O MY AMERICA, MY NEW FOUNDE LAND
I have lived and worked in the United States of America for a little more than a quarter of a century now, without becoming an American citizen. For reasons that have nothing (and everything) to do with this book, I remain an Australian citizen, and thus have the status of a resident alien, a green-card holder. We resident aliens -- the very term suggests a small Martian colony -- have therefore missed out on one of the core American experiences, that of officially becoming someone else: becoming American, starting over, leaving behind what you once were. Nearly everyone in America bears the marks of this in his or her conscious life, and carries traces of it deep in ancestral lore and recollection. For everyone in America except American Indians, the common condition is being, at one's near or far origins, from somewhere else: England or Ireland or Africa, Germany, Russia, China, Italy, Mexico, or any one of a hundred other places that have contributed to the vast American mix. (And the anthropological evidence suggests that even the American Indians were immigrants too, having made their way across the Bering Strait from eastern Asia some 10,000 to 14,000 years ago -- though this is vehemently disputed by the Indians themselves.)
It is this background which gives a particular cast to the encyclopedic museums of America, of which the greatest is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a place I have visited perhaps thirty times a year for twenty-five years and still not come to the end of. One thinks of its nearest English equivalent, the British Museum, as being (at its origins) a vast repository of imperial plunder, brought from the four corners of the earth to confirm and expand the sense of Englishness. The conventional left-wing view of the Met, in the 1970s, was similar: it was seen as the imperial treasure-house into which the sacred and secular images of other cultures -- European, African, South American, Oceanian, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern -- had been hoovered by the prodigious suction of American capital, to confirm American greatness. There is some truth in this, but not the whole truth. In its seventeen acres of exhibition space, let alone its storage, the Met keeps millions of objects, from New Guinean wooden totems to five-ton black basalt Egyptian sarcophagi, from Mantegna prints to carved human femurs, from an entire Spanish Renaissance courtyard to Yoruba helmet-masks and George Stubbs horses. Anything made with esthetic intentions by anyone, anywhere, at any time, falls within its purview. As a result, it is an extraordinary crystallization of the variety of American origins: there can be few Americans who can't find some example of the art of their ancestors in it. Somewhere inside the American museum there is always a small buried image of the immigrant getting off the boat with his luggage, a bit of the Old World entering the New: boots, a Bible -- or twenty-seven Rembrandts. The fact of immigration lies behind America's intense piety about the past (which coexists, on other levels, with a dreadful and puzzling indifference to its lessons); in America the past becomes totemic, and is always in a difficult relationship to America's central myth of progress and renovation, unless it can be marshaled -- as in the museum -- as proof of progress.
Along with this, because the New World really was new (at least to its European conquerors and settlers), goes a passionate belief in reinvention and in the American power to make things up as you go along. Both are strong urges, and they seem to grow out of a common root: the inextricably twined feelings of freedom and nostalgia which lie at the heart of the immigrant experience and are epitomized in America, to this day, as in no other country. A culture raised on immigration cannot escape feelings of alienness, and must transcend them in two possible ways: by concentration on "identity," origins, and the past, or by faith in newness as a value in itself. No Europeans felt about the Old in quite the same way Americans came to, and none believed as intensely in the New. Both are massively present in the story of American art, a story that begins weakly and derivatively in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and acquires such seemingly irrefutable power by the end of the twentieth. In this way, the visual culture of America, oscillating between dependence and invention, tells a part of the American story; it is a lens through which one can see in part some (not all) of the answers to Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's well-known question, posed in the eighteenth century: "What, then, is the American, this new man?"
Until quite recently, most Americans believed that the colonial culture of North America began when the Pilgrim Fathers landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, in 1620. Others know that there was an earlier settlement attempted in 1607 at Jamestown, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay -- the so-called Virginia Colony. But the emphasis on these events stems from an English Protestant prejudice. As Walt Whitman wrote in 1883, "Impress'd by New England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion'd from the British Islands only . . . which is a very great mistake."
