Amiri Baraka once stated, “To understand that you are black in a society where black is an extreme liability is one thing, but to understand that it is the society that is lacking and impossibly deformed, and not you yourself, isolates you even more.” Added to that is the fact that those who benefit the most from US society, and dominate its economic and power structures, and are the source of the deformation Baraka references, are masters at the art of self-justification and establishing prestige. This is clearly seen in the current show at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago (originating from the New York Historical Society) called Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America. In this show we see the visual artist in unabashed collusion with the beneficiaries of rapid economic development in the US, apparently oblivious of the blight of cities or the struggles of urban workers and farmers during this time of growing inequities.
The United States Civil War was the violent resolution to a conflict that developed early in US history. Should the US, as Hamilton had suggested, industrialize and move toward greater urbanization (as the Northern states were doing) or should the US, as Jefferson had suggested, remain a predominantly agricultural republic (as the Southern states were)? The victory of the Union Army unified the North and South under the Hamiltonian vision and compelled the entire country to mobilize toward greater and greater economic development. As historian H.W. Brands has pointed out, industrialized capitalism was the perfect economic engine to generate massive amounts of wealth for this post-war society, but it also created massive amounts of economic inequality in its wake. The Gilded Age in America was modern capitalism first rearing its ugly head as 1% of the US population owned 51% of the wealth, while the poorest 44% of Americans owned 1% of the wealth. While the beneficiaries of this boom went to their vacation retreats in Newport, Rhode Island, city dwellers often lived in tenements and slums.
Beauty’s Legacy does not present many portraits of the high priests of this Luciferian league of white-collar thugs, swindlers, speculators, hoarders and union busters known as the Robber Barons: Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Gould et al. The artistic process of obfuscation and justification that comes with building prestige out of the anti-social proclivities of these titans is, however, shown in the portraits on display. This was a class which pursued its own comfort, affluence and excellence knowing that others wallowed in poverty. This group of folks turned to portrait artists, many of whom dutifully came from Europe, to have themselves presented as people to be admired and emulated and not to be despised for their greed and aggression.
These were folks, after all, who did not see anything wrong with what they were doing. And the system and ideology of the US worked in their favor since the people of the US were basically being challenged by the question of just what was unfair about this whole process. This same type of unbridled wealth was there for anyone who wanted it. If you were willing to be thuggish, overly aggressive, selfish and merciless, this could have been you. Work hard, stab people in the back, cheat, lie, bust up unions, intimidate people and steal patents (as J.P.Morgan blackmailed Westinghouse for the patent for Nicola Tesla’s alternating current) and this could be you. Nothing unfair about this at all, every American has the right to pursue wealth at the cost of humanity and to prosper while others suffer. What is unfair about this? This is equality of opportunity. This is protected by the Constitution. Our poor farmers fought for this at Lexington and Concord and starved for this at Valley Forge.
So it is interesting to wander around the portraits and see how the sitters wished to be presented as respectable members of society. They also seemed to want to be portrayed as individuals while exhibiting a strong conformity to the values and visual trappings of their social class. They valued their individuality and indulged in their personal freedoms, often bought at the cost of human suffering, but wished to be portrayed like all the other members of their class. The men look decisive and accomplished, the women matronly. You see flashes of warmth and humanity and engagement as if to say that these are the Americans who are to be esteemed and modeled for their dedication to the values of hard work and excellence.
But at this time I would like to raise my glass of tequila to the real heroes of the Gilded Age in Chicago. Governor John Peter Altgeld, The Haymarket protesters and martyrs, Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams and the nameless immigrant Americans who suffered under squalid conditions in extraordinary bravery, working under deplorable circumstances to raise families and work toward a better life and more humane values for all of us. Here is to you folks. May your endurance and bravery not have been in vain and may the future hold greater change for all of us.
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum is the restored Nickerson Mansion, from Chicago’s Gilded Age, once called Chicago’s “Marble Palace”. The museum houses Mr. Driehaus’ fine collection of decorative arts, including examples of Tiffany glass. The goal of the museum is to explore the art, architecture and design of the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the permanent collection, temporary exhibits as well as educational and cultural programs. If you are a Chicagoan or a visitor who wishes to see how the 1% lived in the first Gilded Age (some say we are in Gilded Age 2.0) this museum will be enlightening. For an extra $5 you can take a guided tour and the guides seem to know a great deal of interesting stories. Personally, I think the museum and people of Chicago would benefit from having free admission hours as the admission fee is currently $20 per adult - the same as the Art Institute (for Chicago residents), while the Art Institute is much larger in scope. Be that as it may, the museum is worth visiting.