Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 28, 1999
W. J. T. Mitchell The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 322 pp.; 45 color ills.; 69 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0226532046)

Showing it to be wholly a creature of the enlightenment, W. J. T. Mitchell has connected what would appear to be all the implications offered by the image of the dinosaur. In this regard, The Last Dinosaur Book is continuous with his more narrowly art-historical work on the landscape as a cultural construction. While some might think that an image ubiquitous to the bedrooms of America’s children would be worth at least one book by an American cultural theorist, Mitchell has been accused of making too much of his topic. He anticipates this question (p. 183), but apparently to no avail, and that underscores the sense in which he has addressed a significant topic without starting from an officially important place. It is particularly relevant to him, though. He spent his childhood in Nevada, where dinosaur bones have been found, of which he takes note while admitting that he was an exception to the general belief that children like dinosaurs. He liked dragons better, and even in the face of his own research sometimes seems reluctant to accept that any children like dinosaurs. Grown-ups are a different story. For them, the dinosaur is the image of America and modernity.

Mitchell wants images to evolve in the way that Henri Focillon said they do in his Life of Forms in Art—i.e., independently of what they represent or to what they refer—although he also wants to say that the dinosaur’s evolution as image traces a history of scientific fads or truths, not least because it is a triumphalist scientific image. In this regard, Mitchell is effortlessly vicious toward creationism. He relates that creationists account for the dinosaur’s presumably obligatory self-restraint, as carnivores in the Garden of Eden, by explaining that there was only a week between the Creation and the Fall and that reptiles are known to be able to go longer than that without eating—and rather suggesting that God had anticipated that things would turn out badly.

At the same time Mitchell’s description of the dinosaur’s life as an image in—and of—modern science allows him to develop a criticism of the sciences as ideologically motivated. This culminates in a savaging of the latter’s snottiness toward the humanities, which is founded in the accusation that the latter are driven by ideology and are unscientific. His treatment of the Trollopian-named Guss and Leavit is very rough, bringing this theme to a climax with the observation that they seem unable to grasp the most obvious difficulty with their description of the sciences as “reality-driven.”

Mitchell has a great deal to say about the dinosaur as a popular image, not least regarding the disparity between its unambiguousness as far as adults are concerned compared with its more varied significance for children, who tend to know much more about the subject. He has managed to take children seriously in a way that recalls their absence in most scholarly writing, which is, of course, not intentional but surely significant. He follows the dinosaur’s cinematic evolution from skeleton to clone, which is to say from Bringing up Baby to Jurassic Park, from Freud to the Society of the Spectacle. He describes the symbolic domestication of the dinosaur in advertising: it, too, finds fast food irresistible.

Mitchell has less to say about the dinosaur as an art image, because it usually isn’t one. Robert Smithson’s juxtaposition of the paleontological and the comtemporary is discussed here and in some respects is comparable to Mitchell’s approach to the subject. Mitchell raises the question of high and low art in order to demonstrate that it is as a popular image or an idea about the landscape that the dinosaur has finally been able to move from the Natural History Museum. The bedrooms of Mark Dion’s children are present, as are Allan McCollum’s casts of bones and fossils. The two sides of his argument are now in the museum.

Mitchell also pays attention to those overlooked artists who illustrate dinosaurs but have no place in the museum—because they are so dull. He shows them, however, to be in the forefront of the ideological application of the image, because they take their lead from scientists. I believe that that he is mostly concerned with the dinosaur as an image, at once popular and scientific. As a scientific image, the dinosaur began as a terrifying reptile—during the age of the sublime—and has recently evolved into a vicious chicken. Mitchell describes the science that discovered the dinosaur as one made possible when Georges Cuvier in France founded paleontology, and Richard Owen in England subsequently established dinosaurology; it ultimately moved west to become a predominantly American field of inquiry. The image of the dinosaur was always a technologically advanced image, from the brick, iron, and cement dinosaur sculptures shown at the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1854, which Mitchell compares to the art of Maurice Sendak, to the contemporary triumphs of computer illusion.

Dinosaurology demonstrated that large creatures (as opposed to, say, viruses, amoebae, and lichen) had been around for a length of time unimaginable until modernity, and—as in the debate over evolution—temporal as well as spatial giganticism is part of the dinosaur thrill. Thus, Sinclair Oil would not only use the dinosaur for a logo but put forth a false advertisement claiming that the more expensive of the two grades of gasoline it offered was older than the cheaper one, as if oil were like wine. During the nineteenth century one of the dinosaur’s most important symbolic functions was to represent that which was seen to be destined for extinction on account of being dumber than a mammal. For which, one may read: dumber than white men. Mitchell relates the history of paleontology to that of anthropology, in order to show both to have been riddled with racists determined to use science to validate their faith in both the self-contradictory strands of social Darwinism: inherent superiority on the one hand and the virtue of competition as a sorting mechanism on the other. This synthetic nativism was composed partly of the fetishizing of the north European look and partly of a faith in capitalism—which is to say, in Calvinism. Franz Boas’s persecution by a racist anthropological establishment is described in some detail, while elsewhere early dinosaurology’s most agonistic confrontation is seen to have been one between a rugged individualist who went around the desert by himself and got on with the Native Americans, and one who travelled with a cavalry escort. Guess which one won.

The discovery of the biggest dinosaur skeletons was contemporaneous with the development of the skyscraper—and the comparison was made immediately, inspiring Andrew Carnegie to buy a skeleton he saw illustrated in a newspaper. This reinforces Mitchell’s thesis that the dinosaur is an essentially urban image, and also that the stage was set for its popularity before it arrived.

In support of this last point Mitchell retrospectively connects the westward journey of paleontology to the idea, popular in the eighteenth century, that the history of (Western) Europe was of the empire—as inspiration and governing principle—moving west, from Greece to Rome and thence to France, which therefore had a vested interest in its going no further. Mitchell describes Jefferson responding to the (ludicrous) idea put about by a Frenchman to the effect that cows would not grow as large in America as in Normandy by sending him the biggest bones he could find. These were mammoth bones from the Ohio Valley, giant dinosaur skeletons being as yet undiscovered, but this nationalist index-measuring contest supports Mitchell’s idea that the dinosaur was from the start destined to be enlisted in an identification of America with giganticism because that self-identification was already under way when it was discovered.

Jefferson also made an art of systematically depriving the indigenous population of its property while denying that he was doing any such thing, and wrote a constitution that didn’t recognize black people as human. Mitchell suggests that in this, too, the early development of the republic anticipated what it would become. A Jefferson who resembles Nixon is eventually succeeded by a Reaganite Jackson, the discreet giving way to the overt in the evolution of a racist society. To compound the comparison and the contradiction, on the capitalist side of things Jefferson implemented policies so as to permanently disadvantage the cities, and Jackson even opposed a central bank. America may, then, have been born a dinosaur, a capitalist country that refused to engage in long-range planning, allowing the health of its population and the social infrastructure on which it depended to deteriorate to a point of inevitable extinction, beyond the dinosaur in being a form of life that bred and protected its own predators. Mitchell, having persuaded the reader that this must be so, nonetheless concludes in a perversely cheerful American way by recommending that the dinosaur be seen as an apt opportunity for a reconciliation between the sciences and the humanities.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
Art Center College of Design