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Abstract

Documents have traditionally been conceptualized as representations of reality. Recently, scholars have been exploring how documents can also construct reality. In this paper, I follow this thread, discussing how documents can supply moral knowledge, showing what people ought to value in the world, thereby guiding action. Specifically, I discuss two works of art depicting Yellowstone National Park: a painting by Thomas Moran, done in the 19th century; and a photograph by Michael Nichols, from the 21st. Both of these works respond to a dualism in the human relationship to the wilderness, dating back at least to the European colonization of America. On one hand, (1) we see the wilderness as a store of commodities to be profited from; and on the other, (2) we see the wilderness as a dangerous, chaotic blur that defies comprehension. In their artworks, both Moran and Nichols seem to reject (1), but they do so in different ways: Moran does so by depicting (2), while Nichols does so by holding up a mirror to (1). By analyzing these works as documents, I explore how art played and continues to play a decisive role in how Americans conceptualize and value the wilderness—perhaps even more than scientific documents.

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