What made my soul chuckle (and my body almost laugh) this weekend was Alex Sandvoss's painting "Jeff Bezos and the Green New Deal," which presently dominates a wall in Columbia City Gallery. The Surry BC-based artist boosted Rembrandt's famous "Syndics of the Drapers' Guild" and replaced the faces of the six 17th-century cloth inspectors with faces of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and, presently (the third decade of the 21st century) the third-richest person in the world.
Rembrandt's Dutch inspectors (who are also merchants by trade) are serious looking. They mean business. The books must be in order. What stamp shall it be? Four seals is for the best cloth you can buy in the United Provinces. One stamp is for the worthless stuff. In Sandvoss's version, the Bezoses are emotionally all over the place: one is cracking up, one is staring off into space; one Bezos is looking questioningly at the Bezos who has just stood from his chair and is soon to smack some silly out of the cackling Bezos. The Rembrandt painting is pretty sober.
Admiring and learning about Rembrandt, that sounds like a perfect afternoon to us! 💛👨🎨— Rijksmuseum (@rijksmuseum) June 26, 2023
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🖼️The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1662 pic.twitter.com/RXYMfHPcXX
But the laughter triggered by Sandvoss's painting had another source for me. The artist made a profound connection between Dutch capitalism and one of the masters of 21st-century capitalism, which is still in the twilight between the declining American economy and rising Chinese economy. The inspectors in "Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild" will die soon after the end of the Dutch Golden Age (1588 to 1675). They are the last masters of the first capitalist state, the United Province, in the history of the world. Capitalist accumulation, as it is understood today, begins here. Then it moves to the UK (1675 to 1914), then to the US (1914 to 2008), then (in the near future—2008 is still with us) to China. (Some, such as Ellen Meiksins Wood, dismiss the Dutch Golden Age and instead locate capitalism's birth in 18th-century United Kingdom; others, such as Giovanni Arrighi locate it in 16th-century Italian city-states.)
The inspectors in Rembrandt's painting are Bezos's people. This is why his face can replace them. Only the present, those living the now, can haunt; and what they haunt is not the future, which is mostly dead to them, but the past. The inspectors can't haunt Bezos; but he can haunt their painting and world, which, even today, is still his world: commodification of luxury goods, quality control, banking innovations, the joint-stock company, free trade backed by military power.
In 1953, the French semiotician Roland Barthes wrote this about the cloth inspectors/merchants in his brilliant but short essay "The World as Object":
In the Dutch Golden Age, [there are virtually] no portraits of women, except as regents of hospitals, dispensers of public funds, not private fun. Woman is assigned only an instrumental role, as an administrator of charity or a guardian of domestic economy. Man, and man alone, is human. Hence all Dutch painting—still lifes, seascapes, peasant scenes, regents—culminate in a purely masculine iconography whose obsessive expression is the guild portrait... Consider Rembrandt's cloth merchants—one of them even stands up to get a better look at you. You become a matter of capital, you are an element of humanity doomed to participate in a numen issuing finally from man and not from God. There is no sadness and no cruelty in that gaze; it is a gaze without adjectives, it is only, completely, a gaze which neither judges you nor appeals to you; it posits you, implicates you, makes you exist.
Numen means "divine will" in Latin.
Let's not leave the Dutch Golden Age yet. There is one more thing we must look at before we go. It's Johannes Vermeer's tranquil "View of Delft" (1659–1661).
🎨Johannes Vermeer— History of Painting 💮 (@TheNewPainting) July 2, 2015
View of Delft : Gezicht op Delft (1660 - 1661)
Mauritshuis, The Hague
🎨 Beauty in Art 🌍 pic.twitter.com/S6Xd6Zxem1
Look at it. So peaceful. So pretty. The light-blue sky. The fluffy clouds. The water mirroring the steeples. The ship. What are we missing here? The raw signs of empire, capitalist empire, the main which is the longest roof on the painting. It is the Twin Towers of its time. Or even Amazon Tower I (Doppler), of our city, Seattle, and time. This bulk is the regional warehouse and offices for the world's first joint-stock company, United East India Company.
From Timothy Brook's Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World:
[The] roof of a large warehouse complex stretching the entire block from the Oude Delft to the moat on the city's west side. It was the warehouse of the Oost-Indisch Huis, East India House... This was the home of the Delft Chamber of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), the center of a vast web of international trade connecting Delft to Asia.
The Dutch East India Company—the VOC, as it is known—is to corporate capitalism what Benjamin Franklin's kite is to electronics: the beginning of something momentous that could not have been predicted at the time. The world's first large joint-stock company, the VOC was formed in 1602 when the Dutch Republic obliged the many trading companies popping up to take advantage of the Asian trade boom to merge into a single commercial organization.
Bezos would not feel at home in ancient Roma, and he would find it very hard to haunt a play produced in ancient Greece. But here in Vermeer's and Rembrandt's time, he not only has a place to be (in the past) but his cradle. There is something babyish about the Bezoses in Alex Sandvoss's painting.