Civilization and the Smithsonian

Civilization; what is civilization? What differentiates a civilization from a culture, from a language or a piece of land surrounded on all sides by a border, arbitrary or otherwise but which nevertheless encloses – freeing or imprisoning depending upon the nature of things and the flow of history? For me, a sign of civilization is a society which preserves pieces of itself from one generation to the next; a preservation which is not concerned with party or government or ideology but which recognizes that in the good and the bad, the successes and the failures we are found. Stories to be proud of and to cringe over during their retelling but which notwithstanding we allow because they are also a part.

For me this is important, and it’s poignant because I spend a lot of time away; wandering through places old and new, places echoing with stories of past greatness as well as those not-yet-great.


Though my shadow falls across these lands for a time, a season, none of them are mine; and so when I do come home I like to take a second to remember who I am, where I am from. To refresh myself in the stories and values that run through my consciousness and feed my imagination. And it’s grand, when I do return home: to feel the hard earth of my land under my feet – to smell the smells and listen to the sounds and savor the tastes. To look at her; deliberately and with intentionality. I went this time to the Smithsonian Museum of Art. Art – it’s the first to get destroyed in a war, when a civilization commits suicide like in Syria or Venezuela; ink on canvas goes up in flames, rock formed into sculptures is destroyed easily in a blast. So too the artists: blood of those who thought to express an opinion, to expose themselves in the hopes of teaching and in turn learning something. Something about themselves, their past and the people who came before who also nestled in the valleys and dales of the heartlands their ideas of belonging. The blood of creators, running freely down the stairs of a hotel; fertilizing the fields, their last gift to those who they tried to warn.


What I found this time was a story, our story. A portrait of America – blemishes and all, the good and the bad and the hard. African American artists who dared to paint as the expression of their frustration with a system that was changing too slowly. Great epic landscapes, wild and naked and free. Visions of tomorrow; snapshots of tenements and burned out churches and poverty, black and white, immigrant and people who have only known America. Portraits of great men whose names roll off the tongues of even the ignorant juxtaposed against the nameless – the anonymous who fought and strove and died and who only ever will be remembered on a small canvas hanging lonely on a wall in a tired old building upon a swamp.

This is the story of America. Our story, for those who dare to see and learn. And though my countenance may never grace a wall to inspire future generations; it is nevertheless my story as well. For this I am grateful.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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