By Kyle Hayden, Design Editor
Talk of Green Beer Day is on the horizon, and the advertisers are out in force — in our course packs, the margins of our internet search pages and between posts on our news feeds.
But the products — the disposable shirts, cups, hats and sweaters — have shaky origins and problematic images. Recently, I saw an advertisement for a
sweater depicting a native American man featuring some words related to Oxford and our infamous Green Beer Day.
To live ethically, we must learn the history of our state. More specifically — and I pray this is not new information to readers — our region. In the early 1800s, the federal government of the United States wanted the land in ‘Northwest Territory’ cleared of the indigenous peoples for safe settlement, purchase of the land and utilization of its natural resources for profit.
The throes of American empire and ‘Manifest Destiny’ (read: “The Indian Removal Act of 1830”) with its overtones of white supremacy and subjugation are often forgotten today. This university sits on the land once occupied by native peoples.
However, talking exclusively about history — while there are plenty of “objective” research articles to be had, entire books written about the claiming of land for white America — will not help us form a new discussion.
Thomas Cole, a landscape painter who was active during the Jackson administration (1829-1837) wanted to elevate landscape painting to the realm of historical document. Cole moved from England to Steubenville, Ohio in 1818, at the conclusion of the violent removal of native peoples from Ohio. Cole then moved into several cities in Pennsylvania — finally settling in Catskill, New York, where he completed most of his work. Cole is primarily associated with the Hudson River School, a group of painters mainly concerned with the “sublime” — a quality of “feeling small” in nature or in awe of the immensity of the natural world.
Cole completed a series called “The Course of Empire” after selling several paintings to an art dealer in New York City to fund a trip into the Catskill wilderness. “The Course of Empire,” in five panels, depicts the subjugation of nature by man and the self-consuming course of a reckless empire bent on “progress” and attainment.
Cole does not invoke American political figures, period-specific architectural elements or weapons, but his paintings were meant as allegories.
In the first panel, an unfettered wilderness is seen aside impartial human habitation and a man hunts in the foreground.
The second panel features a different scene — small settlements peeking through the trees. A structure resembling an ancient Greek temple can be seen and road is carved into the foliage.
The third panel, albeit on the same landscape, has changed dramatically. A grand empire of tall buildings rendered in stone have obliterated all traces of the natural world. The mountains from the first three panels are mostly obscured by pollution from the city. All the citizens of this fictional empire watch from every possible perch in their city as their leader celebrates a victory of some kind.
The fourth panel depicts the fall of this empire. Their enemies have attacked and are murdering men in battle. The buildings are in flames. Smoke makes sinister arches in the sky.
The fifth and final panel depicts the softened ruins of this empire retaken by nature; a lone column sits at the fore, a thrush of vines wrapped around.
“The Course of Empire” is an allegory for the American empire, to which Cole was morally opposed. He wanted his paintings to be a warning, a call for the country to refuse the nationalist jingoism of westward expansion and the allure of wealth in the new territories.
Andrew Jackson legitimated the wholesale murder and displacement of native peoples. So many tribes of many, many names have disappeared, their cultures and way of life thusly subsumed in the chasm of capitalism and “Manifest Destiny.” An entire population of eager European immigrants and settlers moved into the new territories and began stripping its valuable resources: the soil, trees, minerals and waterways.
In Cole’s way, his paintings turned into a prophecy.
We live in a supposedly democratic society — our Constitution says we value tenants of freedom, liberty and happiness. Beyond this, our narrow conception of “freedom” as a “freedom from” responsibility and accountability weighs on the entire country’s conscience, making the whole continent sag. An inescapable aura of sadness and guilt emanates from what could be considered a useless pile of wealth made from the murder and suffering of so many.
Our wealth was made from the stripping and raping of the landscape for a short-term gain. Our conception of freedom as a “personal freedom” with omission of responsibility is unacceptable in this century.
I submit against all things we have been ‘taught’ in our establishment educational system. We do not live in the United States of America, we live in an occupied land. We destroyed this occupied land. We ignore history. We trample the corpses of the natives when we design logos in their name, when we name drinks after them, when we sell products containing their symbols, language or images.
We graduate from Miami University and we participate in an economy we feel is impossible to escape. An economy that props up the structure of white supremacy with no regard for history, context or empathy. We even have the gall to say, “But it honors their heritage!” or “They like it!”
We must learn to respond to this hollow statement: “What heritage? The one where we sanctioned a genocide on the natives then turned the entire region into a shopping mall, ecologically bankrupting it in the process?”
We live in the afterthought of a massive economic project of wealthy, powerful and violent men.
If we are to use our educations in the most ethical and responsible way, we will reject propping up these structures. We will restore what was wrought by white supremacy and the allure and attraction of wealth and attainment.
If we think on the last panel in Cole’s “Course of Empire,” we must ask ourselves where we want to be after the empire fails. Cole advertised his series in a newspaper with a quote from Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:”
“There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption –
barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page…”
We should dedicate our lives to creating a society where things get better, not worse. Where there are social rights and securities instead of division, hatred and precarity. Where murder is not profitable. Where life is celebrated instead of mocked and destroyed. Where humans are not disposable.