Artist Of Empire

by David Yearsley, April 12, 2017

What would Art be without a theory and practice of plunder?

It's no accident that the greatest artistic achievements of the Athenians coincided with their imperial project. Or consider the Romans, whose legions hauled back Egyptian obelisks and Grecian bronzes to adorn the capital as the very symbol of world dominion. In the vanguard of another empire was that plucky Brit Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who removed those same Athenians' marbles — by then somewhat worse for wear — to England, where they long provided the most sublime of aesthetic inspirations for global expansion. The Nazis were, of course, keen plunderers: Blitzkrieg is certainly the most efficient form of art collecting the world has yet seen.

The aura of pillage pervading the British Museum — where the Parthenon frieze and pediment statuary are still held hostage — makes the Elgin marbles gallery a must see. One feels giddy not only at the sight of the dazzling stones themselves, but the boldness of the crime — a bit like walking into some millionaire's mansion and seeing a wall hung with those Vermeers (or whatever they were) stolen from the Gardner museum a few years back. The heist itself is exciting, and the fact that they (in this case the Brits) got, and are still getting, away with it makes it even more so.

I get a similar sense of the illicit in the galleries of America's great museums. Not because I believe that all Rembrandts should be kept in Amsterdam (there are more in this country than in the Netherlands), but because the greatness of the paintings themselves cannot completely quiet the uneasy feeling that a lot of bad was done to acquire them. Nowhere is the afterglow of plunder more palpable than on the Washington Mall — but as you proceed toward your museum of choice, be sure to keep an eye out for bin Laden's suicide skydivers (no parachute necessary), armed with plutonium suppositories and plummeting towards the Capitol and White House, or eagerly trying to impale themselves on the Washington monument

Infidels safely avoided, you enter the National Gallery of Art to view the Old Master spoils of one of the most egregious American robber barons, Andrew Mellon. These are the fruits of capitalism at its most rampant and destructive.

This fine tradition of pillage and pretense continues, in even less varnished form, in the new Seattle Art Museum, where you can visit, among other corporate-sponsored spaces, the Weyerhaeuser and John L. Scott galleries. Weyerhaeuser’s depredations need no introduction: they are the grimmest of the reapers. John L. Scott is a real estate giant which has devastated much of the Puget Sound, and continues to play a leading role suburbanizing what little is left of it.

Needless to say I'd trade in entire roomfuls of prestigious Fine Art — from Morris Grave's melancholy canvases to the newly acquired Van Dyck portrait — for even a fraction of the old growth forests gobbled up by Weyerhaeuser. It is really pretty disgusting to have to bow down to these bandits for bringing us high culture, when they're the real barbarians. That is why I rarely pay the “suggested donation” at the Seattle Art Museum: if the gangsters get the glory they can foot the bill.

The collection of Northwest Native artifacts on the top floor of the museum brings into focus the essential union of art and plunder: when you look at those Indian masks hanging forlornly in their streak-proof glass display cases, it is hard to suppress the realization that to aestheticize the objects of another culture is a sure sign of its colonization, domination, and, sooner or later, extinction.

A retrospective exhibition of works by the American painter Thomas Moran (1837-1926), just now concluding two months at the Seattle Art Museum as part of a national tour, nicely encapsulates these themes. A grand array of Victorian landscape kitsch, the show has been getting rave reviews from the Seattle press and museum crowd, who have been gazing gratefully at the nostalgic panorama of the West it presents: half-a-continent still wide-open and unspoiled. The exhibition has also served as a pretext for outfits such as REI, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Park Service to sponsor related events aimed at expanding our awareness of the great outdoors and the many threats to same.

Most visitors seem to be taken in by Moran's romantic sublime, a grandiosity epitomized by his monumental “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” painted in 1872. The year before, Moran had been a member of the first government-sponsored expedition to Yellowstone, from whence his field sketches and watercolors were hurried back East and shown to members of Congress. These images, many of which are part of the show, are alleged to have played a vital role in helping push through the legislation which set aside Yellowstone as the first national park. On returning to his New York studio, Moran completed a huge 18'x10' canvas which Congress promptly purchased for the vast sum $10,000; it became the first landscape painting to hang in the Capitol, placed alongside portraits of Jefferson and Washington.

