Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Capitol Images: Preserving the Past, Reflecting the Reality

Sensory overload brought about by the vast number of visual images characterizes the Iowa State Capitol’s third-floor. Immediately as you ascend the Statehouse’s main staircase between the second- and third-floor your undivided attention is captured by the mural painting “Westward”, although only momentarily. For after you have briefly perused “Westward” your eyes cannot help but be lifted to the six mosaics in arched panels. Initially, they remain deceptively far from your vantage point which draws you up the staircase to the third-floor in hopes of getting a closer, less distorted and more neck friendly view of the images. Once on the third-floor you turn around – assuming you didn’t climb the stairs backward – to take in the mosaics more easily. Within the mosaics are human images which depict, from left to right, defense, charities, education, and the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government. The artistic style harkens back to the Roman Empire, an Empire often credited with having a vast influence on America’s current culture. The images are grand, elegant and colorful – yet white.

Similar to words such as race and gender which, according to Stephanie Wildman in Making Systems of Privilege Visible, seem “linguistically neutral” so too does the mosaic seem visually neutral (89). The soft, stoic faces of the human images do not overtly scream white privilege; they simply link us to the visualization of our historical past. The pictures nonetheless represent the “base of unacknowledged privilege” spoken so thoroughly about in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, and highlight McIntosh’s core belief that the “oppressiveness was unconscious” (98). Unconscious in the sense that the dominate white culture at the time of the mosaics commissioning would likely have been oblivious to the underlying statement created by the all white cast of characters pictured in Frederick Dielman’s work. This unspoken statement is “that which keeps people of color off-balance” (Wise 107).

As you move beyond this mosaic and into the rotunda, again you are met with grand, elegant and colorful – yet white – human images. These types of images, in fact, are scattered throughout one of the nation’s most visually stunning statehouses. It is not until entering a private office in the Governor’s suite that you will be exposed to a piece of art which depicts a group of children that encapsulate the rainbow of human skin colors. Not surprisingly that office belongs to the Governor’s policy liaison for cultural diversity, among other topics.

If we are able to overcome the fact that in American society “white privilege is not something (whites) get to decide whether (they) want to keep” then we can start addressing the issues, which to many, are invisible in the Capitol (Jensen 103). This does not mean that the historical images which currently adorn the Capitol need to be removed because of their whiteness. It does, however, indicate that preserving the historical significance of the Capitol cannot overshadow the inclusive nature in which our State has been moving since its inception. If the last piece of artwork installed in the Capitol occurred in 1907 – the six mosaics – then the time has come to commission a new work of art which illustrates the diversity of Iowa’s proud multicultural community and which will symbolize the direction of Iowa’s future.

-- Bob Tuttle

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Male Privilege in the 82nd Iowa General Assembly

I visited the capitol with the articles of white privilege and racism in mind. Is the government racist? In my initial glances around the Iowa capitol, I must say that I saw a lot of white people. I was most struck by this overwhelming sea of whiteness when viewing the head shots of all 50 members of the Senate and 100 members of the House of the 82nd Iowa General Assembly. Out of the 50 members of the Iowa Senate, not a single individual appeared to be of a minority race. In scanning the portraits of the legislators, I spotted about five non-Caucasians. That made me think, “Wow, the Iowa government is so racist!”.

In thinking about it further, the idea of affirmative action mentioned in Robert Jensen’s article White Privilege Shapes the U.S. came to mind. Affirmative action means taking positive steps to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In a state whose government is “by the people and for the people” (Capitol Rotunda), one would think that all races and minorities should be represented. I was quite upset that virtually all of the state’s government leaders are white. White privilege. Whether or not people acknowledge that it’s a problem, it occurred to me that we as a people are supporting and promoting its existence.

