Vanity, Thy Name Is…
“I don’t control painting, painting controls me.” ~ Hubert Roestenburg, German Expressionist
Left: Henri Matisse, Woman in a Hat (1920) Private Collection.
What can art teach us about human motivation? It is in our nature to surround ourselves with the people and things that reinforce our self-image and belief systems, as evidenced in the case of the current president? Take notice of the ‘new’ oval office and the change in art work that now hangs within sight of the chief executive, and all those who care to notice in photographs of proceedings there. To the right of the desk, from a viewer’s perspective, is a large portrait of Andrew Jackson (c. 1834), by then-Nashville colleague and White House resident artist, Ralph E.W. Earl. Jackson lost a bitterly contested election to John Quincy Adams in `24. His next campaign—characterized by his rough-hewn style and unconventional Tennessee country ways—was aimed at earning the vote of the ordinary man. This carried him to victory in 1828. In order to manage his public image, it is said that Jackson kept the artist close by in the years that followed, requiring that multiple portraits be produced to reinforce the perception of the man as a heroic and statesman-like figure.
Once in office, he set the precedent as the sole representative of “the people” and, as such, could wield power broadly to carry out their will. Thus began a period characterized as ‘Jacksonian Democracy.’ As president, Jackson pursued several aggressive policies, including a violent ‘Indian Removal’ program, threatening military action against South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis, and attacking the national banking system. And while the particulars of Jackson’s heavy-handed executive hand in the disruption of governmental institutions may differ, the parallels to today’s climate-of-crisis in the executive branch are obvious.
The Hermitage Web site, representing Jackson’s Nashville ancestral home and his political legacy, puts a positive spin on this controversial man, “Jackson was different. No one like him had ever served as president. He made executive decisions based on his personal beliefs and did what he could to protect the common man. Besides the tremendous work he achieved in office and in the military, President Jackson left a legacy resulting from his unorthodox, action-first mentality that pushed the boundaries for what both the president and the nation could achieve.” There is little doubt that when our current president hears these words (he doesn’t read, remember!), he no doubt identifies with this historically notorious disrupter.
The alt-right Web site, Breitbart, quotes White House spokesperson Steven Miller (no doubt working off a script provided to him by the President) places Trump in the tradition of America’s great populist leaders, comparing him to the nineteenth century firebrand William Jennings Bryan and to the nation’s first populist president Andrew Jackson. They write: “I’d say [Trump] is the best public orator since William Jennings Bryan, and he has a better sense of the pulse of the people than any President at least since Andrew Jackson.” Trump himself believes he may prove to be the greatest president ever, “with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.”
Jackson’s platform portrayed him as the defender of the common person against wealthy bankers. In his two terms in the Executive Office, he popularized the practice of awarding civil service positions to friends, family and allies. From contemporaneous newspaper reports on this practice arose the phrase, “to the victor goes the spoils.” Before his inauguration on March 8, 1829, moderation had prevailed in the transfer of political power from one U.S. presidency to another. President Andrew Jackson’s arrival signaled a sharp departure from past presidencies. An unruly mob of office seekers made something of a shambles of the March celebration, showing up at the White House ball in droves, wreaking havoc at the event and causing destruction to the property. Though some tried to explain this as democratic ‘enthusiasm,’ the real truth was Jackson supporters had been lavished with promises of positions in return for political support. These promises were honored by an astonishing number of removals after Jackson assumed power. At the beginning of Jackson’s administration, fully 919 officials were removed from government positions, amounting to nearly 10 percent of all government postings.
Our current Chief Executive views these historic comparisons favorably, of course, seeing himself as a radical reformer and visionary developer. Trump’s appeal resides in his ability to evoke nationalistic imaginary of times past; a vanished, proto-industrial period when life was somehow better. Jackson imagined a future nation racially purified of alien tribal presence on manifestly-ordained American soil. The seeds of chaos that might be sewn by this borrowed form of disruptive management—particularly in the hands of an inexperienced team with a targeted, a priori agenda—runs the risk of being either entropic, dangerous, or both. Only time will tell.
The donkey was first associated with Democrat Andrew Jackson’s 1828 presidential campaign. His opponents called Jackson a “jackass” for his populist views. Jackson was actually entertained by the insult, and used the image of the strong-willed donkey on his campaign posters. It might be fair to say that while this enduring symbol of the Republican Party has endured to this day, it has assumed a form that might not be altogether welcomed by those now exposed to its constant braying and fitful kicking.
On the table directly beneath the Jackson painting is a bronze statue called, “Bronco Buster,” by Frederic Remington (1885), symbolizing in the opinion of many, all that is triumphant and heroic in the American persona. It has resided in the White House since being made a gift by the artist to President Teddy Roosevelt. It has most recently found its way into the president’s line-of-sight, and for all those who may visit the office. For him, this object, too, represents something equally as significant as his self-selected proximity to the Jackson portrait. At times like this, it is instructional to recall Jane Austen’s 1813, Pride and Prejudice, where she wrote: “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
Thank you for reading ARTES,
Richard J. Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor