Certainly, an ongoing discussion in many households is how does and how should the government serve the people. Who decides who will get support and who will find a hardback or locked door? In The Pension Claim Agent we see a bureaucrat, with an open valise crowded with well-ordered papers, interviewing a Civil War veteran who has lost a leg in battle. The agent sits as the man leans on a hewn wooden crutch. The small cabin holds three generations, and one multipaned window provides the only light in the cabin, shining brightly on the agent’s face and on the observant daughter but leaving the grandparents and wife shadowed. Why, one wonders, does the man with one leg stand while the other sits? Perhaps the agent fills the last chair, but what of the bed? And why does the disabled man have to convince the agent that he is due a Civil War pension? Does the agent not see the gun the father can no longer use to hunt food for his family? Can’t he see that the man has only one leg? Doesn’t he know this man is indeed a veteran? Here, the power is clear. The agent has the power, the family the need, and the soldier is forced to plead his case and accept whatever ruling is given. It seems like this is the power of one, but it is more: There is the power of the government pulling in one way, and the power of thousands of soldiers demanding their earned pensions for duties performed and losses incurred. The end of the story is not told in this painting, but we can certainly feel the roles of the powerful brandishing the law and those powerful in spirit.
In The Pension Claim Agent the petitioner and adjudicator are mortals, with human strengths and fragilities. The Nail and Blade Oath-taking figure (19th century) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, like the pension claim agent, wields power and authority and helps to deliver assessments and justice. But its power lies in the human petitioner reaching into the world of the ancestors for guidance and deliberation.