Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Arts center mounts remarkable exhibit

Guest opinion by Van Gordon Sauter

Van Gordon Sauter is a former president of CBS News and was chairman of the California boxing commission.

You sense them best in the scorching heat of late Summer, as you drive the Central Valley of California, on the ragged old farm roads off Route 99. You feel they could be in the bleached cottonwoods at the edge of a weary ag town. In the nearby migrant workers' shacks. Perhaps in the one bulb hotel rooms on the wrong side of the tracks.

They were there of the '30s, The Oakies, forlorn and apprehensive. But courageous, scrambling to find work to feed exhausted babies and increasingly scrawny bodies. They fled the Great Plains and Oklahoma Panhandle, gambling they could beat starvation by heading down Route 66 to California. The only real destination when the soil blew away and the bank foreclosed and the gruel got thinner every night.

They are iconic figures who have grown to symbolize the desperation of Great Depression America. And they had counterparts in the cities, pale men in dark suits and boaters, who dressed up every day to go stand on downtown street corners, embarrassed by their individual and collective helplessness.

John Steinbeck wrote about them in "The Grapes of Wrath." James T. Farrell captured their urban anguish. John Ford drew upon Steinbeck's Joad family for one of America's great movies. Wood Guthrie etched them in song.

And a bunch of photographers went out with their relatively new but incredibly simple technology to record them in images. In the Central Valley and San Francisco, Pie Town, New Mexico. 10th Avenue in New York City. America.

The Sun Valley Center for the Arts has mounted a stunning collection of these photographs. It is a show worthy in concept and presentation of a major museum. The legendary names of photography are there. And some names that are relatively unfamiliar. And the idea sprang from a local collector with a fascination for history.

Yes, this is art. But far more than that. This is raw history. As the nation frets today with disaster and polarized politics and deranged men roaming the globe with dynamite vests, it is worth thinking of these people. And their fortitude. For they prevailed.

One presumes that the Joad family today is characterized by car dealers and doctors and computer geeks and almond farmers and Wal Mart clerks. And perhaps a fallen soul on meth or doing a soft seven at San Quentin for armed robbery. But the Joads moved out of the cottonwoods into the American mainstream.

This is a remarkable exhibit. For fogeys like myself, who caught the edge of those times, and for kids who know precious little about where their country came from. And everything in between. Adding to the joy is a range of concerts and movies and talks elaborating on the core themes.

Don't miss this stuff. It's about us. The best of us.

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