CAPITOL LETTERS (Ep. 10): Samuel F.B. Morse, the Janusian Creator America’s Da Vinci (de)code(d)?
“What hath God wrought?”, the Biblical wonder in the face of divine creation, was spelled out by a creative man of science and of art, a man of faith, as well as of feud. Samuel F.B. Morse by his name, the founding father, in the electro-magnetic “field” of the Industrial Revolution, of the present-day USD 6 trillion global information and communications technology sector (ICT), aired these words, in the code bearing his name, in the first telegraph transmission on May 24, 1844. What at that time linked Baltimore to Washington, now connects an entire planet in a variety of ways, of which the Metaverse is the latest mutation. And whilst for many the Metaverse was a concept formerly confined to Sci-Fi which is now coming true, resembling some sort of “second life”, few know that the invention of the telegraph occurred during Morse’s… second life. Yet, it is not the kind of parallel existence that Meta is offering us, but a life that was the second in a chronological series of two lives, of which fine arts occupied the first 46 of his 81 years on Earth. In 1837, Morse surrendered, deeply disappointed, from the artistic front, only to enter immediately the “tech” battlefield.
What moved Morse irreversibly away from the vibrations of the arts to technological vibes was his finding that the ethics and the aesthetics of the spiritual medium of the epoch were more easily conducive to corruption and corrosion than the physical milieu conducting waves and particles. He felt more able to tame that blunt sort of energy and matter. But, ironically, the very technology he advanced was backfiring. Morse decried the classical age (cor)relation between economic growth and societal development, on the one hand, and cultural flourishing, on the other, insisting that the processes of capital formation and nation building had not been employed “culturally consciously”. The allegations were fierce: money powered materialist stomachs, to the detriment of artistic taste; the moral and intellectual force of art paled in front of cheap decorativism and easy sentimentalism; the standards of educated excellence left room to artistic democratic populism; the mature external influences in art undermined the domestic cultural domain in its very infancy. But just think for a moment: hasn’t it that his second, “tech” life added to the artistic/cultural burden he mourned?
Technology thrives with capital and leads to the democratization/vulgarization of the cultural experience; these were precisely the kind of forces Morse abhorred in his fine arts “first life”. A contradiction he never explained nor expelled, due to the irreversible and unremorseful twist he had accommodated. Somehow, he was a man of incongruity even inside each of his two lives. He was a bit of a “Whig” as much as he was a “Tory” in his outlook on arts’ internal affairs and on their outward expression. This is particularly more apparent when reflecting upon how he saw the artistic community placed within society. Morse seemed to swing between “progressive” talk about equality, professionalization and public education in the arts (the leitmotifs of the National Academy of Design he founded), and “conservative” discourse on the superiority of the art(ists) over the mass(es), of the(ir) divine destiny to enlighten. In an era when many artists started to behave as entrepreneurs, devising innovative exhibitions and diversifying the patronage pool (from that of monarchs and aristocrats to the grace of the bourgeois and mass consumers), Morse stood still. Acting as a patrician.
While Morse (like Ralph Waldo Emerson and, of course, many others) is an epitome of the 19th century’s cultural conundrums in the US (with the former preaching for a combative behavior of the artist in the name of whatever he may deemed worth fighting for, as opposed to societal retraction and retaliatory solitude), Alexis de Tocqueville is always the perfect critic from over the seas. For the Frenchman, “the pursuit of wealth” diverts both “the pleasure of imagination and the labors of the intellect”, in a new and intriguing world where “the universal equality of conditions spreads a monotonous tint over all society”. Is it a race to the skies in terms of material wealth, but a race to the bottom where (true) spiritual welfare is concerned? However, the standards of “truthfulness” in arts have always been a shaky business, in contrast to sciences (where reason and experience do a decent job). Are commodification and/or democratization signs of artistic decay, as substance and style concede their places to banknotes and ballots? Who is better to judge culture, the common denominator of human coevality, other than people themselves, being free to choose?
Sometimes (or, rather, more often than not?), even the most gifted and honest of men fail in answering the most basic questions (or is it the most basic questions that are the least answerable of all?). By any standard, Morse remains a man of sense and sensibility, of principles and practicality, and of many talents and trades. This “Leonardo da Vinci” of America, known worldwide for his electromagnetic telegraph (and maybe less for the exhausting patent law dispute, as was the case with so many “intellectual public goods” during history, for which their creators still wanted to preserve private proceeds), had other insightful contributions (for instance, a marble cutting machine and a photography technique). His Gallery of the Louvre and The House of Representatives paintings are monumental creations, but did not gave him the artistic fame he longed for, and it falls to historians, highly skilled in hermeneutics, to understand if his demise from the arts is the result of a vainglory injury or of his sincere regret that the values he cherished so much were unappealing at that time. Just beware that conceit and cowardice alike are shady false friends to cultures.
Latham, Jean Lee. Samuel F.B. Morse, artist-inventor / by Jean Lee Latham; illustrated by Jo Polseno. New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1991.
Staiti, Paul J. Samuel F.B. Morse / Paul J. Staiti. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Tiner, John Hudson, 1944-. Samuel F.B. Morse: artist with a message / by John Hudson Tiner; illustrated by Shirley Young. Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, c1987.
Prime, Samuel Irenæus, 1812-1885. Life of Samuel F. B. Morse. New York, Arno Press, 1974 [c1874].
Mabee, Carleton, 1914-2014. American Leonardo; a life of Samuel F. B. Morse. With an introduction by Allan Nevins. New York, Octagon Books, 1969 [c1943].
Morse, Samuel Finley Breese, 1791-1872. Samuel F. B. Morse; his letters and journals. Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914.
(September 5, 2022 – Washington, D.C.)
Photo source: author’s photomontage.
CAPITOL LETTERS is a series of articles occasioned by the author’s presence in Washington, D.C. as Romanian Cultural Institute Fellow, studying industrial revolutions’ imprint on the cultural sector.
The opinions hereby expressed by the author remain his exclusive responsibility and do not engage, in any manner or measure, the organizations to which he is affiliated or with which he collaborates.