The Spanish were in North America long before the English, and the United States of America was a multiethnic society right from the start. (At the zenith of its American influence, the Spanish Empire claimed or actually governed about half the total area of what is now the United States.) Christopher Columbus never saw the American mainland, but it is possible that the coast of southern Florida was glimpsed by Spanish mariners as early as 1499, and the first recorded arrival there was made in 1513 by Juan Ponce de León (who had led the conquest of Puerto Rico five years earlier). Like all other Spaniards who followed the track of Columbus into the Caribbean and later to Mexico, he was looking for slaves and gold, not (as legend persistently has it) the mythical Fountain of Youth. The wooden forts and settlements that sixteenth-century Spanish colonists left all over Florida and Louisiana have long since vanished, and the names they gave to places have often been Anglicized -- Key West, for instance, was once Cayo Hueso, "Bone Key." The oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States is not in Massachusetts but in Florida: St. Augustine, where the frowning, symmetrically planned stone walls of the Castillo de San Marcos were erected by Spaniards in 1565.
The Spanish did not bring artists with them on these military entradas.
As far as is known, the earliest surviving painting done by a European artist in North America is a watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne, a cartographer from Dieppe who went with an expedition of French Huguenots (Protestant followers of John Calvin) in 1564 to form a settlement about forty miles to the north of St. Augustine. Done in a delectably stylized manner that reminds one of a Mannerist court masque, it shows René de Laudonnière, the leader of the expedition, being welcomed to Florida by a group of lily-white Indians and their lord, Chief Athore; a votive plinth bearing the three heraldic lilies of France is surrounded by the products of native husbandry: gourds, fruit, and the all-important but (to a Frenchman) completely novel Indian corn. The settlement hardly lasted a year; in 1565 the Spaniards from St. Augustine attacked this tiny outpost of Protestant heresy in the New World and slaughtered nearly all its colonists, though Le Moyne himself narrowly escaped with his life and his watercolors; these, along with the more anthropologically accurate watercolors made by John White in Virginia c. 1587-88, became the basis of the Frankfurt publisher Theodore de Bry's numerous and equally fanciful engravings in his ten-part America,
1591-95. De Bry, a Protestant, had a vested interest in portraying the Spaniards in America as monsters of cruelty -- although, knowing that readers liked to have their blood curdled, he also harped on the supposed cannibalistic habits of Indians. Consequently his engravings of conquistadorial frightfulness did much to implant la leyenda negra,
the "Black Legend" of Spanish atrocities in the New World.
Long before de Bry's work was published, the Spaniards had created a frontier in the southern part of North America. They did so by pushing west from Florida and north from Mexico, which had been subjugated by Hernán Cortés in 1521. The extraordinary moment when the two linked up came in 1536, when a party of Spaniards hunting for Indians to enslave in the north of Mexico saw a strange foursome stumbling toward them, a black man and three whites, clad in ragged garments, with six hundred Indians following behind. The black was an African slave called Esteban and the leading white was an Andalusian named Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, survivor of a disastrous entrada into Florida whose members were routed by Indians near Tallahassee. Cabeza de Vaca and the remaining Spaniards then made a voyage westward on improvised rafts, along the whole southern coast of America to present-day Galveston, Texas, where they were captured and enslaved by Indians. Cabeza de Vaca, a man of incredible resourcefulness, managed to convince his captors that he was a medicine man, won a degree of freedom, and in 1534 set out with his companions -- by now the sole survivors of an original force of three hundred -- to reach Mexico City. On the way they accumulated a retinue of Indians by posing as holy men, curanderos.
Over two years' walking west they became a traveling cult, and entered history as the first Europeans to cross the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, almost 250 years before Lewis and Clark.
Unfortunately for the future of the Indians of Southwestern America, Esteban took to boasting, and Cabeza de Vaca to hinting, that they had found signs of a great wealthy civilization along their track, a new Teotihuacán.
That was enough for Hernán Cortés and the Mexican viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza. In 1538 they sent Esteban back north with a readily deluded Franciscan friar, Fray Marcos de Niza, to find out if such a golden civilization existed. After a year Fray Marcos reappeared with alluring stories about a city named Cibola, "bigger than the city of Mexico" but only one of seven such cities in the northern lands. Their walls were of gold, and their temples studded with precious stones. One cannot say or even guess why Fray Marcos cooked up this preposterous tale, or why none of the members of his expedition denied it. One guess is that since he did not actually enter the city he called Cibola but only saw it from afar, the bright sunset light on Zuni mud walls looked like gold to his hopeful eyes. Not everyone believed him -- Hernán Cortés called him a liar -- but the viceroy had to be certain. So, in 1540, he sent out a full-scale expedition under the command of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.
