“SNAP! Visualize History Through the Art of Vintage Ads!”
May 1 – October 31, 2015
“The art of print media is a direct “snapshot” of the practices of society. The good, the bad and the ugly. Walk down memory lane through vintage American ads spanning fifty years. Warning! Some images may depict graphic stereotypes that history would like to forget!
Recently, Neighbor Roy & I ventured across town to the Tucson Desert Art Museum on Tanque Verde at Sabino Canyon Road. This is a fairly new museum, but to our mind, it’s a treasure trove of magnificent Western & Southwestern art. And their collections just keep growing and getting better.
America has always been a bigoted, racist, sexiest nation. In so many ways, we still are. But one can argue, as Neighbor Roy has, that we are a lot less bigoted than we were when he was growing up in the 1930’s & 40’s. I grew up in the 50’s & 60’s and know, that while racism and sexism are still ever-present realities, at least they are not as blatantly flagrant as these ads from the first half of the 20th century.
Looking over this extraordinary collection of advertisements from major, mainstream magazines, I could not help thinking of Hannah Arendt’s 1963 masterpiece, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The word, banal, means “commonplace, unoriginal, predictable, dull”. Adolph Eichmann was responsible for efficiently sending hundreds of thousands of Jews to the slave labor camps and gas chambers. At his trial in Jerusalem he argued that he was just doing his job. He harbored no hatred of the Jews, he was just carrying out the law. Ridding Germany of Jews was just the way it was.
Similarly, most of us whites, and particularly white males, accepted the bigoted world we were born into. To our minds, we were not bigots. Darkies, aka colored folks, negroes, or worse, were poor, backward and subservient, but nonetheless happy, one-dimensional caricatures because they were lazy and not too bright. But boy did they have rhythm.
If Roy & I were to go back in time to our youth and look at these advertisements in a magazine of that era, we would probably ask why they would be exhibited in a museum in 2015. We, and the vast majority of Americans thought nothing about their not-so-subtle messages. They were ubiquitous, commonplace, normal. Like Eichmann’s Germany, it was just the way it was. Few questioned the status quo.
In the ads that have a Black character, they are always portrayed as subservient. What’s the problem? They were subservient. Of course a woman could not write a check for a Hoover vacuum cleaner. What woman was gainfully employed and independent enough to have her own checking account? Ridiculous. I don’t think my mother or grandmother ever wrote a check, let alone had their own checking account.
It was just the way things were … until the 1960’s came roaring over the cultural horizon and shook America to its core, separating the older generation (the way it is) from their children (the way it should be). Women, young & old, protested unequal treatment by burning their bras. Coupled with the events of Kent State, Chicago, Birmingham, Montgomery, and so many other peaceful – turned violent – protests, things began to change with each jarring evening newscast.
And then, as if some uncontrollable malevolent entity punched us in our collective solar plexus, the President of the United States was assassinated in November 1963. And then Martin fell in April 1966. Then Bobby in June 1966. It was as if they were sacrificed on the Altar of Justice to atone for our willful ignorance and mindless bigotry.
It happened slowly, and so very painfully. It’s hard to give up long-held core beliefs. But back then change was in the air and nobody knew where it would lead. Back then, I thought America was coming apart at the seams. And it was! And it should have!
The SNAP! exhibit shook me to my core in a way I had not felt since 1967 when I joined a protest march against the Vietnam War and for racial equality through the streets of Portland, Oregon where I was a collage junior and a father for the first time. And again when Ms. Karen & I visited the holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
Not all of the display ads in the exhibit reflect our bigotry. For example, look at this one with Bing Crosby, one of the biggest stars of the era, promoting cancer sticks to a public that believed that tobacco was good for them. Were we ever that stupid?
Or how about this one for Scott Bathroom Tissue? Incorporating the persuasive emotion of fear, it says, in no uncertain terms, if you don’t use Scott, you’ll get a terrible disease and have to have an operation.
I’m not certain that an exhibit that exposes America’s racist, sexist, and willfully ignorant past, belongs in a museum for Southwestern art alongside Scott Baxter’s large, powerful photographic portraits and Greg Overton’s Touch The Clouds, plus superb Navajo textiles and so much more, but there it is … raw, blatant, … even painful.
I think museum director and curator of SNAP!, Rhonda Smith, intended it to be provocative. She succeeded. But SNAP! is also worthwhile for a host of reasons. First, it is worthy because it reminds us how far we’ve come from the institutional racism and sexism that permeated American society in the first half of the 20th century. As importantly, this exhibit helps us to realize how far we have to go to bring about simple social justice for all … an America were the children of the poor and weak have the same opportunities for success as the children of the rich and powerful … regardless of gender, race or ethnicity.
Go see SNAP! before it closes October 1, 2015. Better yet, take your children, grandchildren and/or students. It’s a teachable moment.
While at the Desert Art Museum, enjoy its extraordinary Native American and Western art collection, including:
• Early Masters of the Southwest: such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, & (our favorite) Maynard Dixon.
• Hopi Artistry: baskets and kachinas.
•Weavings of the Dine’: beautiful Navajo textiles, including some chief’s blankets.
•Cartography of the Americas: study history though some of the first maps ever drawn of the New World.
Tucson Desert Art Museum
7000 E. Tanque Verde Road
Tucson, AZ 85715
Open daily from 10AM to 4 PM except major holidays.