"Go west, Young Man"
by Dan Cameron
“It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
- Mark Twain
A few miles away from here is Independence, MO, where hundreds of thousands of migrants funneled themselves through during the mass overland migration that marked the 19th century expansion of U.S. territory. Following the end of the Mexican War in 1848, only weeks after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, CA, the myth of America as a boundless frontier grew exponentially. In no time, long-established borders between countries, territories and states became fully porous, as homesteaders looking to farm a few dozen acres were soon outnumbered by those hoping to get rich quick. With few established trails leading settlers west, Kansas City replaced Independence as the last place to stock up on provisions before setting our across the prairie sea.
To fuel their fever dreams of prosperity, the fortune hunters needed a mythology - a set of beliefs that would fortify them to push ever forward, and risk their lives in pursuit of a goal that was elusive at best, and would remain out of reach for nine out of ten of those who set out in search of it. The new presiding myth was that all of this land belonged by birthright to the citizens of this young country, and their descendants, until the end of human history. Within a decade the Rush had petered out, the fever abated, and the cruel reality was that most of the recent arrivals still needed to make a living when their pot of gold failed to materialize, and only the dream of ‘manifest destiny’ could take its place.
But this country was never boundless, just as it was never even a frontier, really, since most of what is now the USA was already populated by people who had lived here for centuries before Europeans arrived. Their land was only a ‘frontier’ to those who had no ancestral memories of the place, who hadn’t been there for too many generations to count. So another mythology had to be constructed, to supplement our prior justifications for treating enslaved Africans as if they were not fellow human beings, who had been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. To the myth that the enslaved African laborer wasn’t actually a fellow human being - and therefore did not require the same dignity or respect - was added an even more opportunistic amendment: neither were Indians. ‘Frontier justice,’ the new myth, would be cobbled together just in time to enable the systematic extermination of the native population in the interest of appropriating their land and resources.
Other myths, such as white supremacy, were overlooked for decades because they went unquestioned in such large swaths of the U.S. population that countless individuals caught in its net of racist deception had never been exposed to any serious alternative, and the clear line linking Jim Crow segregation to lynchings was not visible to them. Today, white supremacy is on the rise once again in this country as a full-blown political ideology, while the presiding myth about race continues to be that we are not a racist society.
These are terrible and destructive myths by themselves, but their most horrifying legacy is that they are not universally talked about as myths, in the sense of being false, invented, and patently untrue, but, on the contrary, as historically-grounded origin stories - tales that might or might not be true, but nonetheless fill a deeper cultural yearning to rewrite the past in order to flatter ourselves today for our collective historical wisdom, identity, and courage. When we are taught in school that we are an exceptional country, and when we study manifest destiny and frontier justice, what we sometimes take away from those lessons is that the underlying mythologies have served us well, and therefore needn’t ever be exposed as stories that were invented to soothe our national pride and assuage our national guilt. As viewers will detect upon close observation of the artist’s books that accompany Federico Solmi’s mesmerizing nine-channel video, this isn’t merely the case when it comes to antiquated myths, but applies instead to the entire spectrum of myth-enablers who think that a lie and the truth can be the same thing if the former is repeated the right way, over and over, to the exclusion of all other possibilities. A country can succumb to perpetual immersion into gauzy myths about itself, or it can demand the truth at all times, but it cannot do both and remain a great country.
Dan Cameron is an independent curator and art writer living in New York. He is currently Artistic Director of Open Spaces Kansas City, in which “The Great Farce” appears.