Encouraging American Genius
By Jerry Leibowitz
We are stardust, billion year old carbon
We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
I have been thinking about what it means to “encourage American Genius” since I wrote my last piece on the Corcoran Gallery of Art . William Corcoran used the phrase in the deed donating what became the first independent Art Gallery in America in 1869, stating that his gift was:
“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”
The phrase and the words “Dedicated to Art”, which is displayed on the façade of both the original and the present Corcoran Gallery acquired in 1897, has popped up in the controversy about the future of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art. It remains unclear exactly what Corcoran had in mind, and it seems foolhardy to litigate that intent today. Perhaps Corcoran was reiterating a strand of American thought that went back at least to 1760, the year that Benjamin West left Pennsylvania to view the great art of Italy, never to return. Despite, or because of, our view of our founding as something inspired by divine intervention, we often fail to see the America that was born of a brutal and barbarous nature, where much of its wealth was extracted from the enslaved to the utter disregard if not the benefit of its founders. This original sin left America artistically fallow as many of the best minds of our early generations chose to leave America to pursue their craft. While the civil war did not solve America’s problems, by ending slavery in America through blood sacrifice the end of that war provided the means for America to move beyond its original sin. By 1869, the first America ended, and William Corcoran was among those calling for the next America to be better, through art, through culture and through the development and encouragement of American genius.
The cornerstone of the Second America arguably was laid in England in 1791 with a painting by Benjamin West entitled “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden”.[i] As if by my design, the painting now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. Obviously, this was a subject that had been covered numerous times before; it is one of the most familiar and iconic images in western thought. Yet, as the NGA website points out…”West’s Expulsion contains two motifs not found in Genesis or any traditional pictures of the theme: an eagle swoops upon a helpless bird, and a lion chases frightened horses. In general terms, such beasts of prey imply the destruction of harmony that resulted from Original Sin.” The eagle became the bird emblem of the United States of America in 1782. Its placement in the work calls to the viewer the America that Benjamin West had left over thirty years before. Perhaps the lion represents the slaveholders and the horses represent their slaves.[ii] West, who was a Quaker and was adamantly anti-slavery, had left America as a British citizen and ended up in England where he rose to the highest level of his craft, a friend and Court painter to King George lll. West was not the only American artist who left his native land; he was soon followed by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and John Trumbull all of whom sat out the Revolutionary War in England. They were eventually followed by virtually every great American artist of the 19th and early 20th century, each of whom studied or lived in Europe for a considerable period of their artistic development. We know a little of why these early American artists left America; Copley called his native country barbarous and limiting to his craft; Trumbull may have been a spy for America; Stuart was ambitious and adventurous. I suggest that Benjamin West invited this community of artists to England to “encourage American genius” in a place removed from the sin of slavery. When the smoke from the American Revolution had cleared, Trumbull and Stuart returned to America giving America its first artistic life, one couched in patriotism and love for the new country. It is likely that Gilbert Stuart, having lived among those who were a part of the antislavery movement while in England[iii], returned to America as an emissary for that movement, often discussing political subjects with those who sat for him. Trumbull went on to document America’s founding, and established the first University Art Gallery at Yale largely to collect his own works. Copley and West stayed in England and continued their artistic pursuits. West’s views against slavery were quite well known and clearly contributed to his historic and religious themed works. Copley explored the humanity of the slavery issue in his works including Watson and the Shark (also at the NGA!), The Head of a (favorite) Negro and The Death of Major Pierson. In retrospect then, Benjamin West put out the first call to “encourage American genius” just at the time that the founding fathers were beginning their experiment with self-government but were unable or unwilling to recognize that the flaws in their work would render America spiritually damaged and eventually hurl the country towards self-destruction and civil war.
