Disordered Aesthetics, Disordered Morals

Civic Architecture

In May 2021 and April 2022, the Biden administration removed five members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. They did so as part of their fervid campaign to remove from the federal government all appointees of the Trump administration—even appointees in components of the federal government which previously presumed bipartisan comity.

In doing so, they also removed proponents of traditional aesthetics in civic architecture. The Trump administration gave belated favor to traditional aesthetics in civic architecture in its December 2020 Executive Order Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture. The Biden administration has now placed the weight of the federal government, more formally than before, on the side of any architectural style but the traditionally beautiful.

We at the National Association of Scholars don’t have an institutional view on aesthetics. Just as we favor freedom of inquiry in the search for truth rather than settled conclusions, so we favor artistic freedom in the search for beauty rather than settled canons of taste. Yet just as we are convinced that there is truth to discover, so we are convinced that there is beauty—and that we should commit ourselves to judge what is ugly and what is beautiful, for beauty is a rare and praiseworthy accomplishment.

The NAS also supports virtuous citizenship with a sense that we should care about questions of aesthetics in civic architecture. We support civic architecture that promotes virtuous citizenship, and we are delighted to support every sort of aesthetic in public architecture that achieves that goal. Artists and patrons—above all, the government patrons that sponsor public architecture—should be pluralists in their pursuit of beauty.

Yet pluralists also should recognize that the classicizing tradition in civic architecture possesses greater claims to the American public’s support than its competitors. As with the canon of Great Books, our architectural tradition partakes of the long history of Western civilization—a history in which our architects benefit when they learn and build upon the architectural accomplishments of the past, and in which architectural continuity underwrites the continuities of ideals and institutions which connect us back to Greece and Rome.

The U.S. Capitol is an argument in stone and space that connects America’s republic to its ancient forebears. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Robert Gould Shaw Memorial likewise connected a commemoration of America’s Civil War to the military memorials of ancient Rome and early modern Europe—and by so doing connected our brave soldiers’ struggle for liberty to the West’s millennial traditions of valor. America’s civic architecture, at its best, articulates the grandeur of our republic, the ideals of our liberty, and the humane individuality of all America’s leaders and ordinary citizens.

[Related: “David McCullough: America’s Storyteller”]

The NAS doesn’t reject the new out of hand—how could we, when America has been so wonderfully a land of the new? We marvel at the soaring simplicity of the Golden Gate Bridge and the titan’s shield of Hoover Dam. Albany’s Empire State Plaza possesses grandeur—although its somewhat inhuman starkness also bears witness to the Modernist aesthetic’s characteristic shortcomings. America should have room for monuments such as Isamu Noguchi’s Challenger Memorial, although we would not want our memorials to embrace wholesale his dedication to abstraction.

Nor does NAS reject out of hand civic memorials that articulate grief, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial, or the Brooklyn War Memorial. Such grief should be incorporated in an aesthetics and an emotional register that seeks to honor the republic, praise its heroes, and inspire its citizens—but it should not be invisible in our public commemorations.

Civic architecture, as a rule, should embrace the continuities and innovations upon tradition, to root America yet further in the West’s aesthetic and intellectual traditions of liberty. It generally should articulate America’s pride and joy. America possesses its share of ugliness, anger, sorrow, and resentment—it is a country of men and women. But our public memorials should portray what America wishes to be, and what its citizens have achieved at their best.

Public History

NAS believes this—and we note that our beliefs about civic architecture connect with a larger debate about public history. The field of public history is not simply a matter of aesthetic debate and untoward firings of members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The radical assault on higher education has entailed the degradation of the education of America’s public historians and the presentation of America’s public history.

Public historians now publish books such as Radical Roots: Public History and a Tradition of Social Justice Activism. The National Council on Public History and the American Association for State and Local History have co-sponsored The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, a “living digital resource designed to center inclusivity, diversity, equity, and public service in public history work.” Universities educating public historians, such as Rutgers University in New Jersey, have begun to assemble “Resources for Building a More Equitable and Just Historic Preservation Landscape.” Contributors to ordinary projects in public history, such as Literary and Cultural Heritage Maps of Pennsylvania of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, “are now committed to ‘disrupting racism, hate and bias whenever and wherever we encounter it’.” In Virginia, the DEI ideologues’ desire to recenter American history around slavery rather than liberty—marked notably by the jargon of enslaved rather than slaves—already has begun to permeate the websites of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Highland. President Lincoln’s Cottage now seeks a CEO and Executive Director who,

will commit to leading an equity-focused and forward-thinking organization that approaches education and programs as a matter of social justice … [and who possesses a] Demonstrated track record of leadership in implementing programs and institutional practices that serve the outcomes of social equity, inclusion, and justice, both internally and externally.

America’s history soon will be rewritten to forward social justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion. America’s cultural heritage, and all the financial resources provided to it by America’s citizens, will be diverted toward that endeavor.

[Related: “Peer-Reviewed History is Dying of Wokeness”]

And this radical assault has led to simple violence, as mobs animated by the desire to put these radical beliefs into action, with the tacit approval of local and state authorities, simply tear down America’s civic monuments. In the summer of 2020, thugs toppled hundreds of America’s monuments—including statues of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The radical establishment has continued this iconoclastic fury by bureaucratic action. In New York City, the City Council removed a statue of Thomas Jefferson from their chambers, while the American Museum of Natural History, in an act of the most contemptible ingratitude, likewise removed the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from the front of the museum. The assault on America’s history has become an assault on America’s public history—and, when mobs tear down our monuments, a literal field of combat.

Restoring Liberty and Law

To argue for ugly civic architecture is not, in theory, to argue for mob violence—although we note that the political elites who encouraged mob violence to rage unchecked in our cities are the same elites who have fired proponents of civic beauty from the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Yet both target the same associated convictions—that America is a good country, whose government should clad its ideals in the noblest edifices and monuments. Brutal mobs and brutalist architects both deface America’s civic architecture, as part of the broader campaign to erase America’s memory of itself. The educators of the mobs do the most obvious damage, but the patrons of brutalism perhaps do worse, for their architecture’s sheer ugliness exemplifies and contributes to the degradation of Americans’ civic sensibility. It also saps the loyalty of our citizenry. Who will be loyal to a republic which cannot inspire an architecture of beauty? Why defend a country which can think of nothing better to memorialize itself than a gash in the ground?

Disordered public aesthetics contribute to disordered public morals. America must reclaim the judgment that enables it to patronize beautiful architecture, not least because to do so will lend it strength to act with equal judgment to restore liberty and law to our land. Send off the brutalist architects, and then we will send off the brutal mobs.

Image: Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


2 thoughts on “Disordered Aesthetics, Disordered Morals

  1. Though I wholeheartedly share your conviction regarding the inspirational value of classically inspired civic architecture, I’d strongly caution against claiming a cause-and-effect link between it and public morality.

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