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Arts and Parks


by Jerome Weeks 29 Sep 2009

Over on his Modern Art Notes blog, Tyler Green makes an interesting historical point — regarding  the new Ken Burns documentary on PBS about the creation of the National Parks system. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Ahem. There’s a new episode tonight at 7 p.m. At any rate, Green makes the argument that several American […]

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yosemitefalls_390Over on his Modern Art Notes blog, Tyler Green makes an interesting historical point — regarding  the new Ken Burns documentary on PBS about the creation of the National Parks system.

Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Ahem. There’s a new episode tonight at 7 p.m.

At any rate, Green makes the argument that several American writers, artists and photographers, notably John Muir and Carleton Watkins, were instrumental in both documenting our still-then-untouched stretches of wilderness and informing Easterners and government officials  of just how incredible these resources were — before they would be gone forever.

Throughout the middle of the 19thC artists were on the vanguard of making Americans aware of the grandeur of the land. (Writers, including John Muir and John Wesley Powell, were influential too.) None were more important than Carleton Watkins, America’s first great artist. Watkins’ photos of the American West, and his 1861 pictures of Yosemite in particular, were a revelation to Easterners who had little context for the scale and majesty of the West….

But that’s not all: Watkins’ interest in Yosemite lands also provides an unusually direct example of how art can impact public policy. In February, 1864, a representative of a steamship company proposed to California Sen. John Conness that the federal government set aside Yosemite valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove as protected areas. The representative included in his correspondence with Sen. Conness a portfolio of Watkins’ photos of Yosemite.

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