Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
This is is my favorite story about America and it takes the form of two stories about America.
The first story takes place in April of 2011, when I was on tour with Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. While there, we were able to exercise our privilege as citizens of Illinois to have a staffer from the office of Senator Dick Durbin give our troupe an exclusive guided tour of the Capitol. On this tour, we saw many of the things you would normally see on a Capitol tour, as well as a few things you wouldn’t normally–one of my college friends, T.K., works for Durbin, and when I mentioned his name to the intern, the intern asked us if we wanted to go to T.K.’s office to say hello. When we said we did, we were ushered into the secret underground monorail that connects many of the federal buildings and makes sounds like an old coin-operated Pac-Man machine.
The secret underground monorail is not the story. It was unique and exciting but it was not the story.
Midway through the tour, our guide brought us to the Capitol rotunda and had us stare directly into the dome. In the center of the dome is a famous painting by Constantino Brumidi, titled The Apotheosis of Washington, which depicts our first president ascending to heaven, surrounded by a set of goddesses and virgins, representing the original 13 colonies and a number of concepts of importance to the American people–science, agriculture, war. The fresco was begun in 1863 and completed in 1865, during the last years of the Civil War, and as such some of the virgins representing colonies that seceded from the union are depicted as having their backs turned to Washington.
Our guide then told us the second story about America, which takes place in that time period between 1863 to 1865.
As he related to us, Brumidi had first received the commission to paint The Apotheosis of Washington based in no small part on a letter of recommendation from the Vatican, which also allowed him to set a particularly high price for his services. After several months of work, however, the Appropriations Committee that was paying Brumidi received a message from the Holy See, expressing concern that the painter had misrepresented his credentials–that his recommendation was a forgery.
The Committee reviewed this new message from the Vatican with umbrage, but also reviewed the work that Brumidi had done so far. Noting that even though the artist had earned the commission under false pretenses, but his artistry was certainly without question, the Committee informed Brumidi that although he would be permitted to complete the painting, he would be receiving a fraction of the contracted payment as penalty for his deceit. Brumidi acquiesced to this judgment.
When the painting was unveiled for public viewing, it was noted by several Washington society insiders that the faces of the women surrounding Washington were familiar…that these faces, in fact, resembled those of women known to many to be the mistresses of members of the Appropriations Committee that had hired and later punished Brumidi. Our guide did not tell us if the Committee exacted any further financial penalty, but Brumidi’s revenge, left in the heart of one of the most iconic pieces of American architecture, may have been payment enough to compensate for the lost wages.
And this is a great story for many reasons, but it is a great story of America because of what it blends together. The Apotheosis of Washington is a prime example of the nation’s propensity for myth-making, a crafted image of a great war hero not only ascending to eternal reward but being elevated to the status of divine being, amidst a glorious retinue of beauty and power. But behind that art there is the wrangling of funds, there is fraud, there is the influence of a foreign power, there is the complicated relationship between state and religion, there is sex, there is scandal, there is vengeance, and there is the backdrop of a time period during which the country itself was being rent asunder, under the watch of Abraham Lincoln, considered by most Americans to be as great or greater a president than Washington himself.
But back to the first story.
Over a year later, after having related this story orally to friends and colleagues, I decide to review this story again to make sure I didn’t get any of the details wrong. I discover no evidence that this story was EVER true. The official histories speak only of Brumidi’s credit as painter and state that he had indeed been in the employ of Pope Gregory XVI. There is no mention of the Appropriations Committee or their mistresses. There is no mention of the back-and-forth and the everlasting defiance of the artist.
I cannot remember the name of our guide. I probably couldn’t pick his face out of a crowd if you asked me. I have no idea if he made the story up, or if somebody else made the story up first, or how long this story has been passed down from secretary to intern to tour group to friends and families of tourists. Either he lied to us willfully or he perpetuated a lie he himself believed, or the official histories are engaged in a conspiracy to bury this truth entirely, a century after the deaths of all parties involved.
And the stories converge, fact and fiction, into a difficult pastiche of what is and is not what we want and do not want to believe of our country. America is, after all and above all, an experiment in how to be America, and when you look deeply into both the metaphors and the mirages you can find a variety of lenses through which to view the current state of things. The Apotheosis of Washington is a work of art and symbology; like the country itself, it remains subjective and vulnerable to interpretation.
Happy Birthday, America. Let’s see what you are this year.
Current music: Cat Power, “Maybe Not”