America in Crisis – The American Dream is flawed – A photographic exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London
The American Dream is flawed and at its breaking point. In this new exhibition, the Saatchi Gallery initiates a conversation through fifty decades of social and political changes in the USA. By confronting 120 photographic works from the 1960s and the late 2010s and gathering 40 leading American photographers, the Gallery engages the audience on a reflection on the power of images and how they impact the course of actions.
“Our crisis today is the clash between the nation’s traditional vision of itself – the American Dream – and the hard, discordant realities it lives with.”
Jerry Mason and Adolph Suehsdorf, Editors of the publication America in Crisis, 1969
The American Dream
America in Crisis was a ground-breaking group initiative originally conceived in 1969 to assess the state of the nation. This Magnum Photos project was led by American photographer Charles Harbutt and Lee Jones, then Magnum’s New York bureau chief.
The photographic project was published the same year in a book of the same name. The objective was to evidence the political, social and cultural mutations in the US society that led to the election of President Nixon in 1968.
In 2022, the Saatchi Gallery is following Harbutt’s original concept and is curating the exhibition around the same chapters structure found in the 1969 publication. There, fifty-years old works and words resonate with the actuality in an uncanny way.
“We may have come from different places and have different stories, but we share common hopes, and one very American dream.”
Barack Obama at the Associated Press Annual Meeting, April 14, 2008
What does the American dream look like? Here a family barbecue in the summer, there fireworks on the 4th of July, or a prom queen, and a granny cutting her apples for her pie, in her garden. Children running around, free and happy. A world of equal opportunities for everyone who works hard enough to meet success. Regardless of gender, race, colour, background.
Streak of Violence
The 1960s were marked by brutal and violent events: the assassinations of President Kennedy (1963) and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy (1968). These terrible events were widely broadcasted by the newly come mass media. The television and the press showed images of tragedy and sadness, whilst also presenting aesthetic and poetic qualities too (we think about Elliott Erwin, Jackie Kennedy at John F Kennedy’s Funeral, Arlington, Virginia, 1963).
The diffusion of these images contributed in building myths and icons, but also in creating agitation. As the violence became more visible, it also spread across the population.
Mitchel Levitas had quite a premonitory vision when in 1969 he was asking if society was violent by nature. At the time, the Congress refused to pass tough gun-control legislation despite the menace of one hundred million privately owned handguns, shotguns and rifles.
Levitas would be turning in his grave if he knew that today there are over 393 Million of privately owned firearms. It also means that about 40% of Americans say they or someone in their household owns a gun, ranking the U.S. number one in firearms per capita. Sadly, history has shown that this did not make people safer – it has only increased the chances to be killed in a gun homicide or a mass shooting.
The escalation of hate reached a culminant point in 2020, when George Floyd, an African American, was murdered by a white police officer. He had been arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. The horrific story became public as videos made by witnesses and security cameras went viral, and led to worldwide protests against police brutality and racism.
Deep Roots of Poverty
In 1959, 22.4% of US households fell below the poverty line. The 1960s had the biggest decrease in poverty, dropping to 12.1% by 1969. Today, this is one in ten Americans who live in poverty. Although the rate has technically improved, it remains one of the highest rates amongst the OECD countries.
In one of the wealthiest country in the world, the gap between the rich and poor has increased through the years. Poverty has become more visible, moving from the private space (Bruce Davidson, Harlem, New York City, 1966) to the public sphere. Tent encampments have progressively become a part of the urban landscape. People walk by, used to poverty as a some kind of new normal condition.
As per exhibit at America in Crisis, Saatchi Gallery London – Photos ©CécileFaure of Gabrielle Lurie’s work:
1. Homeless child Theo Schrager, 7 , holds on to his mom Leah Naomi Gonzales hand as he cries out “Puppies, I want puppies” as they look for puppies at their friends tent under the Gilman Street underpass in Berkeley, California, on Friday, June 12, 2022.
