Decadence was brought about by the easy way of producing works and laziness in doing it, by the surfeit of fine art and the love of the bizarre.
—Voltaire, The Princess of Babylon (1748)
Voltaire’s linkage of decadence to an overabundance of fine art earns consideration, perhaps now more than ever. Art stuffs pile up around us; and we live, increasingly, with an overemphasis on—even reverence for—aesthetics that is less a sign of refinement than a malaise. It is an unhealthy condition, all the more precarious for exalting aesthetics, a strutting Enlightenment product, up, up into the embrace of theology.
Designated carrier of the True and the Beautiful, art has a baneful way of veiling history. It works to displace it or render it inconsequential beside the sweeter fruits of historical inquiry. Traditional history might as well be bunk. Only art history is redemptive. It is salvation history brought up to date for an over-ripe culture with no taste for the character and complexities of its own past .
This occurs to me whenever I am at the Frick. The complex gives no hint of Henry Clay Frick’s provocative, iron-fisted role in the bloody strike at the Carnegie Steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. A consequential setback to workers in dangerous heavy industries in the early days of the labor movement, it cries for acknowledgment. Yet nothing disturbs the patrician calm of the Gilded Age mansion that houses the Frick Collection. If anyone had occasion to benefit from the presumed moral powers of art, it was Frick himself. But that is another matter. What counts here is that he left us the glittering yield of his purchasing power. He had intended his collection to be his monument. And so it is.
Duveen, S.N. Behrman’s 1955 biography of Frick’s dealer, includes comments on the entrepreneurial prodigy who had vowed to become a millionaire by the age of thirty. The paragraph extends to nearly all standard commentary on Robber Baron collectors and their wares:
The article on Frick in the Encyclopedia Britannica runs to twenty three lines. Ten are devoted to his career as an industrialist, and thirteen to his collecting of art. In these thirteen lines, he mingles freely with Titian and Vermeer, with El Greco and Goya, with Gainsborough and Velásquez. Steel strikes and armed Pinkerton guards [300 of them] vanish, and he basks in another, more felicitous aura.
That leads us to the Garden Court, a grand Roman atrium added to the Frick mansion a tad more than a decade after the owner’s death. In a seamless act of aesthetic genius, architect John Russell Pope linked the original mansion to the posthumous extension by means of an atrium that filled what had been an alley for cars and carriages between 70th and 71st Street. [You can take a virtual tour of the dazzling Garden Court here.]
I love the Garden Court. I love to sit on the stone benches and listen to the measured gurgle of water spilling from the mouths of two bronze frogs at either end of the pool. It is a sound out of time, a lovely, liquid undersong that calms, consoles, and in some untellable way, transports. It is a place to brood on the voice Tennyson gave to a bubbling brook: “For men may come and men may go,/But I go on forever.” Within listening distance of those steadfast frogs, I can cruise to altitudes unattainable at home.
Days after my last visit to the Frick, I heard the identical sound again. There was no mistaking it. Trust me. There was the same aqueous fluency, flowing at the same pace and babbling at the same modulated decibel level. This time, though, I was home.
The toilet was running. A mundane, repellant little noise, it stirred ugly visions of dollar bills swirling down the drain to Bell Plumbing. I hated it.
But wait. The connoisseurship of the listening ear has standing, yes? Then why not just close my eyes and take pleasure in the sound until it is fixed? Why not extract something agreeable out this of damned nuisance? While I waited for a new flapper, rubber gasket, or spud washer for a tank manufactured in the same decade as the Garden Court, I should relax and let the sound conjure up another spot of poetry.
I tried to. I failed. But that is beside the point. What matters is the identical character of the sound, the chatter of the Frick’s fountain interchangeable with—indistinguishable from—that of my treacherous toilet. Surely the equivalence and my disparate responses to it signify something about that cagey pretender, the aesthetic sense.
John of Damascus defined sense as “a faculty of the soul by which material things are perceived, or distinguished.” My hearing is fine. Could my soul, then, be at fault for cherishing the sound in one place and loathing it in another? Or does the aesthetic sense share something with real estate—a critical dependence on location, location, location?