It was a fiasco. Reaching the pueblo that the friar had designated as Cibola, Coronado and his men found no gold, only walls and pots made of mud, and resentful Indians who astutely got rid of them by assuring them that, yes, there was a golden city farther north. Wandering in pursuit of its fool's gold for two years, the expedition reached what is now the southwestern corner of Kansas before turning to straggle back to Mexico City, empty-handed. After that, the Spanish viceroys lost interest in northern expansion for forty years.
It was revived by two things: silver mining and missionary work. But first, the Spanish Crown had to take formal possession of the "wilderness" of New Mexico. This task fell to a Mexican-born aristocrat named Juan de Oñate, who in April 1598, at the head of a small army and ten Franciscan priests, crossed the Rio Grande at a spot where El Paso -- "the crossing" -- stands today and trekked north to the present site of Albuquerque. Here, the new governor assembled the leaders of various Pueblo communities and told them, in effect, that they were now the vassals of the Spanish king Felipe II, that if they obeyed his commands and embraced the Catholic Church, they would not only grow rich through trade and agriculture but also enjoy the benefits of eternal life with Jesus. The Indian chiefs indicated -- at least to Oñate's satisfaction -- that they agreed, and thus the first tiny Spanish foothold in New Mexico was established nearby at San Gabriel, complete with a mission church. Around 1608 Oñate moved most of his colonists to the present site of Santa Fe.
This occupation -- the Spanish were extremely careful not to call it a conquista,
for they needed to colonize New Mexico without stirring the ire of its inhabitants to the point where they might become reluctant to work for them -- was bloodless at first. But the wary peace between Spaniards and Pueblo Indians did not last long. In 1598, the first year of the occupation, Oñate led a survey expedition to the west, where he and his men arrived at the foot of the immense vertical massif on whose flat top the pueblo of Acoma was perched.
Today, Acoma is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. Acoma Indians have dwelt there since about 1150. It seems to have been built in utter defiance of environmental reality. Its rock rises some four hundred feet from the floor of a vast, flat canyon, twenty miles wide. The cliffs are bare and vertical; in places they bulge out into overhangs. No springs exist, and the only water supply comes from rain collected in cisterns. There is no earth on the mesa top, and hence nowhere to grow crops. Whatever the Acoma ate, and in time of drought whatever they drank as well, had to be dragged laboriously from the valley floor to the summit in baskets and earthenware jars. But the place had two advantages. It was secure from attacks by other Indian tribes, had they been foolhardy enough to try. And for the Acoma, it was suffused with spiritual meaning. Even a modern Anglo, perched on some boss of rock at the edge and watching a raven sail through the indescribable clarity of light, distance, and silence, can sense this -- despite the array of ramshackle plywood and tin outhouse privies which modern Acomas have seen fit to erect along the very rim of their sacred mountain.
Oñate thought the Acomas would submit, but he was wrong. The Acoma warriors lured a party of Spanish soldiers up the trail to the top of the mesa and slaughtered eleven of them without warning. Oñate soon struck back. He dispatched a force to Acoma early in 1599. The soldiers managed to scale what one of them later called "the greatest stronghold ever seen in the world"; later they would say they were led by a vision of Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the Moor-Killer) on a white horse, brandishing a sword of fire. They killed some eight hundred Acomas, men, women, and children, and enslaved most of the rest. This fearful reprisal broke the back of Acoma resistance for two generations, and by 1640 the Franciscans had persuaded the Acomas to build a church atop the mesa.
By then New Mexico was thinly sprinkled with other missions. Their work was vital to the imperialist designs of the Spanish Crown. The missionaries needed royal authority and backing; the Crown needed the zeal of the missionaries to "bring in" the natives. Each got what it wanted. Franciscan methods had already proven so successful in Mexico that in the "Royal Orders for New Discoveries," issued in 1573, the Crown specified that they should be used in all new territories -- and they were, right up to the mid-nineteenth century. In essence, there were three stages. First came the entrada,
the entry into native society.
