Photographs by Greta Pratt. Essays by Rennard Strickland and Karel Ann Marling.
Steidl, Gottingen, 2005. 88 pp., 65 color illustrations, 11x10½".
Ever since irony went mainstream in the 1970s, it’s been hard to look at Americana without seeing it as kitsch,
simultaneously disposable and enduring. Greta Pratt’s Using History is, at first glance, a kind of kitsch catalogue, dropped in your mailbox by mistake, meant for someone in Stuttgart or London; a foreign observer would have ordered it to help gleefully confirm all their worst ideas of what it means to be a contemporary American. Pratt shows Americans dressed up as Custers and Confederates and cowboys
and colonial slaves, bent over to show off our enormous posteriors as we try to decide what to buy from the
nearest vending machine. When we see half a dozen Lincolns traveling by Winnebago, we smile and wave.
We dress as the Statue of Liberty, then settle ourselves in so we can watch a solemnly narrated reenactment of
Antietam, or take in the disasters and triumphs of American space flight. This is a high-school history textbook
as seen through the whirling blades of a food processor, and Pratt wastes no time in parading all the tangible contradictions of the past as pastiche. But there’s more to her vision than irony. If Pratt was only interested in skewering Babbittry and boobocracy in the boonies, illustrating what we’ve known about ourselves at least since Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken, this work would be far less interesting. Signs of a grander ambition are scattered across the pictures: schoolchildren being shown a KKK exhibit; references to 9/11, which remains too raw to be completely shorn of its context and meaning; and the multiple uses people make of the American flag, appropriating it to cover (literally) many interpretations of what it is to be American. Yes, we still look foolish when we betray our sincerity, but Pratt wants us to know that there are many ways to see America, if we’ re able to look beyond the easy surface. Perhaps, bowing to a necessary tolerance, E. Pluribus Unum might best be translated as “There’s no accounting for taste.” PHIL HARRIS
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