For more than 150 years, Coney Island, a strip of sand at the mouth of New York Harbor, has occupied a singular place in the American imagination. From a beginning as a watering hole for the wealthy, through its transformation into an amusement and entertainment mecca for the masses, to its struggle for renewal in recent decades, an extraordinary array of artists have viewed Coney Island as a microcosm of the American experience. The exhibition brings to life the excitement of Coney Island, showing visitors how its magnetic world of attractions has become a touchstone for American mass culture and popular recreation. Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland opens April 6 at the Park City Museum.
Adapted from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art’s flagship exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, this new traveling exhibition from NEH on the Road will explore America’s playground as a place and as an idea, examining its persistent presence in the American imagination.
The constant novelty of the resort made it a seductively liberating subject for artists. What they saw and how they chose to portray it varied widely in style and mood over time, mirroring the aspirations and disappointments of the era and of the country. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, with each section titled after contemporary quotations that also communicate changing popular perceptions about Coney Island through the generations.
Throughout the exhibition, artifacts display how the modern American mass-culture industry was born at Coney Island. The exhibition investigates the rise of American leisure and traces Coney Island’s influence on amusement parks and popular culture throughout the country. Photographs, ephemera, film clips, and hands-on interactives immerse visitors in the experience of Coney Island.
This exhibition was organized by Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, in partnership with Mid-America Arts Alliance, Kansas City, MO.
These deceptively simple drawings frame the public’s understanding of early-to-mid twentieth-century world events and trends ranging from the two world wars, the great depression, public discontent with the US government, presidential elections, daily battles regarding work-related rejection, nostalgia for homespun neighborhood charm in the Midwest, and more. Along the way, these cartoons served a dualistic intention: to provide welcomed comic relief as well as shape opinion.
The cartoonist draws strength from the limited conventions of the newspaper context. Just as the strict rules of a haiku challenge the poet to create exactly the right mood within the tight construction of very few words, the editorial cartoonist presents a powerful distillation of political argument through a single image and maybe a few well-placed labels or a short caption.
To accomplish this underappreciated feat, cartoonists develop their own language—a language taught to and subsequently shared with their readers. Standard symbols such as the oft-used Uncle Sam or Statue of Liberty evoke abstract concepts such as nation, patriotism, and public interest. On a darker side, cartoons reveal the inherent cruelty of prejudice, xenophobia, and ignorance.
Political humor relies on an informed and receptive audience. Headline stories prime newspaper readers to more quickly grasp the cartoonist’s unique take on the news of the day. A talented cartoonist makes even complex political arguments accessible to ordinary citizens. The friendly strokes of the cartoonist’s pen often belie the rawness and reality of the issues at hand. This exhibition of editorial cartoons convey how cartoons effectively expose hypocrisy, reveal contradictions, introduce news ideas, and promote fresh perspectives as news events unfold.
The Melton Gallery at the University of Central Oklahoma, curator of the exhibition, has housed this set of political cartoons for more than three decades. This exhibition was organized by ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance.