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jefferson and hamilton

I lament the loss of the republic. Like the Roman senators under the emperors, who longed for the halcyon time before Julius Caesar, I long for the good old days when we had a republic in these United States.

For all the prating about democracy, and our current boilerplate pieties about the “will of the people,” it should be remembered that our Founding Fathers never intended that we should be a democracy. They feared democracy.

That is why they carefully crafted a republic.

The Romans and I lament the loss of the republic from opposite ends of the governance spectrum, but we lament nonetheless. Yes, just as Rome under the Claudians and Antonines maintained a certain hypocritical observance of the forms of the republic while the realpolitik was despotism, the United States maintains the observance of certain republican relics — like the Electoral College — while in reality giving over ourselves to mob rule.

“We are now forming a republican government,” wrote Alexander Hamilton during the debates of the Federal Convention in 1787. “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

And we wrote republicanism into our Constitution, giving the people the right to choose their leaders. The expectation was that these elected leaders would govern us. Instead, over the past 200 years, there has been an erosion of that idea into one where the people have come to micromanage. We vote or voice out about every single issue that comes up with the odd self-assurance that any regular Joe can know and understand complex issues as well as the thoughtful and educated people who have studied them for years.

It’s as if we elbowed Steve Jobs out of his position at Apple and let the assembly-line workers make the corporate and financial decisions. Jobs was a leader for a reason. We expect talent at the head of our businesses, we expect them to know more than we can possible know about the particularities of their fields. They are hired to know what we cannot: Specialists, not generalists.

So, leaders no longer lead. We complain about it all the time, yet in fact, when it comes to politics, we don’t want our leaders to lead. We want them to follow. To follow public opinion. If this week we want English as an “official language,” then, bigod, we’ll have it. If next week we want something else, then we’ll change once more. American history is fraught with the warnings of this.

There was a time, if constitutional republicanism hadn’t won out, that American voters would have outlawed Roman Catholicism. We would have prevented the Irish from immigrating. The majority has scant respect for minority rights. And how many times in the past decade has some group discovered that if given the chance, most Americans would revoke the First Amendment? And if Lyndon Johnson hadn’t actually led, but had instead followed the vox populi, we still might not have a voting rights act.

John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1815, “The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor.”

It is instead with thoughtful, careful, prudent people that we should hope to entrust our governance. Admittedly, educated people are quite capable of stupidity. It was the “best and the brightest,” after all, who got us into Vietnam in the first place. But stupid half the time is an improvement on stupid all the time. If we leave government to momentary passion and popular prejudice, we will always be stupid as a people. At least the “aristocracy of merit” that Thomas Jefferson foresaw has the chance to lower the percentage of egregiousness in our governance.

“There is a natural aristocracy among men,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “The grounds of this are virtue and talents.” That idea has faded into a lumpen and ignorant interpretation of his “all men are created equal,” as though you or I could play point guard for the Chicago Bulls, or build a moon rocket in our garage or write good law.

In a republic, we hire the best people to spend their time understanding just such things. In a democracy, such as we pretend to have now, our leaders need know nothing, as long as they do what we tell them in this week’s Gallup Poll, and change it all over again next week.

BILT E3

One very trendy New York artist has said, ”Money creates taste,” but the truth is otherwise. Money can create fashion, but never taste. 

In fact, more often than not, the only taste that seems to come from wealth is bad taste, and that in huge, ostentatious quantities. 

For instance, the money of George Vanderbilt poured into the mountains of North Carolina near Asheville has created a garish monument to obscene wealth and acquisitional excess called the Biltmore Estate. 

Begun in 1887, it is a 250-room mansion in phony French chateau style that took an army of stonecutters and craftsmen six years to finish. Even today, in the possession of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it is the largest private home in America, situated on 8,000 acres of North Carolina mountain real estate. This has shrunk from its original 125,000 acres. 

It is an astonishing collection of bric-a-brac and great art treated as bric-a-brac. Durer engravings are treated like knickknacks, like so much plundered lucre, heisted from the trove of Europe to show off to admiring Americans, unable to create great art, but sure as hell able to buy it. 

Designed by the ”architect to the robber barons,” Richard Morris Hunt, it is a mind-boggling showcase of things to gawk at, but not to admire. 

It took six years and 1,000 men to build. With a 390-foot facade, the house has more than 11 million bricks, 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces, 43 bathrooms, 34 bedrooms and three kitchens, all of which are contained on over four acres of floor space. 

Bowling alley

Bowling alley

The massive stone spiral landscape rises four floors and has 102 steps. 

Through its center hangs an iron chandelier weighing 1,700 pounds. 

Inside can be found a vast collection of art and furniture, more than 70,000 cataloged items, including 23,000 books, furniture from 13 countries, more than 1,600 art prints and hundreds of paintings. One cannot help but think of Citizen Kane

There were indoor bowling, billiards, a swimming pool, a gym. Outdoors, there were croquet, fishing, horseback riding, more swimming and hunting, hiking and camping. 

It is a monument to excess, of a kind Bill Gates can only dream about. 

The Vanderbilts could entertain a few close friends at a dinner table that could seat 64 guests in a banquet hall that is 72 feet long. Meals served at the table were usually seven courses long and required as many as 15 utensils per person. banquet hall

Enough fresh fish to feed 50 people was shipped in daily from New York City. Lobster, twice a week. 

