Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 196:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 196.

Today, the art museum has something interesting to show us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Houston Museum of Fine Arts recently mounted a large Frederick Remington exhibit upstairs, along with a showing of several modern sculptors downstairs. I'd never seen the full sweep of Remington's paintings and bronzes in one place, and it was a surprise. Here, all stirred together, were documentary art, expressionism, and, above all, the most remarkable storytelling.

A Remington print hung over the fireplace in my childhood home. An Indian horseman bore down on a young man trying to ford his wagon across a stream. The Indian was armed with a spear; the young man defended himself with a whip. From childhood to this very day, I've worried about that young man. Children at the exhibit were teased the same way. I heard them asking, "Will the cowboy that's falling off his horse get hurt?" "Will the Indians get those men defending the water hole?" Remington touches us with his powerful sense of survival-drama in the American West.

Remington went out West in the late 19th century, and he soon found his vocation there. It was to record the twilight of a way of life. As an old man, he sadly told us that 20th-century technology and commerce had destroyed that world forever.

What the modern sculptors downstairs were saying was similar. They made sport of modern technology. Here were surrealistic telephones, light bulbs, cartridges, engine parts -- anti-machines that had sprouted in the humus of their minds. But it was all wrought in a highly technical use of plastics, metal, and other materials. No more documentaries -- no more stories: these artists agreed on a cynical, symbolic description of a technical world -- one that they sneer at and revel in at the same time.

But that was also true of Remington. After all, he was a genius in the use of advanced lost-wax casting technologies. And his work gives us a stunningly accurate record of the technologies of the old West. Of course I like Remington because he seems driven by admiration more than by disaffection.

Yet Remington and these modern sculptors alike remind us that technology changes our lives. And anything with that sort of power needs critics. At the same time, their works also remind us that technology is an inescapable part of our human nature. How else is it that many of technology's harshest critics come to include some of its most skilled practitioners!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H. Lienhard.

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