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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
Special Report

Benjamin & Bernie Meme: Against Aestheticization

William Henry Powell, <em>Battle of Lake Eerie</em>,  1873. Oil on canvas,  201 1/8 x 319 1/2 inches. U.S. Senate Art Collection, Washington, D.C.
William Henry Powell, Battle of Lake Eerie, 1873. Oil on canvas, 201 1/8 x 319 1/2 inches. U.S. Senate Art Collection, Washington, D.C.

“This proud picture of human grandeur is unfortunately an illusion and is counterbalanced by a reality that is very different.” — Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

“Our myth is the greatness of the nation! And to this myth, this greatness, which we want to translate into a total reality, we subordinate everything.” — Benito Mussolini, 1922 Speech at the Fascist Congress

In one of Getty Images chief photographer Win McNamee’s photographs from January 6th, two insurrectionists stand in front of W. H. Powell’s Battle of Lake Erie (1873), one of them waving a “Trump Is My President” flag—echoing the American flag in Powell’s painting. The insurrectionists’ mirroring of the history painting invokes the well-known epilogue from Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) in which he theorizes a Fascist aestheticization of politics. Benjamin writes that mankind’s “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.” The insurrectionists’ self-historicizing claims that “This is fucking history. We’re all part of this fucking history,” and their self-rhapsodizing demand to be serenaded with “Revolutionary music” were the epitome of fiat ars—pereat mundus.1 Moreover, as McNamee recalls in an interview with Liz Kreutz, when the insurrectionists noticed that they were being photographed, they “turned to wave like it was … a holiday photo of some type.” The insurrectionists were not only renouncing the results of the 2020 Presidential Election, but they were also performing in a self-directed movie and posing to be immortalized in portraits. They inhabited a romantic ideal and fetishized their courage.

John Wesley Jarvis, <em>Oliver Hazard Perry</em>, 1816. Oil on canvas. New York City Hall Portrait Collection.
John Wesley Jarvis, Oliver Hazard Perry, 1816. Oil on canvas. New York City Hall Portrait Collection.

In McNamee’s photograph of Nicholas Rodean standing in front of the Battle of Lake Erie, Rodean’s gesture parallels that of the painting’s subject, Oliver Hazard Perry. Wearing a “Donald Trump 2017 Inauguration” sweatshirt, Rodean stands with the erect heroism of Perry during his transfer from the battleship Lawrence to the Niagara in the War of 1812. In addition to the painting in his immediate background, Rodean’s action alludes to John W. Jarvis’s Oliver Hazard Perry (1816), currently hung in the Governor’s Room in New York City Hall. In Jarvis’s painting, Perry is cradled by a blue flag emblazoned with the last words of James Lawrence—the namesake of USS Lawrence—“Don’t give up the ship!” Rodean’s sedition shimmers with tragic valor. Against the ratification of the 2020 Presidential Election, he insists, unshaken, “Don’t give up the president!”

Whether the reference to Perry is self-consciously staged by Rodean or compositionally induced by McNamee, the intimacy between the insurrectionists and the artworks in the Capitol is more than incidental. Saul Loeb, a photographer for Agence France-Presse who was also present during the January 6th insurrection, captured images of insurrectionists sitting beneath John Trumbull’s Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19th, 1781) (1820) and glancing skyward at Constantino Brumidi’s The Apotheosis of Washington (1865). They saw their founding father as God and themselves as His most faithful disciples. Many other insurrectionists took selfies with paintings and sculptures in the Capitol—a mise-en-abyme of whiteness that, in seeing its superiority confirmed by “history,” emboldened and multiplied itself. While there is a quietist comfort to interpreting the kinship between the insurrectionists and the artworks as a result of the former’s appropriation or even vandalization of the latter, we know, incontrovertibly, that the artworks are not innocent.2

John Trumbull, <em>Surrender of Lord Cornwallis</em>, 1820.  Oil on canvas, 144 x 216 inches. U.S. Capitol building, Washington, D.C.
John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, 1820. Oil on canvas, 144 x 216 inches. U.S. Capitol building, Washington, D.C.

