'Into The Sunset'; or, MoMA's Mything of the West

by cowboylands

“The West is an idea that became a place.”

–historian Clyde A. Milner, Oxford History of the United States

 From Into the Sunset: Stephen Shore. U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon

What was so compelling about the West as idea that it uprooted people from around the world, made the U. S. government break treaties with sovereign nations, and grew into a pop culture symbol so luminous that the Museum of Modern Art created a show about its image? Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West gives its answer: Limitlessness. Unbounded possibility. Infinite resources (and therefore moolah). What happens when the limit is reached? (Hello? Pacific Ocean, anyone?) The idea is punctured, or dies a slow death of asphyxiation in the stale air of reality. 

Possibilities are mirages. Riches belong to everyone but you. Or you could pillage, lie, steal, kill, and otherwise sell your soul to get them. 

Thanks, MoMA. I’m totally depressed now.

But that’s the curator’s version of the image of the West, a vision that is as much a mythology as the kind Marlboro sells with each pack of cigarettes. What Americans and Europeans bought with every Buffalo Bill’s Wild West ticket, and what people purchase around the world with every pack of American cigarettes is a little bit of ourselves as we want to be–alluring, daring, legendary. With every MoMA “Into The Sunset” ticket it appears we also want to be alienated and disillusioned.  

The exhibition is at the end of a sunny corridor but you emerge from the show feeling as if you need to take a shower. That, buckos, is as much the result of manipulation as the compulsion to Go West, Young Man was in the 1800s. There are beautiful images in the exhibition but the whole thing seems to be another example of Coastal Elitism. Coastal Elitism sees man versus nature as having a story arc that inevitably ends with nature being ruined and humans in despair or deluded. The exhibition portrays that story arc quite dramatically (nicely collected in thematic clusters on the walls). What that story arc doesn’t include is the type of person who has found a balance of sorts on or with the western land, or who has found living up to the myth invigorating and profoundly gratifying. (Oh yeah, the photographers that take those images are genre hacks, so their story is less artistic, less true, than fashion photogs taking pics of really handsome Hell’s Angels.) While I am sympathetic to the idea that a writer, editor, or a curator has to pare down a story, we Coastal Elitists must recall that the myth of this exhibition is not only an archetype but a stereotype–and our idea in the first place.

Three and a half out of five Western stars for Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West. Breathtaking images and a panoramic sweep of land and people. But beware the underlying hype: There’s more than meets the imagination in the real West. 

[see How to Match Up to MoMA’s Mythic West Checklist below]

 From Into the Sunset: Dorothea Lange. The Road West, New Mexico. 

How to Match Up to MoMA’s Mythic West Checklist 

  • Embody limitless possibilities, or just act like you do. In the exhibition a long photograph of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show stretches along one wall; in it are the characters of the penny-dreadfuls of the day, being overseen by the master of ceremonies in white (alongside Bedouins and Native Americans, making a buck from this foolish white man). Truth is, Buffalo Bill had a few problems paying his troupe; he usually got his performers to wait a little longer or backers to give him more because he was so darn pleasant and beautiful.
  • Acquire the accouterments. Take as example the nineteenth-century daguerreotypes portray posturing men wearing western garb as self-consciously as the families in those vacation photos taken in faux olde-timey tourist traps (you, or someone you know, has one of those on a living room wall).
  • Exude a bit of the Tragic. Exoticized Native Americans stare past past the camera in many of the exhibition’s turn-of-the-century photos. The first viewers of the photographs, contemporaries of the Hopi women and Sioux warriors, ate up these images, nostalgic for a people (and place) they had just finished shutting into reservations.
  • Embrace the absurdity of the West, which is represented on every wall: images of tract housing from above, reminiscent of the scars of pattern bombing; pleased parents feeding a baby, with industrial power lines and towers looming right outside their window. 
  • Be stoic or deluded about your chances of maintaining your integrity. Photographers were especially skillful at catching the people who go West to search for better things, only to find less than what they had left behind. The images of hustlers, Avedon’s out-of-work black-jack dealer, the porn starlet, and an overwhelming number of images of people-with-ravaged-tragic-faces describe a truth that artists like Annie Proulx get: The West doesn’t really give a shit about your hopes and dreams. 

Note: The idea of a quick fix ends when something real slips into an image, such as the photograph of Chief Joseph and his nephew. Chief Joseph wears his ritual regalia as elegantly as Gary Cooper wore a tux, and his nephew wears a buttoned-up peacoat and western-style shirt. You can read many stories into this photo–like the one described in history textbooks about the passing of the West, blah, blah, blah–but its main story transcends myth, evoking the real and universal conflict between a traditional elder and a forward-thinking youngster. 

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