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Arts Dominic Green

The course of American empire

March 10, 2018

7:44 AM

10 March 2018

7:44 AM

These days, the political climes of the United States are deeply unhappy. The weather, as if endorsing the pathetic fallacy of the historical schema, is miserable too. Caught by the snow in New York this week, I thought I would dry off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Under the pseudo-Classical portico and past the pseudo-effective security checks I went, and into an exhibition of empire and of arts: ’Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings’.

Americans know Cole (1801-48) as the inspiration of the Hudson River School, and its epic portrayals of the Romantic wilderness in its Western aspect. The British hardly know him at all. But Cole was born and raised in Britain; he emigrated from Lancashire to Ohio in 1817. The exhibition mingles Cole’s paintings, some of which stem from his tour of Europe, with those of his contemporaries across the Pond, notably J.M.W. Turner and John Martin. The result is a visual counterpart to the correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle — an intriguing insight into Anglo-American contacts in the 1830s and 1840s, and the foreboding with which artists considered the advent of industry and mass democracy.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Cole’s most ambitious project, the five canvases of The Course of Empire (1833-36). Cole tended more to the fatalism of Carlyle than the optimism of Emerson. If, he felt, America rose as an urban, commercial empire, it would race towards its Fall.

In the first canvas, The Savage State, a man clad in animal skins hunts at dawn in a wild and wooded landscape by the sea. By the second canvas, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, the sun is up and civilization has reached the ideal of the Georgian antiquarian. Most of the trees have been chopped down, and the land is now used for farming. A miniature Stonehenge has been erected on a headland, and some sacrifices are broiling on the grill. The inhabitants are busy with dancing, child-rearing, boat-building and, for the elderly, drawing philosophical patterns in the dust with a stick.

By the larger, central canvas, The Consummation of Empire, the perspective has shifted to the other side of the bay, and we are on the far shore of history. It is noon, and the whole valley is thick with Classical marble. An emperor is carried in triumph across a bridge topped with gilded statues. We might be where Edward Gibbon would have preferred to be, in the Rome of the Antonines, or where President Trump would prefer to be, in the empires of Cecil B. DeMille and Dwight Eisenhower.

The fourth canvas, Destruction, resembles a Romantic apocalypse by John Martin. As the moon rises and a storm rages, the city is invaded by barbarians. The inhabitants flee for their lives, but the government has not maintained the infrastructure, and the bridge has collapsed. In the foreground, a flight between children sporting red and green colours hints at civil war. Sad!

Finally, we see Desolation. The bay is placid, the long light of evening reminiscent of Venetian decay. The overgrown ruins of the fallen city are merely picturesque, a prelude, perhaps, to a unpainted sixth canvas, to be called Cultural Tourism.

America was founded against an empire. For all the Roman trappings of their political architecture, and the Roman spectacle of their public life, most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea that since 1917, it has been their turn to don the imperial swords and sandals. The United States is an empire to its own people, not an imperial ruler of other peoples. Yet the inner empire, through its economic and military scale, creates quasi-imperial relations with other peoples. Donald Trump is only the most latest president to express America’s discomfort and double vision on this point.

The title of Cole’s visionary sequence refers to Bishop Berkeley’s optimistic poem. But the mood of The Course of History is closer to that of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18):

‘There is the moral of all human tales;
’Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First Freedom and then Glory — when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption —barbarism at last.’

Standing before The Course of History in the Met, I wondered where in the cycle we are now. Perhaps we are on the hinge between the third and fourth paintings, between the orgiastic hedonism of The Consummation of Empire and the collapse of infrastructure and civility in Destruction. If you watch a lot of cable news, you may feel that we are well into Destruction.

The snow had stopped, so I made a dash for the subway. When I saw the Deco tiles beneath the filth on the subway walls, I remembered another profound artistic mediation on the cyclical nature of human societies, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). At the end of the vastly superior Planet of the Apes (1968), Charlton Heston’s character sees the ruin of the Statue of Liberty protruding from an empty seashore, and realizes where he is in time and place. He has not traveled backwards in time, but forwards; nuclear war has brought down the curtain on America’s fifth act of empire. “I can’t believe those bastards finally did it,” he cries. In Beneath the Planet of the Apes, he meets a community of telepathic humans, survivors of nuclear war who live underground in a ruins of the Queensboro Plaza subway station. Thus Destruction tends to Desolation.

The founders of the United States knew their Roman history. They designed the Constitution to replicate the Roman republic’s better parts, and to pre-empt its worst outcomes, the decay into despotism and civil war. But the American founders also designed their system as a democracy. Since 1945, and the consummation of their empire, Americans have voted for bread and circuses as the consummation of their democracy. Now, the infrastructure is crumbling, and civil strife is rising. The barbarians are at the gates, and in the faculty lounge. Are Americans entertaining their culture to death—and even to Destruction?


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