The Art of Politics
As the Federal Duck Stamp turns 75, what's coming out of the national government's only art contest?
Clearly not a fan of subtexts, Landesman is a frank leader of the nation's art budget, especially when it comes to which parts of the nation should get a piece of the NEA's financial pie. “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as [Chicago's] Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” Landesman told the Times. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit." You can imagine how that played in Peoria.
Over at the Department of the Interior, they see things a little bit differently. The Department is responsible for the only federally-sponsored annual art competition: the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. Each year the Department chooses a new image for the stamp (known officially as the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp) that sportsmen must purchase annually to hunt migrating waterfowl. The contest is open to anyone willing to pony up $125. For the Interior Department, art can be open to all, and it doesn't have to be anything someone could ever misconstrue as "gay."
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the duck stamp — the first was issued on August 22, 1934. The government had laid the groundwork five years earlier with passage of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. Facing a decline in the number of migrating waterfowl due to both hunting and habitat loss, Congress granted the Secretary of the Interior the authority to purchase or lease land to be set aside as reserves for the birds. The Act provided meager funding, however, so Congress followed-up with the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act in '34.
J.N. "Ding" Darling designed the first stamp. Darling was a Des Moines, Iowa political cartoonist who specialized in the classic Thomas Nast-ian style of the era, in which governments and industries are identified by words blazoned across their chests — steel, oil, the Republican vote. In one of Darling's cartoons, for example, a cigar-chomping man ("Political Mismanagement of our Cities") holds out a bowl ("Bankrupt City Treasuries") to a blind beggar ("Taxpayer"). Zing!
But Darling was a conservationist as well; many of his cartoons warned of the danger of mismanaging natural resources. Franklin Roosevelt appointed Darling Director of the Bureau of Biological Survey (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service); mangrove wetlands off the Gulf coast of Florida he saved from development are today a National Wildlife Refuge named in his honor. He also came up with the idea of having sportsmen help save the waterfowl they hunted through revenue stamps.
Darling designed a simple stamp. "Mallards Dropping In" depicts male and female birds about to land on a calm surface. It's a windy day, judging from the blowing grasses in the background. The authoritative, staid serif font of the U.S. government frames the blue-toned image, indicating both its administrative overseer — then the Department of Agriculture — and the stamp's original $1 price tag. (Darling ceremoniously purchased that first stamp back in August '34 from a Washington, D.C. postmaster).
The FWS oversees the duck stamp program today, and boasts that 98 percent of stamp sales go into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, used to expand the National Wildlife Refuge System; since its inception, duck sales have generated over $700 million in income and funded the preservation of more than five million acres of wetlands, according to the FWS.
Duck stamps prices started at $1, but rose to $2, $3, $5, $7.50, $10, and $12 before settling at the current $15 rate; last month, a bill to raise the fee from $15 to $25 in 2016 passed the House Committee on Natural Resources. To be sure, the program has faced criticism, largely from the right. In Political Environmentalism: Going Behind the Green Curtain (published by the conservative Hoover Institute), Kurtis Swope, Daniel Benjamin, and Terry Anderson argue that the stamp program "has been more expensive and less effective at conserving waterfowl habitat than might be suggested by the FWS." According to the authors, between 1934 and 1958, only 15 percent of stamp revenue funded land purchases, the rest supporting development, administration, and enforcement. Two things changed that pattern — a 1958 amendment required the FWS to use all stamp revenue on land leases and purchases; the 1961 Wetlands Loan Act provided a $105 million loan for greater acquisitions. But at the same time, they argue, federal agriculture policy and price supports compelled farmers to convert wetlands into cultivated acreage, increasing wetlands' financial value and therefore the cost to the FWS: "[F]or much of the period under consideration," the authors write, "the FWS was competing head-to-head with USDA, paying productive farmland prices and receiving in return wetlands duck habitat...[T]he Duck Stamp Program was paying top dollar for farmland that was probably marginal at best for agriculture. This was solely a product of set-aside programs that substantially increased the value to the farmer of marginal land." For FWS's take on its spending, visit "Your Stamp Duck Dollars at Work" on the agency's Web site, where you can see state-by-state just what stamp money has purchased.
The federal government isn't alone in the stamp business. States quickly followed the nation's lead and created their own, beginning with Ohio in 1938. A collecting base quickly developed as well, and is today led by the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society — a fervent group that's been featured on Jeopardy! ("It quacks me up that NDSCS is a club for people who collect stamps featuring these") and that ranks duck stamps up there with god and country ("This issue finds us getting ready to adjust to a new presidential administration, a new duck stamp winner, winter and most importantly the holiday season for many of the world's religions," a recent newsletter opened). Each year it hands out the annual "Worst Stamp Award" (sorry, Connecticut!).
|1950's Trumpeter Swans, the first winner of
the public design contest.
Success requires a mastery of three areas: basic waterfowl biology ("if you choose to depict a spring scene, is the bird's plumage correct for that season?"), artistic composition ("is the image artistically interesting, does it 'pop' when you look at it?") and suitability for engraving (this is ultimately going on a stamp, people!). Five species are eligible each year: American Widgeon, Wood Duck, Gladwall, Cinnamon Teal, and Blue-winged Teal are up for 2010's stamp; Brant, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Canada Goose, and White-fronted Goose for 2011's. The bird must be the design's centerpiece, but painters are given a fair amount of artistic freedom in how exactly to depict the animals. Hunting dogs, hunting scenes, and decoys are allowed, even if they rarely show up as winners (1959's Labrador retriever, the 1952 and '53 National Retriever Field Trial Club champ, and 1975's Canvasback decoy being the exceptions). 1996's Surf Scoters and 2003's Snow Geese each contains a lighthouse in its background. A meta reference to stamp collecting itself is permissible, though it has yet to appear.
One imagines that Darling and Spies shared the same impulse: to create as realistic a scene of waterfowl as possible given their respective technological constraints. All the images of course bear the imprint of their creators — the artists' impressions as to the best time of day to depict a Black Bellied Whistling Duck, say, or whether to capture Harlequin Ducks taking off or landing, or whether to give a pair of Ruddy Ducks a brood. But instead of exploring the fringes of the art — of finding new ways to convey the idea of wildlife — the stamp artists work toward a single, communal goal: create as true-to-life a scene as possible. Unlike the fine arts, it's as if the history of the craft builds on itself, layer upon layer, aided by innovation in stamp production not to explore the limits of what's possible, but to edge closer toward a single and ultimately unreachable point.
Which, in the end, is probably why the contest is administered by the Department of the Interior, and not the NEA.
Click on the images to enlarge:
• 19 August 2009
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.
Images courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.