I think it would be ideal to employ a modified version of affirmative action in the state government. Make a point to include people of all races and genders, to the extent that it accurately represents the demographics of the state. I originally thought we were horribly racist that approximately only 3.3% of our state’s Senate and House were people of color. In reality, though, that number is not too far off from being an accurate representation of the racial profile of our state. According to the 2006 US Census Bureau, 91% of Iowa’s population is white. We need to bring in about nine more people of color to the state Senate and House to reach an accurate racial sampling of our state.

I am not opposed to having more state government leaders of color, but working with straight numbers seems like a simplistic method to achieve affirmative action. My biggest concern is the fact that of the 150 state senators and legislators, 33 were women. Accurate representation of the state’s population? Absolutely not. Since when did Iowa only have 22% women? This to me is the larger problem. Women are not generally thought of as the target of racism and discrimination as much as colored people, but last time I checked, the state of Iowa consisted of 50.6% women (2006 US Census Bureaus). Of the 150 members of the House and Senate, at least 75 of them should be women in order to accurately represent the population and achieve affirmative action.

There is a larger percentage of both women and colored people in the lower house (legislature) of the Iowa General Assembly, so perhaps they will eventually climb the ladder and stack the Senate. Swati Dandekar, current legislator of house district 36, is running for the Iowa Senate (district 18). She was the first Indian-born US citizen to win a state legislative seat and hopefully will be the first to climb to the Senate and pave the way for both women and people of color. Men, in particular those who are white, have privilege in the Iowa government. Women and people of color are not accurately represented in the state Senate and House. Affirmative action should be enforced by completing the simple mathematical calculations in accord with the census, ensuring that each race and minority is accurately represented in the state government. For example, according to the 2006 US Census Bureau, 2.5% of Iowans are black, therefore 3.75 (4) of the 150 members of the Iowa General Assembly should be black—two of which should be women.

“But we all are the product of both what we will ourselves to be and what the society in which we live lets us be.” (Jensen 103). Society will limit us [women and minorities] if we do nothing to prevent that from happening. In order for my idea of affirmative action in Iowa’s General Assembly to work, women and people of color need to step up. Step up both in terms of voting and advocating for women and people of color in the government, but also for young women and minorities to make it their personal goal to become the next government leaders. I don’t know the exact reason why women and minorities are currently underrepresented. Maybe there proportionately are simply not enough of them qualified in the field right now. If that is the case, women and minorities need to make a point to get the appropriate schooling and qualifications, which would be easier with the state’s support of affirmative action in the government.

The exact pictures that I viewed in the capitol are not available on-line, but there are photos and descriptions of each member of the 82nd Iowa General Assembly available on the following website.;jsessionid=CCBC03EE0231218FF3C81F05B11D00B6?ga=82

Jill Staudt

Friday, February 29, 2008

"Aunt Fanny" (aka Old Lady in Black) by George Bellows

I do not consider myself a person who fully appreciates or completely understands the beauty and meaning behind a piece of artwork. I do however enjoy being able to look at a creation and make my own interpretations about what the artist might be trying to convey. Nobody but the artist is certain what the artwork stands for and there are even times when artists themselves are unsure of what message they were trying to send. The artwork came about from what the artist was feeling at that particular moment in time. The artist may never be able to interpret their artwork into words.
Sontage states that, “While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.” (p.6) My question behind this statement is, what happens when a painting is the result of a photographic image? Does the fact that the artist recreated a picture by painting the same photograph take away from the interpretation that the viewer is entitled too, merely because the photographer of the original image captured a specific transparency?
When I first saw “Aunt Fanny” (aka Old Lady in Black) I was immediately intrigued, partially because I love portraits. The aspect I enjoy the most about looking at a person in a picture or painting is the interpretation or story of their life that I am allowed to create in my own mind. An established and possibly the only true fact about this painting is that George Bellows created “Aunt Fanny” in 1920. What I do not know as an observer is whether or not Bellows was painting the portrait based on a woman posing in front of him, a photograph he held in his hand, a memory of a woman he once knew, or even a figment of his imagination.
The lady, Aunt Fanny, strikes me as a woman who was once strong willed and was in complete control of her life. However, this painting has captured Aunt Fanny in a vulnerable moment in time. She seems pleased in her facial expression yet she is very dark and distant. Bellows might have painted her to try and capture both her old strong self and her new fragile self. I make this assumption because the woman has a small fragile face with many wrinkles from a hard life lived. I feel like Bellows captured a piece of her past by making Aunt Fanny’s hands large and strong like a man would have yet her wrinkles are still prevalent. I just wonder if Aunt Fanny was a real woman, would she be pleased with her image that has been left behind for all to see?
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” (14) Sontage makes this statement while expressing her thoughts about cameras being violent on the same level as guns. I can understand where she is coming from on a certain level. Today we have individuals who happen to fall into a career that puts them in the camera lens and into the public eye. Some people are fine with the exposure they are inevitably forced to deal with. Maybe this is due to the fact that the camera has yet to cross them. With others, the camera infringes upon the basic rights that humans hold to privacy. The problem with the camera is where do we draw the line? Will this continued exposure of people’s personal lives eventually ruin us as a society?

