George Will

WASHINGTON -- In Winslow Homer's 1865 painting "The Veteran in a New Field," a farmer, bathed in sunshine, his back to the viewer, his Union uniform jacket cast on the ground, harvests wheat with a single-bladed scythe. That tool was out of date, and Homer first depicted the farmer wielding a more modern implement. Homer then painted over it, replacing it with what evokes a timeless symbol of death -- the grim reaper's scythe. The painting reminds viewers how much Civil War blood was shed, as at Gettysburg, in wheat fields.

Homer's painting is one of 40 works of art that the National Endowment for Humanities is distributing, in 24-by-36-inch reproductions, with teaching guides, to all primary and secondary schools and libraries that ask for them. About one-third of them already have done so, according to Bruce Cole, the NEH's chairman.

So as Washington's dreariest year in decades sags to an end -- a year in which trillion-dollar improvisations that will debase the dollar have been bracketed by a stimulus that did not stimulate and a rescue that will prolong automakers' drownings -- at the end of this feast of folly, consider something rarer than rubies. It is a 2008 government program that costs next to nothing -- $2.6 million this year; a rounding error in the smallest of the bailouts. And "Picturing America" adds to the public stock of something scarce -- understanding of the nation's past and present.

The 40 works of art include some almost universally familiar ones -- John Singleton Copley's 1768 portrait of a silversmith named Paul Revere; Emanuel Leutze's 1851 "Washington Crossing the Delaware"; Augustus Saint-Gaudens' bronze relief sculpture "Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-fourth Regiment Memorial" on Boston Common. But "Picturing America" is not, Cole takes pains to insist, "the government's 'top 40.'" Forty times 40 other selections of art and architecture could just as effectively illustrate how visual works are revealing records of the nation's history and culture, and how visual stimulation can spark the synthesizing of information by students.

The colorful impressionism of Childe Hassam's flag-filled painting "Allies Day, May 1917" captures America's waxing nationalism a month after entry into World War I. And it makes all the more moving the waning of hope captured in Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph "Migrant Mother." This haunting image of a destitute 32-year old pea picker, a mother of seven, is a springboard into John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath."


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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