Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 10

October 2012

A Conversation with Greg Dickinson

In this issue, Public Address Division member Greg Dickinson discusses his coauthored study of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art (WGWA) and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (BBHC) in Cody, Wyoming. The WGWA is one of five museums that constitute the BBHC. The BBHC is a nationally and internationally recognized center for the representation and study of the U.S. West. The center traces its origins to the founding of the Buffalo Bill Historical Society in 1917, the year of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s death. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s monumental sculpture Buffalo Bill—The Scout (1929) was the founding artifact in what became the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.

Although there is no really good way of experiencing the WGWA without actually going to Cody, you can find online images of the WGWA at the BBHC’s Web site. Much of the art in the WGWA’s and the BBHC’s collection is viewable through the center’s online image archive.

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

Over the last ten years, Eric Aoki, Brian L. Ott, and I have been sojourning regularly in Cody, Wyoming, in order to study the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. The project began with a hallway conversation about representations of Whiteness and masculinity in an old BBHC brochure that Brian had saved from a childhood trip to Yellowstone. Out of this conversation grew one and then multiple trips to Cody and the BBHC.

Our initial impulse was to write a single essay on the center, with a focus on memory, masculinity, and race. The BBHC resisted this reading. The center, with its five museums, was too complex for a single paper or a weekend-long visit. In spite of our repeated visits and consistent writing about the BBHC’s museums, the Whitney eluded our grasp. But in 2009, museum curators redesigned the gallery. No longer organized chronologically, by artist, or by genre, the gallery confounds received understandings of how art galleries should work.

With this re-hanging of the West completed, we returned to the center and the gallery, curious not only about the changes wrought in the WGWA but also about the issue of museum change more generally. Changes in the built environment constitute one of the significant challenges confronting rhetorical critics of space and place. Although the built environment seems far more permanent than, say, a photograph, it is always and incessantly changing. As the needs and aspirations of inhabitants, owners, and designers change, buildings are remodeled and rebuilt. What is more, the building’s transformations often hide under newly tiled floors and behind freshly painted walls.

Considering the complete overhaul of the WGWA, we wondered what the rhetoric of the newly designed museum would be. In what ways would this new rhetorical performance be consonant with the old space, and in what ways would it be different or new? And how might these changes refract our understandings of the BBHC more broadly?

We found that the new gallery—organized into five aesthetic and narrative themes—shifts the privileged gaze from that of the artist to that of Buffalo Bill himself. Indeed, we argue, the gallery functions like a hymn authorized by and in praise of Buffalo Bill and the West he embodies.

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?

The question of context is absolutely central to our understanding of the WGWA. In our coauthored writing about the BBHC, we have suggested that we engage any particular material site through a series of interlocking landscapes of experience. These landscapes include past experiences with museums, art galleries, images of the West, and the like. Landscapes of experience also involve the material landscapes that visitors traverse to get to the gallery. Since the gallery is located in a remote corner of Wyoming, travel to it involves substantial commitments of time and money, and the characteristics of the journey condition responses to the gallery. The images of Yellowstone on the gallery’s walls, for example, lie in Old Faithful’s shadow, and Little Big Horn, the subject of two massive canvases near the museum’s physical and affective conclusion, is a battle site in Montana that many gallery visitors pass by or visit before coming to the BBHC. The surrounding museums celebrating Buffalo Bill, firearms, Plains Indians, and the natural environment also shape experiences with the art museum. Finally, struggles over the meaning of the West remain centrally important to understanding the gallery and the BBHC. In fact, the BBHC has recently rededicated itself to “Celebrating the Spirit of the American West,” and the center’s promotional material argues that this celebration is foundational to the flourishing of democracy.

How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?

As we engaged the gallery as fully embodied coauthors, we consistently returned to music as a way of helping us to think and write about the WGWA. The WGWA, built of complex, immersive, and interactive spaces, makes untenable traditional practices of reading. Instead, we struggled to understand the built environment on its own terms: that is, as material rhetoric rather than primarily as symbolic or discursive suasion. Thinking of the gallery as music—more specifically as a hymn—urged us to attend to the rhythms of the building. For example, it is structured in ¾ time, with the final, strongest beat occurring when Buffalo Bill—The Scout fully appears through the cathedral windows at the museum’s apogee. Thinking in musical terms also invited us to write about the dissonances and resolutions in content and form among the paintings, sculptures, and the gallery’s arrangement. As Kenneth Burke argues, there is deep pleasure in form, and this pleasure can be heightened through formal frustrations (dissonance) and their resolutions. So it is in the WGWA.

This critical approach allows us to engage the gallery and its preferred performances as material, embodied, and affectively rich. With our musical approach, we are better equipped to argue that the WGWA (re)installs a Western sublime and, in so doing, engages the West and sublimity not only as discursive enactments but also as material and materially consequential embodied performances. Our hope in our work is to produce heuristically meaningful criticism that can enrich our and our readers’ engagement with experiential landscapes.

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

Clearly, few professors will be able to teach a public address or rhetorical criticism class while in Cody, and we cannot bring the artifact with us to the classroom. However, in classes on public memory, rhetorical criticism, or rhetoric and space (there are more and more of these), our forthcoming essay on the WGWA in Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies and its included images will be useful in helping students to make the transition from writing about words and symbols to engaging spaces and materiality. Almost every town has an art gallery or a museum or a memory site. Reading this essay and others like it alongside visits to local museums, memorials, old towns, and the like will enliven both the class readings and students’ (and professors’) engagements with everyday landscapes.

To push students to think even more deeply about embodiment and materiality, I might urge my students to dance or sing the space they are inhabiting, both while they are there and later as they reimagine their experiences. As I was writing drafts of our essay, I was in my hometown café literally dancing my way through (my memory of) the gallery. Of course, you might get kicked out of the museum, but that too would make for a great story, right? Such a story, by the way, would demonstrate the risks and pleasures of studying public places of memory.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

Dickinson, Greg, Carole Blair, and Brian L. Ott, eds. Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Dickinson, Greg, Brian L. Ott, and Eric Aoki. “(Re)Imagining the West: The Whitney Gallery of Western Art’s Sacred Hymn.” Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies, forthcoming December 2012.

Dickinson, Greg, Brian L. Ott, and Eric Aoki. “Spaces of Remembering and Forgetting: The Reverent Eye/I at the Plains Indian Museum.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 3 (2006): 27–47.

Contributor: Greg Dickinson is Professor of Communication Studies and Interim Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at Colorado State University. His work engages the intersections of place, memory, materiality, and everyday life and has appeared in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Critical Studies in Media Communication, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Rhetoric Society Quarterly. He is the editor, with Carole Blair and Brian L. Ott, of Places of Public Memory: The Rhetoric of Museums and Memorials (2010) and, with Brian L. Ott, of the forthcoming Routledge Reader in Rhetorical Criticism.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.

Vibrant Voices, Vol. 1, No. 10