Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Art and the Americanization of the Pennsylvania Dutch

"We are richer for it," says Weiser, perennially defending the demise of Pennsylvania German folk culture. Richer means poorer. Instead of celebrating sauerkraut and language for themselves, it has to be for "the tolerance of American polity" (xiii). Welcoming the diverse may be what America says of itself on the Statue of Liberty, but the first example was among the Pennsylvania Germans in Philadelphia where American rhetoric hatched all men equal. It was a Pennsylvania dream of equality. Weiser celebrates "styles at variance with the majority" (xiii), but it is not an American majority; it was not "the majority" they were at variance with, it was the English! Continual apologies for Deutschness are not so much false to the fact as apologies for being what they are. Keyser on the texts of fraktur in his Preface to Hershey's book says that "none of this little-studied body of folk poetry is fine literature" (This Teaching I Present, 2003, 8). He could easily have said, "these texts are an invaluable window into the mind of their art."

Pennsylvania German art critics want to show that even if they are German they really belong. Millard Gladfelter in his Foreword to Pennsylvania German Fraktur by Frederick S. Weiser calls the cultural war between the English "on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers" and the Germans of "outlying countrysides" a "contest" for retention of custom and language" (ix). As if he never heard of English domination. Weiser likewise pains to make the Deutsch into Americans by declaiming "the much-celebrated openness of the United receive into its midst persons and cultures of widely disparate origin" (xiii), but it was not the United States that welcomed them, only Penn's Quaker Pennsylvania. The English never welcome the disparate [except now that there are whole sections of Muslim London!]. From "Negro Spirituals to Pennsylvania German Fraktur" (Gladfelter, ix) they exploited them. To assimilate even in the bi-centennial world of 1976 these volumes commemorate, Weiser constructs a rhetoric that celebrates the whole for its part, the United States for Pennsylvania. Fraktur's introduction is worth attending for so transparently reflecting the fear and prejudice in the background of its paradise.

Borrowings From Betters

Friends of fraktur must not act so. Weiser says "with some exceptions, the motifs of Fraktur are simply embellishment and have no esoteric meaning or function beyond the beautification of the piece" (xxvii). Hershey defends fraktur as cultivating the beautiful, "a process that stretches the imagination and pushes the artist toward an appreciation and even a love for things beautiful" (52). Even! Why are such things said? It is only the Pennsylvania Dutch who doubt their beauty while everyone else celebrates it. Why else would this large body of folk art have been preserved and so obviously treasured? It is a trait common to all subjugated groups that they doubt themselves. After examining a thousand pieces of fraktur Hershey says that in some cases the design illustrates the text, but mostly they are "lovely compositions," pretty pictures that "convey religious meaning equally as well as they communicate the value of beauty in everyday life" (56), but there is reason to believe that fraktur is a language flower.

The abstraction of image from text proliferated through other Pennsylvania folk art genres, linens, chests, pots, ironwork and barns. Divorce of meaning did not sever prior connection to its origin. Weiser wants the images to be an imitation of the nobility by the middle class, a folk art, of "cultural sinking from the tastes of upper levels of society" (xxviii), not a rising from the hymns or the unconscious. He applies this failing social/political analysis in his Preface to the Pennsylvania German Decorated Chest. It is the omnipresent Dutch apology that peasant doors could do little but open in bastardy to their betters.

Keyser says, "none of this little-studied body of folk poetry is fine literature" (This Teaching, 8). What notion of fine? Should this little-studied art be compared with Mozart, but not with Kafka or Borges, who though entirely irrelevant must apply for "fine" in vain. "Their copies of upper class, from furnishings to portraits, to attire, are frequently grouped together under the name of folk art" (Chest, 13). Has such a claim been made of other folk art? Weiser's "constant cultural sinking from the tastes of upper levels of society" so that "fine engravings and prints owned by the elite found their country counterpart in the drawings of schoolmasters and itinerants" (Fraktur, xxviii) pass colonial sociology but fail art. He cites the lion and unicorn from British arms and the eagle from the American as borrowings from betters, but it is patently post hoc to say that because they preceded them they caused them. Images have to be allowed their own world outside social milieus. Schimmels's Dutch eagles are a supreme delight in their interpretations, hardly copies. Do you say Navajo weavers imitated their betters when they wove chief blankets or railroad trains at the behest of traders?

Rationalizing art is a hard road divorcing text and context the same, which was argued of Blake, whose illuminations were not even "mere embellishment." It would be better for critics to admit they cannot see any connection and get glasses.