For his role in “saving” Yellowstone for future generations, Moran is taken to be one of the founding fathers of American conservation. This is pure bunkum; something like claiming that Ansel Adams' photographs of the Yosemite Valley serve to protect the park. They do exactly the opposite.

The establishment of Yellowstone as a national park is frequently presented as the first great victory of conservation and naively accepted as such by Goretex liberals. The idea that politicians of the 1870s, busy handing over vast portions of the country to the railroads, were concerned with such lofty considerations is ludicrous. The first Yellowstone expedition was partially funded by the Northern Pacific Railroad, intent on making the area a park in order to publicize it as a geological curiosity shop, and thereby boost tourism. As hoped, the creation of the park was a boon for the railroad — and ultimately for Moran himself.

Throughout a six decade career of painting the West, Moran was often in the company of railroad executives, who wined and dined him and paid him handsomely for paintings and celebrity appearances at the very places made famous by his canvases.

Another Western mythologist, the sculptor Frederick Remington, recognized the dialectic of the aesthetic and commercial which drives Moran's work. In reference to Moran's magnum opus, “Canyon of the Yellowstone,” Remington wrote: “Great as is [Moran's] painting, as the stages of the Park Company run over this road every tourist sees its grandeur, and bangs away with his kodak.”

The tourist infrastructure that crowds around and into Yellowstone, as well as the executive vacation homes that continue to sprout on its border, are the true legacy of Moran's “conservation” ethic; it is not at all surprising, therefore, to find the Nature Conservancy enthusiastically participating in the exhibition's parallel events.

In 1873 Moran accompanied John Wesley Powell on a trip to the Colorado, and produced another of his huge canvases, this one of the Grand Canyon itself: this was the artistic equivalent of throwing bricks into that which he had just painted. It is almost laughable to think that even this monumental piece could hope to do justice to its subject. Nonetheless, Moran was also able to sell the painting to Congress for another $10,000; it was duly placed in the Capitol, proving that the symbolic value of Moran's images was considered vital in representing — and legitimizing — Westward expansion.

Even if Moran believed, as his apologists would have it, that he was an idealist painter of the Great American West, it is plain that his real service to the nation was as iconographer of Manifest Destiny. He seems to have welcomed this role, not least because it made him rich.

Indeed, patriotic duty figures implicitly in Moran's own description of his ability to render the West: “[nationalism] in art is lived from a knowledge of and sympathy with [one's own] surroundings, and no foreigner can imbue himself with a spirit of a country not his own.”

Nevermind that Moran was born in England. More to the point, much of the West — including the Grand Canyon — had been stolen from Mexico only a quarter century before Moran ventured across the Mississippi; the indigenous inhabitants of the Plains had yet to be completely subjugated. The Europeans had barely arrived, and they were already invoking a creed of instantaneous biological and aesthetic adaptation.

What grates on me most is the religious righteousness of Moran's glowing oils, perhaps most evident in his third outsized western canvas, “The Mountain of the Holy Cross” (1875), a Colorado peak which takes its name from the enormous cruciform snowfield stretched across its face. Moran sold the painting to William Bell, an English physician who founded the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, a line which brought clients to his spa in Manitou, Colorado where they were treated to Bell's unique contribution to the history of medicine — “hydropathic therapy.” The waters used in the procedure were claimed to descend from the holy mountain depicted so sublimely by Moran.

This was pure fiction, as was well known by both Bell and Moran, and the genesis of the painting provides yet another example of the overlap of art and exploitation in Moran's work. Moran was one of the chief artistic prophets of the Westward push though, unlike Moses, he got to tromp all through the promised land, then return to his East Hampton residence with loot.

So I see neither the optimism nor glory in Moran's paintings that the exhibition seems intent on encouraging. Instead, when I look at these pictures, I see the West through the eye of the aesthetic proxy of the developer, the railroad magnate, the tourist booster, selecting in advance the remnants of the West to be set in the museum (be it national park or national gallery). It's like flipping through a glossy real estate advertiser, or watching an antique dealer at a Sotheby's estate sale preview, carefully eyeing the merchandise and calculating his bids for the Chippendale highboy, the Turner view of Venice, the silver goblets. The Moran show is most remarkable as a sublime prelude to plunder — landscapes, both represented and real, to be bought and sold, and, finally, consumed.

(This article first appeared in the AVA in November, 1998.)

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