Call me the Good Samaritan
She was practiced at the art of deflection Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands
Every major university has a super-duper-secret department where research is conducted under blackout. It’s called the Department of You Don’t Want to Know and its premises are the bar across the street. That’s where exiles from all other departments congregate, and I’m one of them.
Suppose you’ve gone to grad school because you know your stuff about Medieval painting techniques and the Department chair has written a book about Medieval painting techniques. Then you find out, whatever you think you know, he doesn’t want to know it. So you either go the easy way or you move on to some other area where you’ll be challenged, maybe even heard. Considering all the areas I’ve moved on from, it’s amazing I have a doctorate at all.
Fortunately, KYS (Knowing Your Stuff) does not preclude you from having a doctorate, it only makes it harder. Also, necessary. Because at some point you’re going to want to stand your ground and it better be for something more useful to society than the glair in a Byzantine icon. For me, today, that time has come.
I never had any trouble with Professor Z, or she with me. There was nothing to confront, no strong opinions or beliefs. Her philosophy was that of Ingres: “Never go up against those in power because they’re in power. Never go up against those out of power because they may be back in power some day.” Her response to a challenge was to deflect and ignore, mine to move on.
Besides, I’ve never had much interest in American nineteenth-century civic art. I imagine that once applied to most of us, until all heil broke loose over the issue of Confederate statues. Now mind you, Z has never said she approves of Confederate statues, or slavery, only that she approves of public statuary in general, of which Confederate generals are an incidental subspecies, same as slavery. Because you see, the purpose of civic art is to define social norms, and therefore the norms defined by all civic statues and architecture and paintings are the right ones by definition. Professor Z has never seen a norm she didn’t like because she never sees the ones she doesn’t want to see. “Move on, folks.”
Then this image came up, because Z was going to talk around it. It’s in the New York State Supreme Court, on 25th Street in New York City, a gorgeous civic monument if you like that kind of thing:
The painting is called Justice of the Law; it’s by Edward Emerson Simmons; and it’s dated 1900.
The art historian Linda Nochlin used to tell how, when she taught at some privileged Ivy League college, she hated to draw the attention of the class to, say, a tree in the left-hand corner of a painting, because the following week her students would turn up with a dossier of pictures of trees, without ever trying to address why this particular tree was in this particular painting. So when someone pointed out the boys on either side of the figures in Simmons’ painting, holding those bundles of sticks called fasces, Z and her friends went into a dance about the meaning of fasces in general. They really didn’t want to know why these particular fasces are there, and why one bundle is missing the axe that traditionally protrudes from the fasces, while the other bundle has an axe protruding, except it’s at the bottom of the fasces, not the top. The artist is telling us something.
The artist is Edward Simmons. Emerson is his middle name. He was a nephew of Ralph Waldo, born in Concord, Harvard-educated. He brings to mind those ultra-serious artists dedicated to the uplift of America’s civic spirit who occasionally surface in a James novel: an intellectual painter in the New England Yankee tradition, rational, methodical, practical, and dry as dust.
Which is to say the meaning of these two sets of fasces has been thoroughly worked out. Most people know the fasces represent the power of the collective in Ancient Rome: the power of the People. The axe means the legitimacy of force, which emerges from the people — the bundle. Under the Roman Republic (and America’s a republic, right?) “the blade was always removed from the bundle whenever the fasces were carried inside the city, to symbolize the rights of citizens against arbitrary state power” [Wikipedia]. So much for the fasces on the left.
On the right, you see an axe encased in the lower portion of the fascis. The upside-down fascis signifies that in the presence of the Law the People put aside their right to dispense justice themselves. That’s why the painting’s titled Justice of the Law, as opposed to Justice of the People. Which, in the context of 1900 America, meant lynchings. And in the context of 2023,
THOU SHALT NOT ENTRUST THE EXECUTION OF JUSTICE TO SOME FUCKING VIGILANTE. Is that so very hard to understand, Professor?
May 21, 2023
Jacques Rancière, Aux bords du politique (Paris: La Fabrique, 1998), p. 177.