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They Buildeth the Nation
Rethinking the Landscape at Hoover Dam
Whether it’s Thomas Cole, Walt Whitman, Ansel Adams, or someone else, I am increasingly fascinated by historical American art and how it shapes — and reflects — our thinking. I often find myself questioning an artist’s motivation, wondering what truths they believe and why.
In other words, does the art express the truth, or does the truth — what the artist believes — express the art?
I’m an easterner, but I spend lots of time in the American west, a land rich in myth, symbolism, and big ideas. More and more I’ve noticed how images and words associated with our institutions such as our national parks, western landscapes, interstate highways, and public works projects contribute to a certain framework of thinking… specifically, America as a nation of destiny and a wild frontier to be heroically tamed.
Not too long ago, I was at Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Its size and location alone qualify it as a testament to human ingenuity and bravery. A feast of concrete, if you will. Designed to control and generate, more than any other single structure it perhaps helped create the southwest as we know it today. It’s a powerful place.
But in a stroke of capitalistic resourcefulness and patriotic genius, Hoover Dam was also built as a work of art.
It commemorates itself.
It memorializes those who died building it.
It expresses its own truth.
As such, Hoover has carved out its own unique and revered place in American lore.
There are some well-known statues and gilded ornaments, most of them created by Oskar J.W. Hansen in art deco style, but even the most mundane features of the dam are enhanced with artistic flair including the restroom doors…
Perhaps the most ostentatious works are the Winged Figures of the Republic, a pair of bronze statues over thirty feet tall. They express a sense of noble grandeur and permanence, an attempt to fix the dam’s place in time and in history. They sit side-by-side in a plaza, underneath a towering US flag.
According to the US Bureau of Reclamation website, sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen said the statues exhibit "the immutable calm of intellectual resolution, and the enormous power of trained physical strength, equally enthroned in placid triumph of scientific accomplishment."
And in a nod to human ingenuity and power, they affirm a noble trust in technology, patriotism, and heroism. They share faith in an American destiny.
Hansen is quoted, “The building of Hoover Dam belongs to the sagas of the daring. The winged bronzes which guard the flag, therefore, wear the look of eagles. To them also was given the vital upward thrust of an aspirational gesture; to symbolize the readiness for defense of our institutions and keeping of our spiritual eagles ever ready to be on the wing."
In 2023, however, something seems shallow about those beliefs. Maybe it’s caused by record heat, ongoing drought, or entrenched partisan politics in the US. Maybe its overwhelming numbers of people moving into the southwest, or a continued colonial mindset prevailing among those who run our institutions. Maybe it’s reflected in a nearly-empty Lake Mead reservoir that was once, within our lifetimes, full of promises. The faith is shaky.
For me, however, the biggest questions about artistic truth arise from a set of five bas-relief sculptures by Hansen on the elevator tower on the Arizona side of the dam.
They are inscribed, "Since primordial times, American Indian tribes and Nations lifted their hands to the Great Spirit from these ranges and plains. We now with them in peace buildeth again a Nation."
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