I may have done a bad thing last week. I visited the Frick Museum in Manhattan, where I saw Holbein’s famous portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, several Vermeers, a few astonishing Rembrandts, and various El Grecos, Whistlers, and Turners, among others. What could be wrong about such a heady dose of art?
Last week also saw the resignation of Warren B. Sanders from the board of the Whitney Museum, also in Manhattan. The museum was pressured by the withdrawal of their works by artists in protest of Kanders’ role in a company that produces “munitions for police and military forces, including tear gas that has been used on migrants at the US border.”(1) That artist protest was only the latest by artists, actors, musicians, and others against taking money from companies and individuals responsible for pollution, sexual assault, discrimination, and other perceived evil practices. Earlier in July, for example,
78 British artists . . . said they had called on the National Portrait Gallery in London to cut ties with BP, saying its “role in furthering the climate crisis” made accepting new sponsorship from the company unacceptable.(2)
And eleven days ago, it was reported that the Louvre Museum in Paris
has removed the name of the Sackler family, owners of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, from the walls of one of its wings amid a growing scandal over its alleged connection with the US opioid crisis.(3)
So what was my problem with the Frick?
Here’s a brief bio of Henry Clay Frick from Wikipedia:
Henry Clay Frick (December 19, 1849 – December 2, 1919) was an American industrialist, financier, union-buster, and art patron. He founded the H. C. Frick & Company coke manufacturing company, was chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, and played a major role in the formation of the giant U.S. Steel manufacturing concern. . . . He later built the historic neoclassical Frick Mansion (now a landmark building in Manhattan), and upon his death donated his extensive collection of old master paintings and fine furniture to create the celebrated Frick Collection and art museum. However, as a founding member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, he was also in large part responsible for the alterations to the South Fork Dam that caused its failure, leading to the catastrophic Johnstown Flood. His vehement opposition to unions also caused violent conflict, most notably in the Homestead Strike.(4)
The whole Frick Museum enterprise was based on the money accrued by a capitalist exploiter. The money not only paid for the building but also for the acquisition of the masterworks of art that the building houses.
Was I wrong to enjoy myself in such a milieu?
One of the paintings I admired at the Frick was by Anthony van Dyck, a favorite of the art-loving despot King of England Charles I, who “appointed him ‘principalle Paynter in ordinary of their Majesties’ and knighted him.”(5) And in turn, I was once again reminded of the dictum of Balzac:
Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.
Great art has been sponsored throughout history by great wealth—the wealth of monarchs and the nobility, popes and prelates, land owners, merchants, and industrialists.
Take the Medici family, for example:
They were more than beneficent and ostentatious patrons of the arts; they were also enlightened and were probably the most magnificent such patrons that the West has ever seen.(6)
But they were hardly enlightened and beneficent when it came to politics. They rose to power in Florence by undermining the republican tradition of that city. Although of bourgeois origin, in the 15th century they “set up a hereditary principate in Florence but without legal right or title, hence subject to sudden overthrow” and eventually in the 16th century “renounced republican notions and imposed its tyranny, and its members made themselves a dynasty of grand dukes of Tuscany.”
Back to the present day.
In the present climate there is great pressure to reject the money of modern would-be Medicis as tainted. The Guardian (UK) reported early this year:
One of America’s most venerated institutions, the Smithsonian museum, which oversees the US National Portrait Gallery, has accepted donations from the US maker of Marlboro cigarettes as recently as 2017.(7)
Should one boycott the Smithsonian?
Tobacco money is tainted; how about pollution money? Should one boycott the New York City Ballet, which calls the David H. Koch Theater home? Named after one of the notorious polluting Kochs, who also give gillions of dollars of tainted money to efforts to undermine our republican form of government.(8)
There’s a wonderful Yiddish joke that goes like this:
My wife is a chemist. She makes dreck fon gelt.
Well, in disagreement with those who reject taking so-called tainted money, I say, “Take it. Take gelt fon dreck!”
When you don’t take their money, what happens to it? They have more money to invest in their odious pursuits. Which makes the world an even worse place.
Take their money from them—as much as you can. And fill the world with art and music and poetry.
I don’t think that’s a shitty idea.
(8) To me one of the great telling signs of the falling to pieces of our democracy is the fact that the oligarchical Koch name replaced the original name of the building: The New York State Theater.