.
Yet the central themes of the book remain understated, implicit rather than fleshed out and editorialized — primarily concerning the commercialization that became essential to underwrite or to make all these fairs and flowers bloom. The significant role of real estate speculation is minimized, and secondarily, the nature of American nationalism, regionalism, and state pride. That remains a latent leitmotif and much less obvious than all the floral branding.
“Where wealth and freedom reign contentment fails,
And honor sinks where commerce long prevails.”
— Oliver Goldsmith, The Traveller (1764)
Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture should especially intrigue LARB readers because the history of Renaissance faires in the United States started in North Hollywood in 1963. It moved to the 2,700 acre Paramount Ranch in Agoura (between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley) in 1965, and these faires stretch to the present moment and perhaps beyond, world without end. This book required an extensive amount of travel and interviewing, which Rachel Lee Rubin (professor of American studies at UMass, Boston) has done diligently, candidly, and clearly. She has talked in extenso with organizers, performers, street people, those who love attending the faires, and others (vexed neighbors living too close and social conservatives) with quite critical views. This is a solid and perceptive piece of work that meets the standards of the new subdiscipline called critical oral history, pioneered by professors James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang for the uses of oral testimony in the field of US foreign relations.
Rubin persuasively schematizes faire history in three phases. First, the grassroots origins in Laurel Canyon characterized by countercultural “happenings” when dressing up in oddball do-it-yourself costumes predominated as a statement of dissent from the American mainstream. Opposition to the US role in Vietnam would accelerate enthusiasm for the faire as a place of protest. Siting these performative activities (music, busking, jousting, pageants) in historical garb and contexts gave hippiedom a kind of respectability. Folks could be far out with a focus. Looking Elizabethan and whimsical became an alternative lifestyle — great fun, creative anachronism, and whimsy to the max.
After a decade, certainly by the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, a quest for authenticity in premodern attire, accoutrements, and vendor offerings began to institutionalize the faires, but in positive ways. They spread rapidly from California (a second big one emerged in San Francisco in 1967, as the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire) to Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, and Georgia. The goal in phase two was to achieve living history productions where the food became a draw, especially giant turkey legs, tasty tarts, meat pies, fresh bread, sweetmeats, cheese, and ale. The phenomenon took off, complete with parodies of Shakespeare, mimes, magicians (Penn and Teller, Puke and Snot), medieval rock, folk rock, and more.
Phase three came all too soon, and by the 1990s corporations had bought out individual owners, elements of Disneyfication took hold, and by 2007 a pornographic faire was shot for TV. Open displays of sexuality had always been a prominent feature of the faire. It was an especially appealing venue for gays and lesbians. There were certain locations at the faire for adults only and other acts that warned children away, and in 1975 a porn film was made at the Los Angeles faire that has since disappeared. They got it on early.
By the turn of this century some of the original faire-goers and performers had become disillusioned by the intense commercialism and looked askance, yet many others (known as Rennies) remained loyal, and overall attendance as well as new venues grew. By 2000 the Ren faire was a pervasive and integrated yet politicized and consumerized aspect of American culture.
Considering that the extensive faire-grounds are a form of fictionalized space with castles, jousting tournaments, buskers, and bosomy vendors, it’s surely no surprise that it has spawned fiction, children’s books, and card and activity games. All’s faire in love and business, and there was much of both on the grounds: the love part especially in the evenings, and the sex part more fully realized after hours and on closing day. The corporate part now extends far beyond its genesis in California.
For better and for worse, the faire too has been branded, like a grazing cow that just keeps on giving. The rowdiness of the early faires flouted respectability, as did the desire to be “defiantly frivolous.” There is less of that now, but the fun goes on. The phenomenon is no longer quite anything-goes, but many early features remain. Such as the early experimentation with commedia dell’arte and harlequins playing the fool. Nude performance is now rare (actors got arrested), but the interactivity of confrontation theater and “environmental theater” remains essential, front and center. The lexicon of “castle talk” has been learned by many regular visitors (called “play-trons”) and the role of street characters has been elevated to a high art. For example: a priest at the Maryland Renaissance Festival called Sinius Lascivious Vice. The eighth deadly vice is ascribed to him: sluttony. He wears a button on his shirt that says, “Go and sin some more.” Bawdiness is a virtue at the faire. One faire goer presented a performer in his favorite act, the Sturdy Beggars Mud Show, with a condom fashioned from chain mail. (Compare with Enacting History, edited by Scott Magelssen and Rhona Justice-Malloy , with chapters devoted to reenactments at various American sites and one about the Maryland Renaissance Festival.)
