Saturday, December 18, 2010
Friday, December 17, 2010
Today I visit two museums in Tempe. The first is the Tempe History Museum, in what used to be the city library, next to the new one in a large complex of buildings. It’s free, and pretty much worth the price of admission. A bit more, really. It has exhibits describing the "prehistory" and the European history of the area. Before the honkies came it was the domain of the Hohokam people, of course, and later the Apaches.
The Hohokam apparently had a quite sophisticated (by our definition) civilization and government, not to mention their system of canals for irrigation. But what the hell, they had a long time to achieve relatively little. Archaeological evidence suggests they occupied the land from approximately the year 1 A.D. until 1450. How they figured out the beginning date I don’t know. Their area was a large oval covering the center of the bottom two thirds of the present State of Arizona. Today the O’odham people (with a name suspiciously similar to Hohokam, don’t you think?) occupy a smaller reservation area south of Tucson.
Some say the Hohokam retreated from the Phoenix area because of droughts and flooding. I don’t buy it. Think of it--1,450 years in the same place! If you can’t get used to droughts and flooding around here in that span of time, then what have you learned? And then to retreat south, into the Sonoran desert, leaving all that canal infrastructure behind? I think it more likely that others came--the Apaches, maybe--and forced them out by fire and sword and holy terror. Then, because the Apaches were essentially nomadic at that time, they didn't have much use for the whole canal thing. They came, they saw, they kicked ass, they moved on.
I could be completely wrong about that and I admit my knowledge is superficial, but hell, no one else seems to know the answer either, since, of all the things the Hohokam did achieve, figuring how to write things down wasn't one of them. Here’s the really important thing, though. The Hohokam stayed here for a millennium and a half. That's three times longer than the Roman Empire lasted, or for that matter than the European conquest of the southwest has lasted so far. Can anyone in this country imagine us staying around for that long? Admittedly, the pace of change is a bit faster now, but not in the really essential matters--water, roads, housing, food. All those things look more or less like they did two thousand years ago, just maybe made with different materials. Cattle still graze, cotton still grows, buildings must still have walls and roofs, fries must still be wrapped in something to absorb the grease.
It’s puzzling to me how any civilization could last that long in the first place, then disappear without leaving much evidence behind. Puzzling but reassuring, since it means that in all likelihood this thing we have going now will be all but obliterated at some point. Then the people who come after us will say, “Well, there’s evidence that for some time the people who called themselves ‘Americans’ lived here. We don’t know where they went or why. It might have been disease, or not enough air conditioning, or a shortage of Twinkies, or maybe they got back in their space ships and went to their home planet.”
On up Rural Road I go to Apache Blvd., where I turn left, heading toward the ASU campus. I go to the ASU Art Museum. This is an architecturally innovative concrete thing that somewhat resembles a low temple or pyramid. I go in and down some stairs to the entrance, at the lowest level.
The museum has a relatively small collection, given over mostly to the multi-media renderings of artists I assume are locals or students. Some of it works, and some it is too clever by half, but I applaud the museum for its evident commitment to new contemporary art.
By far the most amusing thing is a piece by an artist named Chris Todd, called “America’s Toughest Jukebox.” It’s a video jukebox box about four feet high, called a Scopitone. They were popular in Europe a few decades ago, and I seem to remember seeing one in a North African restaurant in Paris in the 60s, playing precursors to music videos--belly dancers and such--for lonely Arab men. This one is topped with a video screen on which is the black and white head of Maricopa County’s own Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff.” His head perches atop a somewhat oversized pair of shoulders dressed in a 70s style leisure suit with a garish wide shirt collar spread over the lapels. He stands behind a lectern. The viewer is invited to push buttons with song titles next to them, whereupon the mouth and head of Sheriff Joe move in synch to the songs. He talks, rather than sings, in a gruff but high voice which I assume is a good imitation of his real voice. The two songs I listened to all the way through were “Shout” and “Every Breath You Take.” I left when he was about halfway through “Margaritaville.” A brilliant work of art.
Elsewhere in the museum there are paintings and sketches by more recognized artists, like Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keefe, Grant Wood, and George Grosz. There’s a wall filled with portraits, probably about thirty of them, from the 18th century to the present day. A nice presentation.
After the ASU Art Museum I proceed down Mill Street to where all the student shops and restaurants are located and relax with a cup of coffee, watching the kids and the panhandlers and listening to a guy playing the saxophone for donations. His repertoire consisted of a mediocre and somewhat mournful succession of Christmas carols and TV theme songs.