Constantino Brumidi, <em>The Apotheosis of Washington</em>, 1865. Fresco. U.S. Capitol Building rotunda, Washington, D.C. Courtesy Wikimedia user:Raul654. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apotheosis_of_George_Washington.jpg
Constantino Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington, 1865. Fresco. U.S. Capitol Building rotunda, Washington, D.C. Courtesy Wikimedia user:Raul654. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apotheosis_of_George_Washington.jpg

If Donald Trump anchored his political discourse in the nostalgia for an ethnically pure golden age of Jacksonian conquest, the history paintings and sculptures in the Capitol are portals to that mythological past—fictions shoring up fictions. The vileness of January 6th was never the insurrectionists’ perversion of the Battle of Lake Erie, but their adherence to its legacy. They believed ardently in the fantasy that the 38th Congress had commissioned: that of a nation led by patriotic generals with armies full of white, able-bodied men. Rather than advocating for better policies in the present, they devote themselves sadistically and destructively to an irretrievable, non-existent past. The insurrectionists alienated their here-and-now for an illusory revolutionary virility. They comply with Susan Sontag’s description of Fascist idealization of life as art in “Fascinating Fascism” (1975): “the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”

The history paintings in the Capitol reify the Fascist myth of the United States as a military empire and glorify its colonial pillaging and plunders. “Noble savages” bear infinite gifts to De Soto in W. H. Powell’s Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto A.D. 1541 (1855) and Pocahontas is continually saved from what the artist calls the “fangs of a barbarous idolatry” in John G. Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas (at Jamestown, Virginia, 1613) (1840)—both hanging in the Capitol Rotunda. The Capitol, as the home of democracy, must confront its function as a museum that monumentalizes American conquest and naturalizes white supremacy.

William Henry Powell, <em>Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto, 1541, A.D.</em>, 1853. Oil on canvas, 144 x 216 inches. U.S. Capitol building, Washington, D.C.
William Henry Powell, Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto, 1541, A.D., 1853. Oil on canvas, 144 x 216 inches. U.S. Capitol building, Washington, D.C.

We cannot use the pretext of scholarly objectivity to shy away from criticizing artworks that perpetuate a Fascist mythos but ought to take up what Benjamin notes as the Communist response to Fascist aestheticization: “politicizing art.” While artists such as Titus Kaphar and Kent Monkman reverse propagandistic images that paint our national history as virtuous and immaculate, a recent tool that we have all adopted is the meme—namely, of Bernie Sanders watching irreverently at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. Sanders has infiltrated many “canonical” Euro-American paintings, and in my own adaption, he expresses disdain for Washington’s Napoleonic stance and the fantastic exaggeration of icebergs in Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851)—an inspiration for Powell’s Battle of Lake Erie. Averse to aggrandizement and beautification, the Sanders meme fractures faultless fictions about our founding fathers and collapses justifications for white ascendancy.

So, go on—meme Perry who is portrayed as untouchable by bullets and cannons, meme James Lawrence whose final words disguise his pointless loss of USS Chesapeake, meme the sanctity of our slave-owning forefathers, and meme to defile the self-legitimizing and self-deifying aesthetic of white patriarchy.

Bernie Sanders from the 2021 Presidential Inauguration superimposed on Emanuel Leutze, <em>Washington Crossing the Delaware</em>, 1851. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy the author.
Bernie Sanders from the 2021 Presidential Inauguration superimposed on Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy the author.
  1. The quote comes from John Sullivan’s (JaydenX) video of January 6th, which was reviewed by J. Hoberman as a film on Artforum. https://www.artforum.com/film/j-hoberman-on-jayden-x-s-shooting-and-storming-of-the-us-capitol-in-washington-dc-84911. Hoberman writes that the insurrectionists believe themselves to be living in Eisenstein’s October (1927) or Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002).
  2. One insurrectionist, Tam Dinh Pham, tried to excuse his breach of the Capitol with his admiration for historical art. He was identified by a photo of him posing beside the “Trump 2020” flag that other insurrectionists had tucked into the Gerald Ford statue’s hand.

Contributor

Ekalan Hou

is a writer and art historian based in California.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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