Applying the principles of the Counter-Reformation -- that emotion and vivid display were vital in impressing religious truth on people's minds -- the newly arrived frailes
would make a great show, bringing gifts of food, colored beads, mirrors, and trade goods. They played music on strange instruments the Pueblos had never seen before. They produced gaudy holy pictures of Christ and the Virgin, the apostles and saints. Before long, curiosity would pass to trust and the Indians would let the Franciscans move in. Then entrada
shifted to conversión,
as village leaders and then commoners were won over to the Catholic faith. A friary would be built, and then a church. Finally you had a misión,
which the Franciscans also called a doctrina
-- a congregation functioning as a parish, where priests pulled the strings of political power behind converted native leaders, and communal life revolved around the mission church and its Masses, not the kiva and its rituals. The Crown supplied the friars with shipments of food, tools, and church paraphernalia -- iron hinges, latches, chalices and vestments, altar wine and the all-important bells.
These techniques needed settled Indian villages to work in, and they were particularly effective with the Pueblo Indians. The Crown wanted the friars to insulate the Indians from secular Spanish colonists, so that rape, murder, and theft would not breed the horror and recalcitrance among natives that they had in Old Mexico. Certainly the friars would whip Indians from time to time, to punish them for sin. But it was observed that they also whipped themselves, fiercely enough to draw blood -- an ecstatic penitential habit that came out of Spain and developed long roots in New Mexico.
The imposition of Spanish rule on the Pueblo Indians through its "conquistadores of the spirit," the Franciscan friars, was far more successful than military rule could have been. Still, it did not always go smoothly, and it often met with covert resistance, which sometimes flared into open rebellion. Indian risings occurred at Zuni in 1632, at Taos in 1639-40, and elsewhere through the 1650s. But not until 1680 was there a unified, planned revolt of the Pueblos. Two decades of drought and heat waves had all but ruined the fragile desert-farming economy of the Indians. The starving Pueblos were constantly harried by raiding parties of Navajos and Apaches. Clearly, the god of the Spaniards was no better at fending off disaster than their own sky and earth deities. Perhaps if the Spaniards were driven out, the old gods would be appeased and the order of the world restored. This brought a revival of Pueblo religion and ferocious reprisals from the Spaniards, who took to hanging Pueblo priests and flogging their followers for "sorcery" and "treason."
Out of such misery and hope came the Pueblo Revolt, fomented by a charismatic leader named Popé, who made his secret headquarters in a kiva, or sacred room, in Taos. On August 10, 1680, some sixteen thousand Pueblos scattered through dozens of settlements across several hundred miles of the Southwest rose all at once, and annihilated Spanish rule in New Mexico. They killed a sixth of the thin Spanish population outright, about four hundred out of twenty-five hundred; they burned the farms, houses, and churches of the foreigners, along with all their contents -- crosses, paintings, vestments, sculpture.
The Spaniards would not regain control over New Mexico for another thirteen years. So complete was the destruction of colonial artifacts that, as far as is known, only one New Mexican sculpture verifiably made before 1680 still exists -- a figure of the Virgin Mary the fleeing Spaniards took with them on their panicky retreat across the Rio Grande. It came back to Santa Fe with the implacable Diego de Vargas, who had been dispatched in 1692 to retake New Mexico. Known as "Our Lady of the Reconquest," or popularly as La Conquistadora,
it has a place of honor in the parish church of Santa Fe.
None of the early churches survive. If Popé's followers had not wrecked them, the weather would have demolished them long ago, because they were made of mud, which melts. Though the stone circular rooms and kivas of Anasazi villages from the tenth century have survived, there is not one seventeenth- (or even eighteenth-) century Spanish farmhouse standing in its original form anywhere in New Mexico.
Mud architecture was known to the Pueblos, who nevertheless preferred, before the Spanish occupation, to make their walls of stone. The great monument of ancient Pueblo culture, far surpassing in sophistication and size anything built by the Spaniards in New Mexico, is Pueblo Bonito, in Chaco Canyon, where human farming settlement had been ongoing since about 600 a.d. It is not a single building but an entire town of four- and five-story "apartments," with circular underground kivas as much as fifty feet in diameter, spreading over three acres and, at its height of settlement, containing at least a thousand people. One continuous structure, Pueblo Bonito was the largest housing complex erected in North America until the twentieth century: but it was begun in the ninth century a.d. and abandoned around 1200 a.d. It is constructed of finely dressed masonry, the main walls having two stone "skins" filled with random rubble -- a building technique common in ancient Rome.