One of the buskers, Rush Pearson, has explained quite well how his role differs from that of an actor in a play:
I don’t define myself as an actor but as a performer. For an actor, when push comes to shove, the material comes first. For a performer, when push comes to shove, the audience comes first. In a perfect world, of course, it’s both. But actors rely upon their material, and try to bring it alive. Performers, they try to connect with the audience and through them bring their material alive.
Members of the audience, by the way, particularly ones who don’t come in costume, are called “mundanes.”
The spread of Renaissance faires during the 1970s coincided with the revival of artisanal crafts in the United States and helped give that movement a considerable boost, not to mention the need for leather craftsmen and woodworkers, glass blowers and studio glass, ceramics, weaving, and other skill-sets. By the eighth annual faire in Southern California there emerged a coordinator of crafts instruction who marketed the faire as a chance for visitors to “dabble in ancient arts and crafts” themselves. Ann Curtis is a ceramicist who makes plaster casts for patrons, ranging from babies’ bottoms and children’s faces to lovers’ clasped hands and full torsos. She speaks about the faire’s development from countercultural carnival to big business in terms of its meaning for artisans’ livelihoods: “It used to be a place where, if you were a poor starving artist, you’d make some money. Now , in order to even do the shows, you’ve already got to be a successful artist.”
Once upon a time the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Southern California was considered “summer camp for hippies.” They lived “off the grid.” “Rennies” regarded faires as a “place of safety.” Within one generation some became chains owned by corporations. The largest faire of all, started in Texas in 1974, is owned by the businessman George Coulam. But more than buyouts were involved. During the later 1960s and 1970s the faires were attacked, especially in California, by John Birchite conservatives who chose to “hate on” the faire makers as communists, bohemians, nudists, free lovers, and weirdos who engaged in “faire-speak.” The “dandy aesthetic” in clothing, especially tights for men, evoked homophobia. Combined with bra-lessness for women, the whole thing smelled of “immoral aspects.” The super-mundanes couldn’t cope with it. Worse still, they just couldn’t tolerate it. Antipathies blew like puffed-up zephyrs.
As a consequence, because of police surveillance, organizers were forced to become more cautious and tone down their libertarian license. As Rubin observes, in the reckoning of many of the faire’s “first generation of participants, the history of the faire is best told as [a] declension narrative: a utopian outpouring of countercultural creativity at its inception, conceived of as support for an important progressive institution, gradually overtaken by commercialism, rigidity, and corniness.”
Although the faires are still appealing in the 21st century, they have changed in ways that evoke nostalgia for old-timers, who are sadly dying off. At the flamboyantly garbed funeral for one of the cofounders who died in 2011, a gala that lasted for hours, hundreds of people of all ages rose to swear a lengthy “Bohemian Oath,” the words as much a statement of purpose as one of thanks. It began: “I solemnly (but not too solemnly) swear — 1. To walk through the world as if it were a music hall show and I, the chairman.” Ten more avowals followed, and then concluded, “lastly, to thoroughly commit myself to living in a perpetual state of wonder and delight, savoring my life to the fullest and to the best of my powers spread joy and magic wherever I go.”
By the turn of the century there were more than 200 faires scattered through almost every state. Legacies abound. The Los Angeles Free Press began as the Faire Free Press in 1964, the first such underground press in the United States (“The Freep”). The faires prompted the genesis of stylized psychedelic posters — the kind of swirly, LSD-insinuated lettering we associate with notices for concerts by the Grateful Dead and their album sleeves.
San Francisco Fillmore Concert Notice
Musical memories abound as well, such as lost legends like Bob Thomas and the Golden Toad, a sister band to the Dead. Members of the Toad feel that their apotheosis took place in 1970 at Grace Cathedral, an imposing Episcopalian church at the top of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. The church’s bishop was persuaded to let the Toad play a summer solstice concert there — the only condition being that no one was allowed to pee on the altar. Seventeen members performed on bagpipes, lute, oboe, bass drum, pipe, tabor, sarod, and tamboura. They did folk dances from Macedonia, Yugoslavia, Spain, and more. Thomas and Toad also performed as Acid Symphony at the Los Angeles Faire. Wild and wonderful.
Rubin has written a thorough, creative, thoughtful, and engaging book that is marred by careless proofreading and a needlessly intrusive way of citing her sources. Words are omitted here and there. The editorial offices at NYU Press deserve a serious scolding. The illustrations, however, are abundant and well chosen. I wish there had been one of the author wearing faire-garb. She has walked the walk and now talked the talk. She has brought the Renaissance Pleasure Faires to life, especially in California, and for the initial, radical years of their existence — an exuberant addition to the American landscape of laughter and nostalgia, public art and performance practice.
