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An American Throne

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An American Throne

The Smithsonian Museum of American Art holds a piece of the American soul. It is only ever seen by surprise, discovered rather than sought out. The museum presents the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly as a Washington, D.C., landlord found it in 1964, piled up in a dim garage. Like any other piece of liturgical art, it’s not meant for a museum (much less a garage), but its drab setting shows off its brilliance all the more, and its cramped presentation does not distract from its size.

The Throne is a liturgical sculpture ensemble of some one-hundred seventy-seven pieces, arranged on two platforms, one raised behind the other. It’s huge, and it draws one in to look for details. At the back and in the center is the tallest piece — a throne nine feet high — topped with “FEAR NOT” in a bold matinee font. Before it, a lectern, an altarpiece, and (on the lower platform) an altar, all covered in gold and silver foil, and on either side are more lecterns labeled with biblical names. Cardboard-and-foil crowns cover the floor around these larger pieces, and plaques reading “JESUS” with commandments written in a variety of tongues surround them on the walls. The museum keeps two other large pieces in storage, but when fully displayed it wraps around the viewer, evoking heaven at every angle.

Everything is glittering. Covering the larger pieces, and many of the smaller ones, are angel wings wrapped in gold and silver-colored foil. Between and under the pieces of foil are sheets of once-purple (now brown) construction paper, all decorating the glass cups, lightbulbs, trunks, and furniture that adorn the pieces and give them form. Simultaneously understated and ornate, this ensemble is striking from a distance, and up close reveals a plethora of hand-drawn symbols, typed inscriptions, biblical names, and baggage tags relating memories of various ecstatic experiences.

The museum keeps the Throne a floor below its best-known works — the portraits of presidents and Founding Fathers which attract tourists to the building in expectation of seeing something they will recognize. But here is the only piece in the museum that jars visitors, reliably making them stop because of what they won’t recognize. Viewers have a hard time placing it in a tradition; sit around long enough and you’ll hear it described as “Egyptian” or “Aztec” or “something from Angkor Wat.” Some will glance at the never-deciphered manuscript its maker left behind, now on display next to the Throne, as inscrutable as the piece itself.

The Throne is a world. It is simultaneously more American and more “foreign” than the paintings that belong to recognizable movements in the history of European art or the self-aware grotesqueries scattered around its “Folk Art” section. It’s not just that the Throne doesn’t look like anything else. It’s also overtly functional in a way nothing else in the section, perhaps nothing else on display in the building, is or ever was. None of its elements — the throne, the crowns, the altar — exist merely for the sake of being “art”; each has a purpose.

But the chief reason it stands out is that it seems to have little to do with American religion. There’s no doubt that the Throne is religious, Christian even, but American Protestantism does not express itself this way. From Puritans fleeing the idolatry of popish ritual to modernists who have replaced worship with support for modish liberal causes, the religious mainstream in this country has always insisted upon iconoclasm. America is not supposed to have thrones or altars. If this kind of religion exists at all, it must remain out of public view, a strictly private affair. But the Throne does not express a religion that can be reduced to a series of voluntary ethical commitments or one that exists in a disembodied private social context. Its religion is communal, ritualistic, and incarnate. And yet in its departure from Protestant individualism, the Throne reflects all the more clearly the nation and the history that produced it. Its existence implies that there is another tradition, something else in the American soul.

The Throne’s maker, James Hampton, a black janitor from Elloree, South Carolina, who may or may not have graduated from high school (he claimed he did, but the school he claimed to have attended has no record of him as a student), built his masterpiece during the last fifteen years of his life, from 1950 to 1964. For all the humility of his origins, he participated in many of the defining events of the twentieth century. His work turns the hardships of that century into a divine story, making war, poverty, migration, and segregation teaching tools for worship. “That’s my life, I’ll finish it before I die,” Hampton once told his landlord.

Hampton was among the millions who left the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration. He came from Elloree to Washington, D.C., as a young man in 1928 to join an older brother. Washington was not an uncommon destination, especially for people from the Carolinas, but jobs were hard to come by at the time and most migrants continued further north or west to larger industrial centers. Federal agencies had been segregated since 1913, and the Depression worsened the homelessness and disease already disproportionately present among the city’s black population. Hampton managed to find work as a short-order cook in 1929. On April 11, 1931, he had his first vision: Moses appearing in Washington.

In 1943, Hampton was drafted. He spent the following two years in Texas, Seattle, and Guam with the Air Force. But he was not a soldier; Hampton was assigned to carpentry and maintenance work, and he spent his time working with his hands. His relationship to the moment was the inverse of that of his fellow draftees. He was in the war not to destroy but to rebuild. And on Guam he assembled the first piece of the Throne: a small plaque.

