The American Dream Debunked

Robert Indiana: Sculpture 1958-2018 at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (UK)

A review of an art exhibition

Valeriya Salt

  Robert Indiana, an American artist, sculptor, and social activist, came to the UK with his major solo exhibition for the first time. 

Rooted deeply in pop-art, his prints, sculptures, art installations, and paintings represent six decades of the artist’s reimagining of identity, human rights issues, and social justice in America.

Love is God (1964) proclaims one of Indiana’s paintings, giving a new interpretation to one of the most important Biblical doctrines. The word “love” repeated again and again in his pop-art prints and his massive metal outdoor sculptures. Everything, even small details like fonts he chose, the size of the letters, the ways the letters are welded (or pressed) together to create an intricate pattern of shapes and forms, serves one big purpose–to glorify love, to reflect its divinity. Love, Amor in Spanish. The same four letters repeat again and again in cor-ten steel (LOVE  Wall, 1966-2006), on canvas or paper in black and white (Black and White LOVE, 1969) and also in blue, red, and white—the colours of the American flag—show us that love comes in all shapes, sizes, and forms and it is like God. It is everywhere around us. We just need to find a way to distinguish and embrace it. 

Numbers is another important topic of Indiana’s works. Fascinated by numbers, the artist explores the theme of identity and self-identity in his works like ONE Through ZERO (The Ten Numbers), 1980-2001 and Exploding Numbers, 1964-1966. From a date of birth to a home address, from a phone number to a bank account—we’re surrounded by numbers from birth to death. In the twenty-first century, the digital fortress imprisoned humanity completely. Everything around us can be explained by numbers and formulae. Even poetry, music, and art—the products of pure creativity—are, in fact, just numbers. Rhyming lines of poems, musical notations, the golden ratio in sculpture and architecture… What are they if not the highest, most advanced representation of just ten digits from 0 to 9?

Indiana used a very similar approach to interpret the American dream. He minimised its greatness to just four short words: eat, hug, die, err (The Electric American Dream, 2007-2018). In our society, swallowed by consumerism and mass media, all we do is just eat (Indiana’s word for “live”), hug (probably to say goodbye to our loved ones), and die. Then… Nothing left of us, just err—the final sigh of despair and disappointment, helpless realisation that all efforts were in vain, and the precious moments of life were wasted. Then, the full cycle starts again as the Wheel of Samsara. In their race to make the great American dream come true, people don’t have time to enjoy life. Andy Warhol manifested it in his Campbell’s soup cansprints, Indiana did it using just four words. Maybe the American dream is not a dream at all? Nothing more but a mirage, implanted in people’s psyche by the media? 

The artist created totem poles on wheels made of recycled wood, corroded metal, and bulls’ skulls on the top. He tried to root the American dream in the American past, to remind it that cultural archetypes are far more powerful than any mass media. However, even ancient ritual practices can’t save our modern society from the pointless chase of chimeras, created and nurtured by the norms of modern society. 

I’m not an American. I’ve never ever been to the United States. But does it mean that here, in Europe we don’t dream big? Or are we immune to the eat-hug-die-err treadmill? I tried to analyse but struggled. One thing became clear to me: the never-ending cycle of eating and dying must be stopped, and the artists, like Robert Indiana can help us.

Exhibition’s official site:

19th April 2022

VALERIYA SALT is a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. She studied History and earned her Master’s degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. She’d lived for many years in different corners of Eastern Europe before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. Her short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Bewildering Stories, The Chamber Magazine, Strange Fiction ‘Zine SF&F, The Pine Cone Review, Tall Tale TV (podcast), etc.

Source: Free resource from YSP website, cropped.

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