First a concluding note about gender. Thomas Nast’s supportive wife Sarah (Sallie) Edwards played an important role in his life from 1859 when they first met until his death in 1901. He also greatly enjoyed the friendship of Fanny Fern and her husband, James Parton, a contemporary partnership of letters.
Second, as we have seen, the importance of garden design at the American world’s fairs gave rise to a great array of garden clubs dominated by women during the first half of the 20th century.
And third, the seminal idea and organizational initiative that gave rise to Renaissance faires early in the 1960s came from Phyllis Patterson, a Nebraska teacher transplanted to the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of the Hollywood Hills. Knowing how to teach history and theater, she took her talents to a local youth center where she used snippets of plays to teach children the history of theater. Aided in major ways by her husband, Ron, what she created morphed into the Los Angeles Ren faire. Bingo! Just like that. In due course the faires became a blend of national pride and critique, all in the name of entertainment.
Frederick Law Olmsted played a seminal role in American landscape architecture in general, and in thinking about the psychology of fairs and fairgrounds in particular. Contemplating the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, he proposed that “more incidents of vital human gaiety [were] wanted”; the “expression of the crowd,” he said, was “too businesslike, common, dull, anxious, and careworn.” It’s not clear whether that was due to the overwhelming scope of the fair or the economic depression settling in that would last four years. But he wanted to improve the mood. He suggested impromptu events that might add a note of gaiety, such as “small parties of singers to come within hearing, as it were accidentally […] parties of merrymaking masqueraders, running in and out. Parties of children singing.”
Beginning in 1963 the Renaissance pleasure faires achieved all of that and more, with buskers, dancers, jongleurs, players, and performers. Spectacular horticulture at the world’s fairs eventually gave way to folk culture, multiculture, musicals, and carnivals. The excess of decorum that Olmsted lamented gave way to exuberance — sometimes in excess, but mainly joyful, except in the eyes of skeptics and prudes who couldn’t cope with fantasy and fun. I am reminded of George Santayana’s observation that “skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.” He would have been happier at Daniel H. Burnham’s 1893 fair, whereas most of my contemporaries prefer Patterson’s Renaissance faires.
Where does that leave Thomas Nast? As a political satirist he seems to have pictured no responses to the American fairs of 1876, 1884, and 1893 — at least none that I can find in Halloran and Keller. Yet what did he do in November of 1878 when the election season was over and he felt idle? He took his family over to the Paris Expo. As an American patriot whose pictorial symbol of the nation was Columbia, and as a man of the left (mostly), I think he would have enjoyed the Ren faires. The provocative question is whether he would have invested his disposable income (when he had lots of it in the 1880s) in the large corporations that have commercialized the faires of our time? I don’t know the answer, and neither does Halloran.
One final suggestion comes to mind. Nast’s drawings and cartoons were intensely topical, sometimes quite humorous, often savage, and his messages rarely opaque or obscure. He was an artist who performed for the public in clever ways. Saul Steinberg (1914–99), a Romanian-born lover of Americana who drew and illustrated with great wit and whimsy, is the subject of a new, massive biography by Deirdre Bair (Nan Talese/Doubleday, 2012). For me his art is even more fun than Nast’s, yet more often than not, far more puzzling. People often asked him to explain his meaning, but he rarely obliged. He disliked being called a cartoonist. He considered himself “a writer who draws.” His work from the late 1930s through the 1990s provides endless pleasure because of its subtlety and craft. A dapper ladies’ man whose carnal appetite was boundless, his wildly discordant private life could not have been more different from Nast’s domestic bliss.
Readers seeking a garden of earthly and spatial delights would do well to seek Steinberg’s masterpiece, The Discovery of America (New York: Knopf, 1992), with a brilliant introduction by Arthur C. Danto, the foremost American philosopher of art. This volume is a Romanian rhapsody played in caustic praise to his beloved and adopted nation. Steinberg was a selfish, amoral genius with a marvelous hand and eye. Deirdre Bair takes us candidly through the architecture of his mind. His soul, however, remains utterly impenetrable.
Michael Kammen was the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, where he taught from 1965 until 2008. In 1980-81 he held a newly created visiting professorship in American history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served in 1995-96 as President of the Organization of American Historians. In 2009 he received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction. His books include People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972), awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1973; A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986), awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize; Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991); A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture (2004), Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006), and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010).
He wrote prolifically for the Los Angeles Review of Books before passing away in November 2013. He will be missed.
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