One People, One Planet, HON!

American Express

As seen in the Peale Museum, Baltimore, MD, 1968, construction of various materials,

approximately 12 feet long by 3 feet wide. This piece no longer exists.

By far the most controversial of Hieronimus’s works, “The American Express” was exhibited several times in 1967-69 when it drew crowds of hundreds of curiosity seekers, many of whom were vociferously appalled. With the hindsight of 40 years, this so-called offensive work looks quaint, and for those who were not yet born at the time, it is difficult to comprehend how shocking it was to the uptight mindset of the mid-to-late 1960s, unprepared as they were to see it. Described by one reporter as “the most off-beat work to grace an Artist Equity exhibit in years… this work looks deceptively daring in the middle of its surrounding conservatism.” Another quoted the shocked audience that called the piece “irreverent” and charged Hieronimus with religious blasphemy. Hieronimus answered his critics with a few complaints of his own about the present leaders of the nation for desecrating these cherished symbols. He said his work was rather an attempt to portray the truth about materialism, commercialism, love of money, and the cartoon which society practiced under the guise of true religion.

The construction was what would today be called “found-art” sculpture, and centered on a coffin with a prow and rudder attached to a baby carriage, which was then wheeled on top of a swastika flag. Inside the coffin was an American eagle in full military dress wearing a burglar’s mask. He was also wearing a helmet-like admiral’s hat covered in slogan buttons, glass jewels, religious medals, and bullets. Down the eagle’s chest were loving cups, blue ribbons, and crucifixes, one with Mickey Mouse steamrollering over it. Also in the coffin were Bibles, carved Christ figures from the Middle Ages, and plastic flowers. American flags flew from the rear of the ship, while another Mickey Mouse served as the mermaid-goddess at the prow. The metal letters spelling out “American Express” were the actual letters taken from the defunct Baltimore American Express building. Blue waves with white caps surrounded the entire bottom of coffin and its rudder

Hieronimus has never been afraid to challenge what he sees as wrong in society and to encourage protest against the wrongdoers. His work sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable. “The American Express” tells the story that the American ship of state has been corrupted and depicts the components that have led to its ethical and moral decay. He made it very clear that he was not celebrating this reality, but rather lamenting what he saw as the death of our nation and its Constitution. After weathering blistering attacks everywhere he showed it and not being fazed, Hieronimus eventually had a revelation about this piece. Suddenly, he was moved to take it apart. He dismantled it ceremonially and recycled all the parts. He says he no longer wished to concretize the image of the death of America. He had spoken out, and now it was time to move on to new work.

Unfortunately, much of the corruption he was complaining about in this piece, that shocked most of his viewers in disbelief, has only become better documented and accepted as fact in the ensuing 40 years. Retiring President Eisenhower pegged it in 1961 when he predicted the rise of the military-industrial complex that had the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” In the mid-1980s conclusive research proved that the American government had secretly welcomed high-ranking Nazi scientists into our country, and put them in charge of our space program. Many also ended up in the Republican party, pulling the GOP further and further right with each season. And then in 1986 President Ronald Reagan put the final nail in the coffin when he deregulated the media, allowing one of the nation’s biggest polluters, General Electric, to buy one of the nation’s biggest television networks, NBC. This co-opting of power led the way to our current situation of corporate dominance of broadcast news where sponsors’ goals and needs are considered before any investigative journalism is done.

With the election of a new president who does not dismiss the Constitution as “just a goddamned piece of paper” (actual George W. Bush quote) we may be on our way to reforging a new “American Express” – one that proves the superiority of a foundation built on Hope instead of Fear. We just might be witnessing right now the rebirth of the American republic, the return of “We the People,” and the fulfillment of our destiny.