When Hampton returned to Washington in 1945, the city was changing for its black residents. The federal bureaucracy and military were both desegregating, drawing more migrants from the South looking for “good government jobs.” Hampton got one himself. The General Services Administration hired him as a janitor. For the remaining two decades of his life, he worked for the government during the night and pieced together the Throne during the day, first in the boarding house where he lived, then in a garage on Seventh Street.

The constraints of work in a corporate structure, like the constraints of military life, would seem to stifle a creativity like Hampton’s. Contemporary observers had a lot to say about how managerial bureaucracies mis-shaped the American personality, turning us into “organization men,” anonymous beneath our employers and civic institutions. Even in religious life, American Protestantism was fast becoming defined by para-church institutions, whether the National Council of Churches or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. This aspect of mid-century American life had as much potential to disrupt the religious imagination as did war, depression, or Jim Crow.

Hampton did not allow life in a bureaucracy to constrain his project; rather, he appropriated bureaucracy as a piece of it, identifying new social structures as a mere detail in history’s real story, which is to say, God’s. Calling himself the “Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity,” he began the Throne with the intention of bringing the G.S.A. into the piece and into his worship. In fact, the Throne incorporates all the major events that touched Hampton’s life, taking as given God’s presence in history.

Hampton embarked on this project in the hope of guiding other pilgrims now arriving in Washington. The Throne brings the Great Migration into its divine retelling of American history. References to the Exodus are everywhere — each of the plaques shows a drawing of the Ten Commandments and many of the larger pieces include inscriptions such as “AND GOD SPEAK ALL THESE WORDS SAYING I AM THE LORD THY GOD WHIH HAVE BROUGHT THE OUT OF THE LAND OF [sic].” Most prominent are the golden wings on nearly every piece, turning each of them into an Ark of the Covenant.

Hampton’s work marks out Washington as the Sinai of this new Exodus. The city was for many blacks the first experience of a world beyond Jim Crow. But Washington was still below the Mason-Dixon line and often simply a stop on the way to more far-flung destinations. It was a kind of intervention by the North into the South, a promise of freedom. Moses himself, Hampton claimed, appeared here in 1931, and now, with the Throne’s help, wanderers could stop and learn to worship God and receive the law. Hampton, who at various times unsuccessfully offered his work to local churches as a teaching aid, recorded his visions of Moses and others (including the Star of Bethlehem and the Virgin Mary) on baggage tags now attached to some of the lecterns. Here in Washington, God reached out to His people — all of them. Even the city’s homeless population could be included; much of the golden foil here is from wine labels Hampton purchased from the city’s vagrants.

So yes, James Hampton was “only” a janitor. And it would seem his was a life shaped by historical forces beyond his control, but he made something that managed to contain and organize those forces. Though a participant in the Great Migration, a veteran of a World War, an “organization man,” the lone janitor swept all of this history up into the Throne and subordinated it to a higher purpose. The Throne’s apparent otherworldliness does not deny the reality of Jim Crow, war, bureaucracy, economic depression, or ignore them in favor of an internalized personal belief, but takes them as component pieces of a prophetic project, and settings for the operation of God in the world.

In the Throne, one sees the whole life of its maker, and with it a conviction of a divine purpose behind the twists and turns of American history. But the Throne speaks also of the American character. That character, stereotypically practical and impatient with abstractions, may seem an unlikely inspiration for liturgical art. But so it is for Hampton, who elevates “real-world” communal practices and material objects to the spiritual realm, not through a superficial pantheism but by situating them with care into an incarnate faith.

The Throne addresses some uniquely American concerns about the function of art. When America’s luminaries have thought about art, they have tended to express hope that it can unite lived experience with higher meaning. George Santayana lamented what he considered an artificial separation of the “theological” and “practical” in European approaches to the arts. Aesthetic theory, he argued, ought to be “the theory of a human function which must cover all possible cases of its exercise, whether noble or base.” John Dewey likewise opposed the “ready-made compartmentalization” in European aesthetics that “spiritualizes” art “out of connection with the objects of concrete experience.” Effective art can elevate the objects of daily life to something like mystical experience: through it “we are, as it were, introduced into a world beyond this world which is nevertheless the deeper reality of the world in which we live in our ordinary experiences. We are carried out beyond the world to find ourselves.” This is what Hampton’s Throne achieves by subordinating “artistic” concerns to the practical functions of worship, though it expects us to find God as well as “ourselves.” It takes two paths toward a unity of human experience with spiritual reality: through the communal practice of worship and through the elevation of material objects.

The Throne’s practicality is undeniable. Its lecterns need speakers, its crowns heads, its throne a sitter. Hampton meant it to contribute to the real, lived experience of a particular community of worshippers. On the central pieces (the throne and altar) is written “Tyler Baptist Church”and “REV. A.J TYLER” — referring to Alfred Tyler, pastor of Washington’s Mount Airy Baptist Church from 1906 to 1936. Tyler had overseen Mount Airy’s construction of a new church building, which he dubbed “A Monument to Christ” (one monument the capital somewhat conspicuously lacked). The phrase “A MONUMENT TO CHRIST” likewise appears on the Throne. It’s unclear whether Hampton made the Throne for Mount Airy, or for a congregation of his own, which he spoke of establishing one day.Either way, the Throne does not exist simply to be viewed. Its beauty emerges in its function, worship, which Hampton understood as a social experience, not as quiet personal contemplation. The building of the Throne was itself a collaborative process — getting materials from local merchants and homeless people, trying to get local churches involved, even bringing co-workers and journalists in to see it.