2. People walk past a tent encampment after a rainstorm on Harrison Street in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, January 11, 2017.
Poverty is hard to fight, especially for Black people and Latinos. In 2020, 39% of people experiencing homelessness were Black people compared to 14.2% of the total population. Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people in the USA, and more than 60% of imprisoned Americans are Black people and Latinos. This vicious circle does not end there as, once out, figures show that released inmates struggle to have access to education and work, then to a stable housing and health care, all these factors contributing to crime.
Battle for Equality and Confrontation
However Equality is an ideal worthy fighting for, back then and now.
Images of riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 echo protests organised after George Floyd’s death (Sheila Pree Bright, Justice for Black lives protest, George Floyd, organized by Alliance for Black Lives, Atlanta, Georgia, 2020). The fight for racial justice is embodied in the confrontation against History’s representation. Symbols of Black oppression are destroyed, figures of white supremacy are removed (Kris Graves, Protest at Lee Square, Richmond, Virginia, 2020).
If Civil Rights were granted along the way (with the end of segregation, the access to voting right for Black people, etc), Civil Liberties were not and the battle for equality has to carry on.
The 1960s were marked by the hippies, who fought against war and their parents’ old-fashioned lifestyle. Then, through the years, the New Left fight for peace and love has evolved into a multitude of fights – to name a few : for the women’s rights, for the gays, for the Black people. Digitalisation of the information has given the possibility to everyone to shout for their rights – but also became an opportunity to manipulate the messages, the photographs, the speech. A way to create fear, to divide to conquer.
“Sadly the American dream is dead.”
Donald Trump in his Presidential Announcement Speech in June 2015
Hence, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States in 2016 marked a turning point in the American political life. The inability to unify a country led to insurrectionists laying siege to the home of Congress on January 6, 2021. The unbelievable happened for the first time since Civil War in the 1860s.
With ends come new beginnings though, and the election of Joe Biden in 2020 brings the hope of a new reunification.
A Reflection on Image
The exhibition ends with an immersive and interactive installation that pays homage to the 1969’s exhibition of America in Crisis, in which a short film and an experimental projection device were displayed.
Here, by pressing a foot pedal, the visitor will launch a new sequence of three photographs from the exhibition displayed together on a giant phone screen. The display of the pictures is not random and play on the digital classification of images according to keywords – a way to reflect on the way the systems are built to make us consummate images and the biases we lock ourselves in.
Indeed, how to create new narratives if algorithms and data-analytics tools keep repeating the content we are familiar and comfortable with ? The issues raised by the photographs are not new but keep repeating themselves, amplified by the social media, that act like a magnifying glass. And by watching it online, it creates a loop we are stuck in.
How to disrupt the system and eradicate biases ? Probably by starting to be aware of the system itself, reflect on our digital images consumption and contextualise the pictures and information we have access to.
May our critical thinking wake up and rise again !
Saatchi Gallery, London SW3
10am – 6pm (last admission 5pm), Wednesday to Sunday
Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays until Tuesday, 2 February
From £5, Concessions available; under 10s go free (T&Cs apply). Free entry for Saatchi Gallery Members.
Walk-ins welcome but pre-booking is advised.
Tickets can be booked in advance online on https://www.saatchigallery.com/ticket.
Join the discussion about the exhibition online at: #AMERICAINCRISIS
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Facebook: @saatchigalleryofficial @c14media
 Lisa Dunn, How Many People In The U.S. Own Guns?, Sept 17, 2020, https://gunsandamerica.org/story/20/09/17/how-many-gun-owners-united-states-explainer/
 USA Facts, American poverty in three charts, Jan 21, 2022, How many Americans live in poverty? (usafacts.org)
 Edward Im, Mass Incarceration and Inequality in the United States, May 11, 2019, https://insights.theberkeleygroup.org/mass-incarceration-and-inequality-in-the-united-states-77bc67f39c5d