Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Art in the Queue

At the far end of the post office lobby in the town where I work, featured prominently for the viewing pleasure of people in the queue, there is a mural entitled America Under the Palms (1939).  Painted in neoclassical style, the mural depicts Columbia, popular allegorical figure of the New World during the colonial period, recumbent in her traditional blue gown, holding a liberty pole hung with a liberty cap, leaning in conspiratorially to hear what tidings the eagle, front and center in the mural, brings. Behind her cower two Native Americans, arms raised to shield themselves from noisy heralds that point at them.  To her left are three white men dressed in frock coats, surrounded by symbols of learning: a globe, books, classical busts. Our most well-known university building dominates the background.

The mural is huge, and there's a lot going on. Considered in its entirety, it's fairly racist.  It's a product of its time, of course.  Perhaps it was meant to exhort University students and town residents to greatness in the service of their country.  Or something.  (Though I suspect that students haven't spent much time thinking about the message of the mural in the post office.)  And racist as it is, the depiction of the white male Enlightenment taking over the "natives" in town is fairly accurate, though perhaps not as celebratory as the artist intended.

What catches my eye every time, though, is the verse written below the painting:
"America! With Peace and Freedom blest/Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest./Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,/Exert thyself 'til every Art be thine."
The irony is that whenever I'm looking at the mural, I'm standing in line.  I epitomize inglorious rest.  And I find myself feeling a little annoyed at the whole idea of rest being inglorious anyway, given how my undergraduates treat busy-ness as a status symbol, and how that mindset often ends up sabotaging them.

In fact, when I'm looking at that mural, I often realize that I have been completely immersed in the moment, completely present.  Here I am standing in line, I think.  Sometimes I consider what I'm going to do at work that day, or what's on deck at home.  But most times, I'm really just thinking about standing in line.  And waiting for the line to move, but also just knowing that there's nothing I can do to make the line move any faster, so I might as well just be there.   I'm not playing with my phone, because that would involve holding the phone, and usually, when I'm standing in that line, I'm holding some sort of package that requires two hands.

The post office is going to move to a new location soon.  I'm not sure what they'll do with the mural, but I know that the queue just won't be the same.

Is there art--even annoying art--in your life where you stand still?
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  1. You know, it's funny you ask that because the game I chose yesterday as my little reward is essentially a piece of art, and I wanted it to fill a waiting space. I don't do well with waiting, though I usually use standing-in-line time to daydream.

  2. It's always striking how art that is meant to glorify a moment tends to do so in a manner that offends. Yet I love the image of you standing in line, taking in the moment. I'm too guilty of not being more mindful of the moment. Something to strive for.

  3. Wow, those lines of verse are awful. They might even be in worse taste than the painting, although they are probably (unintentionally) funnier. I'm currently picturing some people "panting for fame." What does that look like exactly? Perhaps they have been running really hard, scorning their inglorious rest, and can barely breathe? How inspiring.
    I'm currently at home so all the art surrounding me is what I've picked out, and in good taste I hope. The university I attended was built in the 60s so does not have any neoclassical "art." It does have some strange modernist (post-modernist?) art such as the Prairie Chicken (not its official name) People like to make fun of it of course but all things considered I think I prefer it to the example you give above.


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