I have written previously of the bequest of James Smithson, and how that gift was intended to propel America out of its barbarous nature (See Follow the Money- the Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson, https://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=94. Under Smithson’s will of 1826, his money was given “to the united states of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Arguably, as I suggest in Legacy, it was the knowledge diffused by that institution that made the end of slavery inevitable, since knowledge is the ultimate cure for ignorance and indifference. While the cure for America turned out to be unbelievably painful, it must be recognized that by 1860 the disease was quite severe. All of the compromises which let slavery continue and expand in America, going back to compromises made in 1775, had rendered the country spiritually depraved. Despite all the progress being made in the Arts and the Sciences, the use of forced labor to create wealth had rendered the country unholy, and that evil was a limiting restraint on the creation of true American genius. The end of slavery through the civil war gave America a new chance, and men with foresight were not about to let the moment slip by doing nothing.
William Corcoran was intimately familiar with the Smithson bequest, having worked with Congress on establishing the Smithsonian Institution. He provided expertise on the building of the Castle which housed the entire Institution. As a Southern sympathizer who helped foster the compromises in the 1840’s and 1850’s that made the civil war inevitable, Corcoran had some fault to bear in the ugly matter. His fortune had been made in banking largely by funding the Mexican American War in 1846, which provided for the expansion of the country deemed necessary for the continuation of slavery. While many in the south were devastated by their loss of autonomy through the Civil War, Corcoran came to recognize that without the burden of the slavery issue which could only divide America, the great days of America lay ahead. In 1869, he found himself on the other side of the civil war with a ton of money, a passion for art, and a new blank canvas to create the Second America as a far better place than the first. His gift of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, reflects that hope. Where Smithson used the word “knowledge”, a word which connotes something quantifiable and exact, Corcoran’s vision was for “Art” and for “Genius”, concepts which are exquisite and unquantifiable. The Civil War provided redemption from America’s original sin and perhaps Corcoran’s own sins, and now it was time for grace and return to the garden.
It is with all this in mind that I contemplate again the status of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art and specifically what it means to “encourage American Genius”. As I noted in my last piece, I am quite certain that the art from the Gallery will be fine under the care of the National Gallery of Art. The building which houses the Gallery is of no moment here, since it was constructed after the death of William Corcoran and could not have been a part of his vision. But the concept of “Encouraging American Genius” remains to me as important and elusive as ever, and perhaps that is a good thing. It is an easy thing to say that an art school encourages American genius, but is that really true? Is there a difference between “artist” and “genius”? If schooling develops genius why then does not the Kennedy School of Government churn out Abraham Lincolns? Arguably “genius” is not developed at all it just happens from time to time. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation has it right…wait for someone to do something great…call it “genius” and throw money at it. But I am not sure that works either, since if I won a MacArthur grant I would probably change the name of my website to IdiscoveredTahiti.com and never be heard from again. (Note to MacArthur Trustees: That last comment was just literary license. If I were to receive a grant I would churn out the genius stuff like you wouldn’t believe!). William Corcoran may have had a reasonable notion as to what it meant to “Encourage American Genius“ as shown by his help establishing artists of the Hudson River School, but it is also true that much of what he collected were secondary works. That is not a knock on his talent or ideals, but more a statement on the elusive nature of discovering genius.
An Art School, a Museum, a studio…whatever. The chance of anyone finding and encouraging true American artistic genius remains slim. The job of the artist is to turn out the work; whether it is genius or not is usually judged by posterity which sometimes takes an awfully long time to answer. For every Michelangelo there is a Van Gogh. William Corcoran must have known all this when he gave his gift. Perhaps with his gift he was trying to follow the mold set by Benjamin West in the 1770’s. The modest building he gave may have been well suited to the task of encouraging American genius. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art was when they moved to larger quarters in the late 19th century. But then again, the late 19th century was a time of big ideas, and Corcoran liked living large and probably would have blessed the expansion. But 19th century ideas may not be relevant to our times and our William Corcorans should not be tied to them. How we encourage our 21st century American geniuses is a mystery to me. Still, like the accurate compass which gives direction to this website, in 1869 William Corcoran provided the country with the right direction which hopefully moves us, slowly and imperceptively, back to the Garden.