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Cole's 'Empire' still relevant

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Cole's 'Empire' still relevant

I made a point to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville because of the special exhibit there organized by the New York Historical Society, "The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision." I knew that several paintings by one of my favorite artists, Thomas Cole, would be there, but I never dreamed that I would see "The Course of Empire" (1836). I was stunned and excited when I came to the final room of the exhibit. There they were: all five of the huge paintings in chronological order lining one wall of the long room — the room's other walls were appropriately bare. It was an incredible climax to a splendid exhibit.

Cole imagined a grand landscape that included a harbor and a mountain peak and used it from different angles and perspectives in each painting. The first in the series is "The Savage State": Nature dominates, and a hunter and canoeist share the wilderness. The second is "The Pastoral state": Nature is being tamed; there's a permanent temple; there's farming and shepherding; and there's leisure time with dancing, painting, and thinking. Next is "Consummation":  Nature is gone; the peak is barely visible; the harbor is full of commerce; a Greco-Roman city dominates the landscape with thousands of people overcrowding the streets. The fourth is "Destruction": Nature returns in the forms of barbarians who rape and pillage the once mighty city and a storm that wrecks havoc in the harbor. Finally, there is "Desolation": No humans exist; nature is triumphant and reclaims the landscape; the moon casts its reflection over a tranquil harbor; there's a face in the moon, and he is smiling.

Doing post-graduate work in the mid-'70s, I spent many hours and days in various libraries at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville searching books and magazines for reprints of Cole's "The Course of Empire" series. The first time I used them was in my 12th grade humanities class at the American School of Quito, Ecuador. When I projected the first painting onto the screen in front of the classroom, I heard a collective "Wow!" I hadn't expected how awed and overwhelmed my students would be. I've experienced various degrees of that excitement from my students over the years in all my U. S. history and world history classes.

It is easy to see why students of the 1970s and 1980s could relate to Cole's masterpieces and especially "Destruction" and "Desolation." It was a time when we were not only aware of what we were doing to the planet but actually wanted to do something about it: Lake Erie died and the Hudson River caught on fire. It was also the time of the Cold War in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were gambling that neither of us would commit suicide and wipe out the other guy at the same time. Mutually assured destruction was the motive behind the escalation of our nuclear arsenals.

Here in the 21st century, nuclear power surfaced again as a self-inflicted source of potential Armageddon, making Cole's "Destruction" and "Desolation" relevant once again. We are aware that some of the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons are unaccounted for. At the same time, our planet is plagued by assorted terrorists who seem to think nothing of committing suicide if it gives them a chance to murder large numbers of innocent people. The earthquake and tsunami that recently brought nuclear tragedy to Japan has also reminded us that we still have no realistic idea as to what to do with the nuclear waste that's produced by nuclear power plants.

As in Cole's paintings, nature is rebounding and seemingly reaping revenge for decades of abuse by humans.  Ever since the 1860s we've increasingly relied on fossil fuels such as oil and coal. The result, of course, has been an unnatural increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a corresponding increase in the earth's temperature. The repercussions have been the ever-increasing intensities of tornadoes, hurricanes, melting ice caps, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and forest fires.

And I went on a five-day camping trip in what turned out to be the hottest recorded July in the history of the United States! To get to my traditional swimming hole, I have always driven across a low river to pick up the road that continues on the other side and leads to the informal parking area and hiking trail. This summer, there was no river to cross. I did, however, finally see the rock-bottomed riverbed that I had been driving over all those previous years. I'm sure you will understand why I chose to spend several mid-day hours during two of those five days in the climate-controlled comfort of the Crystal Bridges Museum.  Seeing Cole's "The Course of Empire" was worth the whole trip.

David Offutt

El Dorado

Tax cuts for wealthy don't work

Romney, Ryan and the Republicans have based their policies on the premise that if you reduce the taxes on the rich and corporations they will create jobs. 

Let's look at entrepreneurs who have created millions of jobs. Henry Ford was a farmer's son and got his start as an apprentice machinist, Bill Gates never completed college but was self-educated on computer technology and Steve Jobs was adopted and did not have wealthy parents. If you research the innovators and job creators none of them created jobs because of tax breaks and tax increases did not make any of them stop adding jobs.

Do you really believe that the wealthy are waiting for a handout before they create jobs? What nonsense! Instead of cutting taxes for the wealthy we need to be developing the next generation of entrepreneurs through improved opportunities for education and training, making certain our banking system stays healthy through regulation that ensures we have funds available for investment in new enterprises and by encouraging advancements in technology. 

The best way to secure a strong future is to invest in the middle class, for they are where the next generation of entrepreneurs will come from.

Robert Ricker

Melbourne

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