Spiritual Transfer

Technology, philosophy and religion sped Pennsylvania assimilation. Early twentieth century transfers of decorative images from chest to barn were a so-called "last flowering" (Yoder, Hex Signs, 3). But the Dutch assimilation of English ways is tracked in every activity, from song to speech. "Did any of the now common English choruses originate among the Pennsylvania Dutch and spread, through translation from German to English...? Yoder answers his own question. No! "The type of spiritual transfer that took place--one might almost call it spiritual osmosis--was from the greater to the lesser body. Anglo-American religious patterns were adopted by the Pennsylvania Dutch, rather than vice versa (Yoder, Pennsylvania Spirituals, 348). But it wasn't just the permeable membrane of song, it was the stenciling instead of free-hand painting (Fabian, The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest, 63), "machine made ware from England [Gaudy Dutch china] resulted in driving out local potteries" (Frederick, Pennsylvania Dutch Cookery, 257). "English ideas about furniture finishes, printed birth certificates, and Victorian popular designs, the Pennsylvania Dutch lost interest in the artifacts of earlier generations. In time, the chests, pottery, and pie safes were relegated to the attic or barn" (Yoder, Hex Signs, 37).

Substitution of English ideas in the Americanization of the Pennsylvania Dutch reduced the household decorations of flower-stars to barns. Images with a contentious history, they came from everyday relations with nature, sun, animals, plants. For all the debate of the origin of the twelve pointed star hex, the image comes from a double tiger day lily, a duplicate of its shape. This is easy or difficult to find in flower borders. The design of internal landscapes is a deeper legacy in the spirit of acceptance that permeates mind and spirit, a spiritual force symbolized by the natural.

Spiritual Demise

Stoudt says the images are mandalas, but gets no credit for it from Yoder. The images painted on furniture, embroidered on linen, drawn on paper are "a full range of celestial and earthly subjects. Stars and birds, both identifiable and unrecognizable, are seen along with the plump heart..." (Fabian, 58). With the toasting couple, the unicorn, equestrian figures and mermaid, Fabian describes techniques, "the unicorn painters of Berks County, for example-also had templates for the major elements of their designs" (62), but "after the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, stenciling is frequently used in lieu of freehand painting. It is obviously used as a time-saving device and as such is one of the heralds of the decline of the traditional arts of rural Pennsylvania" (63)

The popularity of its demise rouses superstition before dashing the lily to the ground. Pennsylvania Dutch Country, (Irwin Richman) invokes amulets and symbols, "askew crosses," scratched into lintels, "almost invisible except to the knowing eye," "symbolism and magic" (53) before taking Yoder's Hex Signs as proof against voodoo. Having his cake and eating too, the author dances with the hex, but allows little if any "iconic meaning to the decorations found on fraktur," the quintessential Pennsylvania German Artifact," ", vines, animals and birds...hearts, crowns, angels and compass stars" (56).

Exfoliations of flower in the spiritual lily "died when the point of view which created them—the faith of Pennsylvania’s radical religious sects—was killed by the advent of religious liberalism” (Stoudt, 24), the introduction of English in schools and the death of home-crafts by the industrial revolution (Stoudt, xviii). Stoudt already rules out a huge segment of the population when he says "sects." But Yoder also proves the decline of fraktur "found in the nineteenth-century disintegration of the folk culture of the Pennsylvania Germans, particularly (1) the disappearance of institutional elements such as the parochial school, which had produced the Vorschrift, (2) the shift to the English language, which brought with it an inevitable loss of German devotional literature as the wellspring of fraktur symbolism, and (3) the decline in the very meaning of baptism, which had produced the Taufschein." The decline of baptism "can be partially attributed to the impact of the revivalist movement, which invaded the Pennsylvania German churches and sects from the world of Anglo-America." It was a complete conquest: "Fraktur was part of the old-style colonial culture, which, especially in the field of religion, was being challenged and reshaped through acculturation with Anglo-American forms" (280). Acculturate, assimilate! Reshaped through acculturation here means denatured. So the decorative art of the lily abstracted became the so called “prayer acts” of Wentz (24) and the lily was exhausted.

However much a meliorist wants to avoid choice, to celebrate the Pennsylvania past from the majority point of view of the English or lament the passing of the Deutsch foreordains the peasant to be inferior to the Ph.D. It also begs the question of what rural folk benefits were, if impossible to recapture, especially when everyone now suddenly wishes the garden were back again. What is the meaning of the flowering heart iconography in itself? Who are the suspects in its demise? Were, as Stoudt argues, whole classes of these German-Americans transcendentalists one hundred years before Emerson? Where are the studies of that text from the many sources that remain untranslated of the 3151 books and almanacs printed in the German language in America between 1728 and 1830? What devastations wreaked upon these people in the interests of social control?

If you  are thinking of founding a new race, culture or way of life these issues need your attention. If you are waiting for alien salvation from space these issues need your thinking. Or maybe you just have the hunger to be a common neuter of western affluent democratic (read cultural tyranny) societies who promote uniformity in the name of diversity, the English and their quislings (religion and science) exemplary.

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