But then, the Vanderbilts were wealthy people. 

George was a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka the Commodore, who is best remembered as one of the great robber barons of American monopoly capitalism. It was the Commodore’s son, William, who responded to questions of how the family business practices might affect the public by saying, ”The public be damned.” 

The Commodore paid for the Breakers in Newport, R.I., also designed by Hunt, which is a mere 70-room ”cottage.” 

It pales beside the splendiferosity of Biltmore House. 

In fact, the estate is so impressive, it’s a shame it isn’t beautiful. Instead, its a hodgepodge of architectural styles, each displayed with the same aesthetic care as the collected artwork, which is often hidden behind furniture. 

Hunt pulled together a little of this and a little of that, with no controlling idea, so the house is a kind of architectural landfill. 

Library, ca. 1910

Library, ca. 1910

There are some very nice details, but they never add up to a satisfying whole. Instead, like a meal of too much rich food: garlicked langostinos and chocolate cake, they sit in the belly undigestible, waking you up in the middle of the night with disturbing dreams. 

It certainly isn’t aesthetics that brings the crowds. There may be a great deal of art on the walls of the Biltmore mansion, but these gawkers would not be paying the hefty admission price to see Claudes and Renoirs. No, like some tabloid version of ”America’s Most Wanted Mansions,” it is the excess and wealth that bring them in. They want to see how real money lives. 

For Americans have an oddly unsolved double standard when it comes to wealth. They are decidedly democratic in the sense that they believe, fervently, that no one is better than anyone else. They wear their sloganed T-shirts and shorts to prove it. But they don’t imagine that this equality rests at the level of a working middle class. No, they imagine an equality where everyone wins the lottery and has tons of moolah and can make themselves just such a mansion to live in and watch Wheel of Fortune while their servants bring them lite beer and corn nuts. 

It is a proletarian dream of money: Cash without the scruples of good taste. Let’s all put a dozen Jaguars in the garage. Let’s light cheap cigars with $100 bills and bring Uncle Ed around for a game of snooker in the basement while the kids bang away, attempting Heart and Soul on the Steinway. 

For these crowds of gawkers at the Biltmore see the Vanderbilt family as a 19th-century version of the Lotto grand prize. 

And I’m afraid, the Vanderbilts have obliged them by building the world’s largest, most expensive double-wide.with trailer

warhol

Andy Warhol was a sphinx. His public pronouncements were often so bland as to be dumbfounding. Yet he is one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Because his public persona was so passive, we cast our ideas upon his blank slate: There are as many Warhols as there are viewers of his work.

To some, he was the great democratizer; his prints were — originally — affordable to all. To some, the great charlatan; he admitted his favorite thing was money.

To others, he was the harbinger of celebrity culture while to still more, he was a mocker of celebrity.

He either knocked off commercial imagery, or he allowed us to see that imagery for the first time as art. marilyn

Was he ironic or sincere?

We each have our own Warhol.

My Warhol is the best artist of the past 50 years, not only influential but unlike some other influential artists such as Joseph Beuys, Warhol also provides us with beauty. Like Picasso or Matisse, his work isn’t just about theory, but about pleasure.

The academicians and theorists point out that Warhol’s art is about repetition and multiple versions of the same thing: a dozen Maos or Marilyns. And although that is tangentially true, what is truly astounding in Warhol’s work is the variation. Each repetition is brand new. The artist’s inventiveness is magical. 1972 mao 1

You can look at a dozen Maos and see repetition, or you can see a dozen variations on a theme, ranging from Mao in blackface to Mao in green, each version with its own particular scribbles. Not repeated, but varied. jagger

1964 soup canThen, there’s the Mick Jagger series from 1975, in which the images are partly photographs, partly abstract shapes and partly line drawings — and make no mistake, Warhol’s line was as distinct and fluent as Picasso’s.

There are Campbell’s soup cans here, too. Warhol made his reputation with these.

It is the job of artists to direct our attention to what is going on around us, whether that is the grand landscape of 19th-century America or the commercial landscape of Pop Art. In this sense, Warhol is no different from Thomas Moran.

Once we’ve seen Warhol’s soup cans, we cannot be blind to the originals in the store: Instead of their disappearing into the background noise of our lives, we pay attention.

Paying attention is the sine qua non of art. car wreck five deaths

And though we think of Warhol as being the abettor of celebrity (and at his crassest, he provides “Warhol” portraits of anyone rich enough to commission one), the celebrities he chose for his uncommissioned work tended to be those with the aura of tragedy about them, like Marilyn Monroe. His early work often included car wrecks or disasters from the news. One of the sets is about the Kennedy assassination. geronimo

Warhol is more committed to the real world than he often is given credit for: Even the seemingly simple Pop images of cowboys and Indians remind us of the tragedy of Native America. There is Geronimo; there is John Wayne.

Or the series of “Jews in the 20th Century,” which may show us the Marx Brothers and George Gershwin as well as Martin Buber and Albert Einstein, but behind them all is our awareness of the tragedy of Jews in the century past.

As Percy Shelley said, “Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught.”

Warhol the celebrity was a bright blot, a blank face of banal utterance, but it was a mask he was forced into in order not to have to trivialize his work by talking about it. His famously obtuse interviews were a defense mechanism: When you have torn the veil, as Warhol had, how can you come back to this side?

Andy preferred to let his work speak for itself, and that is why everyone can have his own Warhol.