In his review of ”Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970″ at the Harvard Art Museums, Mark Feeney finds the exhibition “prosecutorial” yet complains about the lack of captions (“Out of focus,” Sunday Arts, Oct. 3). He writes that “Devour the Land” wants the museumgoer to feel “anger, disgust, moral superiority.” I didn’t experience that at all. Rather, I was amazed at the nuanced photographic content, the juxtaposition of black and white with color, and the wide range of formats. Some of the photographs astonish us while others work passively, like roots taking hold.
Yes, the exhibit asks us to think. We can figure out for ourselves the relationship between a family having dinner and a site devastated by chemical munitions.
In reference to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea, Feeney states that “to ignore the relationship between means and ends is asinine and even more odious.” Whether it was righteous of Sherman to have ordered the destruction of all crops on the way is apparently a question the critic has already answered. Ironically, this exhibition allows him to do so.
Feeney also takes to task the premise of military expansionism from 1960 to 2021. But a head count of foot soldiers in an age where we have sophisticated technology and drone attacks is disingenuous. “Statistics belong in a position paper,” he writes, “not an art review,” yet he’s the one wielding them.
To be fair to the critic, he spends ample space describing selected images and ruminates on them insightfully. However, the review ends with this rebuff: “Polemic without intellectual rigor is a form of moral self-congratulation.” Feeney apparently doesn’t recognize the care and deliberation that went into this exhibition. It’s too bad, because the curator has given us a rich palette to work with. I’d encourage readers to view the exhibition and see for themselves.
The writer is a photography dealer with an emphasis on 19th-century work.