"Aunt Fanny"
Ann Gute

The Experience of Interpreting Artwork

At first, I struggled to make any sort of connection between Sontag and the collections at the Des Moines Art Center. It was too far-fetched for me to believe that the two were so interrelated; however, when going back to Sontag’s “On Photography,” I read, “What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings or drawings” (4). After reading that, I started to realize that I didn’t have to try and recreate what the artist was thinking at the time, as it is only an interpretation – and I am free to interpret as I see fit.

One piece of art that struck me as both visually interesting and mentally stimulating was Vik Muniz’s, “Chuck.” As you can see in the picture (, Muniz uses hundreds of small squares with unidentifiable images on them; and puts together to create what seems to be a portrait of a man. In person, when you stand close to the artwork, it is very blurry. After stepping back ten feet, the image is clearer (but still not district). While at the museum, I tried to step into Muniz’s world and decipher what he wanted everyone to see, but could only come up with what I thought the image portrayed. This brings me back to Sontag’s aforementioned quote on interpretation. I really have no idea what Muniz’s purpose was seven years ago when he created “Chuck” but to me it seems to be an overall theme of analyzing people. Many times, it will seem clear who a person is, what they believe in, and where they stand on issues from a distance, but once you get to know someone, things aren’t always as they used to seem – things get more distorted and blurry up close.

Sontag also says in “On Photography,” “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power” (4). I thought of this quote when looking at Richard Diebenkorn’s, “The Table.” I stood there and started to wonder what significance this might have for Diebenkorn that he felt like he wanted to make a painting attributed to it. Going back to Sontag, I really think that this painting (even easier with photography) is one where someone can put them self “into a certain relation to the world” and visualize a table that they have seen so many times in their lives. It could be the table where everyday your family ate dinner, it could be the table where you got the worst news of your life at, or it could even be the table from college where all of your buddies played poker on every Wednesday night. If you can look at a photograph or any piece of artwork and feel yourself in that image, it is very powerful. (Here is the link to the image at the DMAC:

After realizing these things, it is much easier to see Sontag’s deep passion for photography. If one can disconnect from reality and entrance them self into an image – whether it be photography or a painting – it can be a very powerful experience. The experience can be a sort of recreation of past events in one’s life.

Overall, after combining Sontag’s writings and my visit to the Des Moines Art Center, I have realized that artwork is really just your own interpretation of the artist’s creation. It is that feeling of knowledge and power you feel when you can put yourself into the situation that is in front of you. The experience that you get by disconnecting yourself and experiencing the image is far greater than interpreting what the artist had in mind for his or her own encounter with the painting or photograph.

Sam Page

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bill Bryson: "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"

This will be your first reading, something light and humorous. Bryson grew up in Des Moines, where his father was a sportswriter/editor for the Des Moines Register. Thunderbolt Kid is a memoir of sorts, of Bryson's early years in Des Moines. To read chapter one, click here.

Image excerpted from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.