PRINT January 1988



AS I LOOKED back at the rebuilt mill, it began to dawn on me: no wonder they erected this ungainly monument to rusticity here. If people had to actually focus their attention on the cause of it all, they'd probably never come back.

I was standing at the northern perimeter of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, which is spitting distance from Placerville but a good 45-minute drive out of Sacramento (if the traffic's against you). The spot was the exact site where James Marshall first noticed flecks of gold in the runoff ditch of the sawmill he was building for John Sutter. It was January 24, 1848, and the West had not yet been won. Sutter was an entrepreneur, and Marshall was a working man who had moved west from Missouri four years earlier for reasons of health. In the end, both died poor.

I had not expected the site itself to be so inconspicuous. Although it is marked “1” on the visitor's map, most viewers stroll past casually or bypass it entirely. The preferred spots of interest are the Miner's Cabin, the Old Stone Jail, and of course the life-size replica of the sawmill. The bank where Marshall stood lies at the inner curve of a gentle S-shaped bend in the American River. It has many things to recommend it today, if one's taste runs to butterflies and tall grass, but the fact remains that few people will travel from miles away to look at an ordinary ditch, no matter what happened there 140 years ago.

Ordinariness is one handle by which one can grasp the events that followed that January morning. In their different ways, Marshall and Sutter were ordinary men carrying out their jobs. Their “lucky” strike was the result of no particular vision. Ordinary in their way, too, were the more than 100,000 fortune-seekers who arrived in California over the next three years, in the flood that became known as the Gold Rush. The vast majority never saw their bonanza materialize, and the lives they led were of a bleakness ordinary to the time and place. Yes, they hoped intensely, but in retrospect even that looks like ordinary greed. Where the families in the Oklahoma land rush, say, of 1889, may have been hoping for a life of farming and decent labor, most of the Gold Rush prospectors wanted to strike it rich beyond their fevered imaginations.

The Gold Rush eventually got credit from historians for an unintended repopulation process that wound up benefiting a sizable chunk of its participants, or their descendants, over the long haul, despite their short-term failure. In other words, today we consider the Gold Rush in terms of the permanent settlement of the West Coast and the Northwest. (Without it, as the visitor's map boasts, “California's advantages of climate, resources, and favorable location for world trade could have been ignored for another generation or two.”). It is a stage in the history of California, one of the first in a succession of get-rich-quick schemes—from prospecting to Hollywood to Silicon Valley. In artifacts like the mill replica in the Marshall Gold Discovery park, the scar tissue of such a scheme is made appealing.

Not even Bodie succeeds in making it any less so. As ghost-town-like a ghost town as one could hope to find, Bodie was abandoned during the waning years of the Gold Rush as unsentimentally as it was founded. In some places around the town—originally named for a forty-niner who discovered a vein and then never lived to work it—the ravaged northwestern landscape has never completely healed over. Today, though, visitors amble along the dirt roads, peering through grimy windows into the dusty interiors of the homes, stores, and offices that remain standing. The schoolhouse is one of these, its lesson plans and textbooks strewn about as casually as if the students were off on a field trip. Like Sutter's Mill, Bodie is a state park and historic site, so its appearance of having been preserved in amber isn't just a fiction.

There is no clear-cut moral for art in general, or even earth art, to be drawn from an encounter with the spectacle of sites like these. So many interpretations have been offered over time that there seems little room left for original speculation (no pun intended). As an image, the Gold Rush offers many flecks for the contemporary art rush. One could, of course, wax philosophical about the risks one takes in all-or-nothing situations, or, in a less generous mood, bemoan art's fortunes as it is absorbed into the monetary structure. However, as one digs deeper, there is an allegory. Examining the shards and remnants of the School of Paris, or even of the East Village, one is reminded of the Bodie experience: “When people were leaving Bodie, there were no moving companies in the area. [They] simply packed what they could on one wagon or truck and left the rest behind.”

In SoHo, we have accustomed ourselves to the fact that the public presentation of art is something that occurs in close mental and physical proximity to boutiques and fashionable eateries. As with Silicon Valley, the appearance of benevolence to the point of sheer invisibility soothes the visitor, who is free to pretend that what is being made or sold is not the very possibility of history itself, but only an appealing bauble or a slightly better mousetrap. As in Silicon Valley, there are no smokestacks billowing dark fumes, no large urgent signs flashing the message, “Warning! Future of Civilization is Being Planned on Premises. Authorized Personnel Only!” Many of those in the know, who speak the art code, keep up their end of the charade because business is good, and nobody wants their clients or fans to believe that everything they acquire may simply get left behind when it's time to move on. In this regard, then, SoHo has taken a page from the low-lying plants of Silicon Valley. This is where the Info Rush is happening. And this is where some see real gold where others shout “Fool's gold.” What to say to this?

Around the time of my visit to the ditch I was reading another book on the New West, the late Hedda Hopper's The Whole Truth and Nothing But, in which it is patiently explained that one of the ways to tell a real star from the current variety is by whether she would consent to go to the corner store for a jar of cold cream without first getting decked out in full regalia. A real star wouldn't dream of letting down her fans by looking just like them. This is a trait she shares with the notorious “bad man from Bodie,” who strolled downtown reeking of menace (and more). So it is above the boutiques and above the sites of art's production and display, on the fourth and fifth floors of loft buildings where the artist transgresses the ordinariness of his or her materials, and makes much more of them than life ever would. Even when these materials are consciously left in an ordinary state, they are set apart precisely because they are in full make-up as art, and now, when they appear in public, they mustn't be pestered, poked at, folded, spindled, or otherwise mutilated. No doubt time will obliterate nearly all of these treasures with exponentially greater thoroughness than it might destroy a microdiskette. What remains embedded in the South of Houston Tar Pits after the rustic copies of lofts have been built—each one with a plaque, “This is how artists lived”—might be a ditch, and people might gather nearby to see the cluster of precious artifacts excavated from the site. But there will always be a critic hanging about to observe how the real artists continue to draw out the hidden gold from its ore long after the speculators have declared, “The vein has run out.”

Dan Cameron is a writer and musician who lives in New York. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.