PDN Photo of the Day

Dream On

There’s no time like the politically fraught present to reconsider ideas like the American Dream and American Exceptionalism—the latter being the notion that we stand out as a moral beacon to the rest of world. “If Only We Could Dream Together,” currently showing at the Broad Art Museum, questions those sacred narratives through a combination of photographs, lithographs and other artworks dating from the 1930s onward.

Organized by associate curator Carla Acevedo-Yates, the exhibition ranges from abstract expressionist painting to social documentary photography. Included are works by artists Luis Cruz Azaceta, Philip Guston and Radcliffe Bailey, and photographers  Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Leonard Freed and others. “Featuring works that alternately support and question core values—freedom, class mobility, equality—the exhibition makes a case for how visual culture, including photography, printmaking, and abstract art, has critically addressed these issues and shaped public perception,” exhibition materials explain.

The photographs in particular focus on periods of social, political and economic upheaval. Farm Security Administration photographs from The Great Depression, for instance, underscore class divides—and white poverty—during that era. The social alienation and racial tensions of the 1960s are reflected in several works, such as  Edward Roberson’s 1963 image of exhausted black civil rights marchers sleeping on the streets of Selma, Alabama. Roberson’s image connects visually to a 2001 photo by Leonard Freed that shows women embracing at the site of the World Trade Center.

As a group, the works prompt viewers to ask: What does the American Dream mean, and who does it actually belong to? At what costs do we cling to the myth? How is it represented in the visual culture, and by whom? As exhibition materials note, “[T]he ideals embodied by the American dream involve many contradictions, and have negatively affected populations excluded from its lofty promises at different historical moments: Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx, women, immigrants, and more.”

The point is front and center in Cruz Azaceta’s bold, colorful screen print titled “Lotto: The American Dream” (1992); and Arthur Rothstein’s 1937 photograph called “Building, Birmingham, Alabama,” which shows a billboard amid rural squalor with a picture of a happy (white) family driving down the highway. “There’s no way like the American way,” thebillboard in the photo proclaims. Other works raise the questions in quieter, more subtle ways: Lee Friedlander’s reflection in an empty store window (“New Orleans, 1968”), for instance, and a 1981 image of a desolate California highway from Robbert Flick’s “American Roads” portfolio.

Our nation’s current political divide—and drift—has drawn a lot of attention to the questions of who we are and what we stand for. This hopefully titled “If Only We Could Dream Together” exhibit helps remind us that our national narrative wasn’t handed down on a stone tablet, but is instead a perpetual work-in-progress, built on a set of elusive ideals.

—David Walker

“If Only We Could  Dream Together”
Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum
Michigan State University
Through May 5

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