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Opiate of the gilded

New York Journal | Did Henry Clay Frick seek peace and happiness through art?

Issue: "States' rights," Oct. 27, 2007

New York journalists sometimes drop in on affluent Manhattan mainline churches, see a few dozen folks rattling around in a big sanctuary, and declare the death of Christianity. What they may be witnessing is the death of a pretense to self-sufficiency.

Reporters should drop in on growing evangelical or Pentecostal churches, such as the Times Square Church, which owns and has five services each week at what was the Mark Hellinger Theatre, original home to hit musicals such as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. Some 8,000 people worship there; I recently visited a 10 a.m. Sunday service that was standing room only. Blacks, whites, and Hispanics seemed about equally present.

It's not an affluent congregation, and maybe that lack of riches contributed to the passion of the singing, with crying-out verses like, "I'm desperate for You . . . I'm lost without You." Maybe it's harder for the rich to get into heaven because those with money or power can more readily fool themselves into thinking that they are self-sufficient rather than desperate and lost. Maybe they can surround themselves with servants or great works of art and forget for a time that they and all of us are dust.

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After church I wandered over to The Frick Collection, one of New York's great art museums. The museum on 5th Avenue at 70th St., former home of steel magnate and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), has lots of rococo paintings by Boucher and Fragonard. The latter, on the eve of the French Revolution and even after it began, was painting summery frou-frou scenes with titles like "The lover crowned" and "Love triumphant."

Frick purchased such paintings toward the end of a serious and sometimes violent life. The son of a pious Pennsylvania Mennonite farmer, Frick moved during his 20s from bookkeeping in his uncle's store to tough business practices in the growing steel industry and an alliance with Andrew Carnegie. When steel prices fell in 1892, Frick slashed wages and evicted workers from their company homes in Homestead, Pa. When workers responded with a strike and surrounded the steel plant, he hired 300 men to shoot their way in.

Three of Frick's hires plus seven workers died. Two weeks later, an assassin shot Frick twice in the neck and stabbed him four times in the leg, but Frick was back at work in a week. Negative publicity from the assassination attempt helped to kill the strike: Frick kept making millions of dollars each year and soon was investing much of it in art. A Frick Collection publicity film says the museum has "almost a total absence of violence" and thus "offers nothing less than peace and harmony to every individual" who visits it.

What about individuals who understand that we are desperate and lost without God? According to Frick's daughter, her dad "collected pictures that were pleasant to live with." Hmm-if religion is the opiate of the masses, in Karl Marx's pungent term, was art Frick's opiate? The film states that "often, late at night, at the end of a trying day, Frick would slip into the galleries and sit for an hour or more, absorbing solace and happiness."

Curiously, several paintings-such as El Greco's Purification of the Temple-offer more challenge than solace. Frick reportedly cherished three of his paintings the most. The first, Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, depicts a Christian's ecstatic response to God's grace. The second, Rembrandt's portrait of himself as an oriental ruler, depicts robes of affluence beneath a face lined with age and worry. The third, Hans Holbein's Thomas More-I've had a reproduction in my office for over 25 years-shows Henry VIII's royal advisor (who would later have his head cut off) with a determined, forceful gaze, but his face is unshaven and his eyes are dark-ringed.

When critics called Frick unethical, he responded, "The demands of modern life . . . called for such work as ours; and if we had not met the demand others would have done so." Not a bad justification. But maybe Frick, when he looked at portraits of St. Francis or Thomas More, knew that it wasn't a good one either.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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