But stone is laborious to build with, and in any case the masonry skills of the Pueblo Indians had degenerated since those ancient times. Mud is an extremely cheap and fast way of building, compared to the communal stonework that went into Pueblo Bonito, or devoured the labor of whole Mayan and Aztec societies below the Rio Grande. Mud is also very ancient, reaching back to Ur of the Chaldees. The Spaniards gave it a North African name, adobe
, and introduced technical innovations, such as the use of iron hoes to mix the mud (a compound of wet clay, sand, and straw) and wooden molds to shape the mud bricks. The adobe mix, packed into the forms, was left to drain until it was firm, and then sun-dried. The resulting bricks, about 50 by 25 by 10 cm, were laid in courses and then rendered with more mud. Spanish New Mexican walls had to be thick at the base to sustain their own weight in so friable a material, and this gave them an immense visual solidity, enhanced by their tiny windows in deep, dark openings. (On this distant frontier, there was no glass.) New Mexican roofs were always flat, since adobe was too weak to make a vault or a dome with. They consisted of roof beams, laid athwart the space, with smaller poles of aspen or juniper fixed diagonally across these in a herringbone pattern. Then a layer of earth, grass, and twigs was packed on top to keep the rain out. It did not do so very well, and more earth had to be piled on from time to time until, eventually, its weight caused the aging wooden structure to cave in. Nothing illustrates the impoverished, sluggish character of New Mexico mission life better than the fact that the Spaniards there never produced a kiln-fired tile, though terra-cotta was commonly used in the mission churches of Texas and California. Time and labor had no value; one simply had the Indians make a new roof, when needed.
Yet the constant repair, the replastering of eroded mud and the buttressing of sagging walls, has lent a singular majesty of organic form to the New Mexican mission churches that rose after the suppression of the Pueblo Revolt. The finest examples have turned into sculptural "sights," the most famous of which is undoubtedly the apse end of the Mission Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Ranchos de Taos (c. 1813). Painted by Georgia O'Keeffe and photographed by Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, and innumerable visitors before and since, its heavy, roughly wedge-shaped buttress and the smaller corner buttresses like beehive ovens give it an earth-gripping density. They are solid lumps of mud brick which neutralize the outward thrust of the walls like massive poultices. At the other end, the main door to the nave is recessed between two downsloping buttresses from which the twin bell towers grow, giving the church the air of a mud sphinx with its paws rooted to the ground.
The nave of St. Francis of Assisi is 108 feet long. Its walls are 6 feet thick at the base. By contrast, the largest mission church in New Mexico is fully 150 feet in length and 33 feet wide, with walls 10 feet thick. This is the church of San Esteban, on top of Acoma. A prismatic block with a tapered apse, two stubby bell towers, and no transept, it was completed by 1725. All the materials for its walls, the stone fill no less than the clay and even the water for mixing the adobe, estimated as totaling some twenty thousand tons, had to be brought up the cliffs of Acoma by the Pueblo women -- a task which Acoma men considered beneath their dignity. The vigas
for the flat roof, pine trunks 40 feet long and adzed down to 14 inches square, had to be cut from the forests of the San Mateo Mountains twenty miles away, carried to Acoma, and hoisted up the cliff on the backs of the devout; they were never allowed to touch the ground, in case they lost their magical efficacy. What this pharaonic enterprise cost in time and lives is unrecorded.
Yet the effort spent on the church was as nothing compared to the toil of creating its graveyard. Burial could not be denied the Christian dead. But Acoma had no burial place: it was bare rock. The Indian congregation of San Esteban therefore set out to create a campo santo,
or cemetery. First they built a stone-and-adobe "box" in front of the church, a precinct whose tallest wall, on the cliff side, rises to a height of 45 feet. Then they proceeded to fill it with an incalculable tonnage of soil, every pound of which had, as before, to be dragged up to the site by women. This took forty years, four times as long as the construction of the church itself. If faith is proven by works, the Acoma must have been believers indeed.
Excerpted from American Visions by Robert Hughes. Copyright © 1997 by Robert Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.