Notes on Rubens' "Prometheus Bound" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Pt. 2




That the Rubens in question hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is serendipitous— that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is what it is, is serendipitous too. Why it has to be that the PMA is a half-buried treasure— the American press corps has no allegiance to/with major high art consonance, or to/with telling the truth about what/where the real centers of power are in America— is the same reason that the Philly Free School, at this stage of its infancy in ’14, also must remain a half-buried treasure. Nevertheless, a solid argument could be made that (the Met in NYC notwithstanding), even before PFS, the PMA made Philadelphia, for major high art consonance, securely the capitol of the United States (and the Rodin Museum, situated in the same neighborhood, enhances this impression). The United States, like the Philadelphia it encompasses, abounds in mysteries and inversions, and is not nearly as cohesively simple-minded as century XX Europe would have us believe. The PMA, especially after PFS, encapsulates its own mystery— that it subsists as a self-contained, self-sufficient aesthetic ecosystem (the middling shows which pass through it accounted for) make an implicit argument for depth, complexity, and historical awareness as indigenously included in the American “package deal.” Abby Heller-Burnham, particularly, grew into her genius from this soil: first Philadelphia’s, then America’s.

The gist argument here is that latent in the United States has always been a certain amount of secret depth, from which could possibly grow the kind and manner of art solidly constructed enough to forge a new, historically aware, aesthetically rich America. If, within a volatile cultural context, a site for this development were to be chosen, the most considered choice, owing to the PMA and for other structural reasons, would have to be Philadelphia rather than New York, once other contenders were whittled out. By letting “Prometheus” occupy an entire wall in the European Art wing, the PMA has unwittingly consolidated and highlighted the struggle any cache of American artists would have to face, to create and sustain an indigenous vision of major high art consonance from within the continental United States. From corrupt, rotten to the core institutions and government art-funding organizations, to a comically banal, vapid press corps; and a society specifically structured (against the ostensible, barely acknowledged in practice American grain) against cohesive individualism and the pursuit of material backing for individual endeavors, especially cultural endeavors meant to encompass/assimilate significant expanses of world cultural history, favoring European history specifically. This vantage point undermines the amorphous, undercooked foundations of American art at any given present moment. Owing to the PMA, it is important to note that there is a Philadelphia conspiracy behind PFS, a subtle current working in our favor from the beginning; just as Rubens “Prometheus,” out of his own nobility and capacity for self-sacrifice, generates a current which allows us to sympathize with his plight and inverse crucifixion, and encouraging us to scrutinize to what degree our motivations are as pure as his.

The way I configure the Philadelphia conspiracy behind PFS, the school where Abby and Mary pursued their art certificates— the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA)— does not figure into the equation. Conversely, and oddly enough the buildings which constitute the PAFA campus in Center City do— their Old European elegance, solidity, and dignity created a space in the two painters for personal elegance, dignity, and solidity to enter.