Thursday, January 8, 2009

Still Chewing on J. B. Jackson

I am still digesting things I’ve read while I was researching my proposal. Perhaps the most unsettling book I read was J. B. Jackson’s Discovering the Vernacular Landscape.

Irritatingly, to me, he seems to accept all too easily the incursion of malls and boxes on the outskirts of our population centers. Susan Abbott mentioned this in a comment: Now I hope you can help me develop more tolerance for some landscape feature that irritates the hell out of me. Maybe Mcmansions, or strip malls (and J.B. jackson actually likes them, though he was writing in the 60's before they took over the planet.).

Implied in her comment was the question is it possible to see them as positive. The next day, I offered a shot of the new Lowe’s on Shelburne Road as an image that was a good image, but not something Lowe's would like.

Near the end of his book, Jackson offers this: A landscape . . . is the field of perpetual conflict and compromise between what is established by authority and what the vernacular insists upon preferring.

The word "conflict" appears here, as it did in almost everything I read about Vermont (except perhaps in my mother's copy of the 1926 Vermont for Young Vermonters, a 1926 history text for Vermont schools).

But, I wonder, what percentage of the population actually does think about landscape? And the more I've read, the more I wonder. Do most go along with whatever comes along, unthinking because the subject is simply not on their radar as a subject? It's not that they don't care, it's that the subject is non-existent for them. The distinction is an important one because thinking about something and not caring is quite different from never thinking about it.

If the majority of Vermonters fall into the latter category, then perhaps the AOA works can have a significant impact.

My thinking here is that because any AOA exhibit will be about Vermont, the offering of content that will in some way be accessible to ALL Vermonters may get folks into galleries that have never been into a gallery. This could be one of the real strengths of the project. It could be that we reach all sorts of people and show them that they can interact with "art", that they can "understand art".


  1. Clair,
    excellent points- I posted my comments as a response to you on my blog because the whole thing was getting long. Upon Susan's suggestion and your seconding it, I ended up ordering 3 books by JB Jackson, with some of my AoA money. Right now I am reading from the compilation "Necessity for Ruins."

  2. Clair, as always, lots to think about in your post. Choosing "iconic" Vermont images for my project had me thinking about vernacular vs. ideal landscapes, too. About J. B. Jackson, I just started reading him, so may be wrong about this--but seems to me that it's difficult to attach his ideas to today's landscape. For one thing, in the 30 years since he wrote enthusiastically about strip malls and ranch houses, we've seen a huge loss of traditional architecture, open space and downtown commercial areas. He was excited about a new vernacular that was a reaction against the "authority" of the old order (for example, Jackson has an interesting essay on a farm family, and how the old farmhouse represents a 19th century, more patriarchal social order, vs. the ranch house freeing the mother and children to engage more with the outside world.)Contexts have changed since then. Now families are more often trying to keep their farms then flee them.

    Also, Jackson came out of an elite, old world moneyed background, and his tastes were formed by education and travels in Europe. Discovering the American vernacular, especially of the West, must have been liberating for him. But much of what he he celebrated as innovative and anti-authoritarian has become, a generation later, the landscape preferred by government and big business (who are still the "authority"): roads instead of rails, sprawl instead of revitalizing towns, global instead of local production.

    I think Vermonters are aware of landscape--many people came here because of a visceral need to see what we Vermonters see everyday. Even if people in other places don't 'think" about landscape, they are affected by their surroundings. There's a great book called "A Pattern Language" that goes from city to room scale, dissecting why certain places make us feel good, and others lousy.

  3. Thanks Curtis -- and I think you will enjoy tussling with Jackson.

    Susan - two things -- one -- and I should have clarified this, the Vermonters I'm talking about are the ones born and raised here and for the most part, not privy to a great deal of education. (I think we have to leave out the people who chose to come to Vermont, because they are a self-selecting group--usually well-educated and sensitive to any number of VT issues. Preaching to them is preaching to the choir.)

    Jackson in 1984 was steeped in the Interstate highway system that Eisenhower got going. By then the rails were already dying. (I was planning to post about this very subject tomorrow!!)

    And, two -- the "authority" issue is one that came up in Searls as well. Downhillers more or less being "authority" and uphillers the "vernacular".

    I'm really really ticked that we didn't get a chance to muck about with this over beer in WRJ.

  4. Clair talk to Ellen Powell - she has a printer in Waitsfield/Warren i think (?) that she likes a lot