The work of sacred art mediates the artist’s (and viewer’s) relationship to God and to others, but also to material objects. The Throne makes liberal, but crucially specific, use of tinfoil, glassware, lightbulbs, and other found objects. These items have been consumed — both in the sense of having been the object of a market transaction, and in the sense of having been used and discarded — in other words, they were garbage. Artists who incorporate garbage into their work often do so self-consciously. Not so with Hampton. Just as he grounds the value of lived experience in a particular community’s practice of worship (rather than overtly trying to say something about the importance of experience per se), Hampton has a specific purpose in mind for these objects, and they tend to appear in patterns.

Most prominent among the found objects are the lightbulbs. They’re on everything. Hampton presumably found these on the job — they are most likely burned out. On the Throne, they take on a second life, awaiting the moment when its intended occupant arrives, when they can shine again with His light. Even these short-lived consumer products are not beyond the purview of the Incarnation, but they must be re-contextualized away from a throwaway culture. The work of human hands here does not find its end in the dumpster; the bulb waits to be lighted once again, the American exodus’s burning bush, burned out but not consumed. And from it, Hampton understands, will God speak.Industry, then, joins nature in awaiting the assembly of the people of God for worship. Indeed, on all the crowns in the Throne ensemble, perhaps for future employees of the State of Eternity, Hampton wrote “REV 7:3” (“Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads”). What Walt Whitman hoped for the American people, Hampton promises for those who stand before his Throne: the unity of nature and industry, the life of a soul and the life of a city, the self and God. Hampton doesn’t reduce them to each other, but elevates each in its harmonious distinctness that will be complete when Christ returns and migrants reach the promised land.

What led Hampton to these hopes, and what led him to express them in a piece of ornate liturgical art? Part of the answer may be, simply, black American Christianity. Perhaps the black church is more prone to see divine action in history, and to see itself in the biblical narrative (especially the Exodus). And as for the artistic impulse, Hampton conforms nicely to what W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of the black American spiritual tradition — free of white America’s “dusty desert of dollars and smartness,” his mystical work emerged from a thoroughly American experience of oppression. Grey Gundaker and Judith McWillie connect the Throne more specifically to the tradition of African-American “yard work” — Christian devotional displays that set apart sacred space and sacred objects. And the Throne has suffered the same unfortunate fate that tends to befall black religious art. With the notable exception of gospel music, black religious art is usually shunted into the categories of “folk” or “outsider” art, a label that unhelpfully implies that it doesn’t belong to a coherent tradition, much less one that might inform Christian worship.

Hampton drew inspiration from beyond these shores as well. The work is informed by yet another event from his own lifetime. On the surface of the altar, at the front and center of the ensemble — surrounded by symbols of the Ark of the Covenant — are five sheets of paper with typewritten messages. All are biblical passages about the end times, except one — the shortest — at the front and center of the altar’s surface:

    his By Pope Pius [XII] Is True hey had gathered from all over the world to attend yesterday’s ceremonis [sic] t which the Pope proclaimed the new dogma of the bodily assumption of he Virgin Mary into heaven.

At the center of his work, Hampton places an account of Pope Pius XII’s promulgation of the dogma of the Assumption. Ratifying the event’s importance for the Throne is a baggage tag on one of the podiums with another typed message: “This design is the proof of Virgin Mary descending [sic] into Heaven––––––​November 2, 1950 It is also spoken of by Pope Pius XII.” The only similar message offering an explicit key to interpreting the Throne is an affirmation of Christ’s divinity, typed on a baggage tag that hangs on the throne itself, which appears to read “This Design is the proof of Me being Trinity before the Virgin Birth.” The Holy Father has solemnly proclaimed the Assumption the same year that Hampton began renting the Seventh Street garage to work on the Throne. The Assumption of Mary — Seat of Wisdom, Ark of the Covenant, and Patron of the United States — became for Hampton a promise that history, creation, and human industry could be woven together into the divine story.

The Throne pieces together a Catholic vision from the refuse of a Protestant history. But it is no less American for leaving aside individualism, consumerism, and iconoclasm. Nor is it the only indelibly American cultural artifact with these surprising affinities. Religious art in the United States has, since Hampton’s day, become more bourgeois and Europhile. But the Throne exists, and while it awaits the arrival of its ultimate intended occupant, it also awaits a humbler arrival, at the center of our understanding of American art.

Philip Jeffery is the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek.

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