July 1, 2012
The Eisenhower Memorial Incites a Gehry Resistance
The architect finds himself under attack by right-wing culture warriors.
Eisenhower Memorial Commission
One fine evening in the late 1990s, some friends and I gathered for a drink at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. We met in the Saloon, a room off to one side paneled in wood, hung with prints of old ships and taxidermied sport fish, peopled by the harder-core commuters. The bartenders there are wonderful; they’ll remember your drink and your train, making sure the one precedes the other in due course. It’s a refuge of lost civic values—community, hierarchy, respect—with an aesthetic to match. In other words, a conservative’s paradise.
That night my friends and I took over one end of a long table, the other end occupied by men in suits we considered at first to be part of the decor. The particular friends I was with that night were from childhood, raised as I was in Brookline, Massachusetts, certified lefties by birthright, just a few years behind Michael Dukakis’s girls at the local public high school. Most of them were writers, too. So we probably talked about writing, and politics, forgetting entirely the group adjacent.
Somehow, though, one of those others overheard us, commented, and our conversations were combined. The trigger could have been anything (it was the Clinton years). Our neighbors, it turned out, were also writers, also discussing politics: they were a big chunk of the masthead of the New Criterion, the right-wing intellectual magazine cofounded by Hilton Kramer, art critic for the Nation and the New York Times before he made that more suitable home for himself in 1982. When he died this past March, not a few obits described him as “acerbic” and “polarizing.” Many also remember him as brilliant.
Kramer was elsewhere that night at the Saloon, but we got a taste of his worldview from his minions. It was a delightfully contentious conversation. They assumed we were pinkos. We assumed they hung photos of Reagan over their beds. But there was learning as well as baiting. At one point I asked, “What is the intellectual project of the magazine?” I was curious; I could never figure the thing out, couldn’t really wrap my head around an art criticism, particularly a criticism of modern art, rooted in a conservative mindset. Isn’t nonrepresentational art beyond politics, in a way? Can’t this be one cultural site spared by the culture wars, enjoyed by all? What’s the beef? What are the New Criterion’s criteria? One of the group, a young buck in the Young Republican mold, thought for a second, which I appreciated, and then, memorably, said: “High seriousness. It’s about art that achieves high seriousness.”
That conversation came back to me as I was considering the plight of the proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, D.C. In a way it’s the old story, replaying the slow, bitter back-and-forth we always see when government tries to create appropriate public commemorations—of the Vietnam War, Oklahoma City, World War II, September 11. What’s strange here is that Frank Gehry, the architect chosen via the Design Excellence Program of the General Services Administration, appears to have done little in his actual design to invite the organized resistance that has already succeeded in stalling the project, necessitating a placating redesign, and that may yet derail it altogether.
Gehry’s original plan included a modest park, a sculpture of the man (life-size, as a child), and woven stainless-steel “tapestries” hung between 80-foot-tall brick-clad columns, representing, with some giant bas-reliefs, scenes from the president’s life. The redesign unveiled in May replaces the relief scenes with quotations, fronted by more heroic statuary that portrays the president now as a young cadet. Both plans are a sober departure from the architect’s signature work. Neither, in short, is very Gehry. There are no shiny swoops or winking bulges, no monumental fish or binoculars, and no chain-link, despite the press-release assertions of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), the group that has dogged the project, vilified the architect, and whose leaders predictably have ties to culture-war camps as venerable and battle-tested as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Commentary magazine.
Is the problem with the memorial that it is not sufficiently serious? It is a serious business to portray or comment on reality, life, to house it, even when the methods or palette used include the glib. Things, spaces, that are less than serious don’t rise to the level of art worth fighting over, let alone High Art, which seemed to be the measure preferred by my new friends at the bar that long-ago night: a hierarchy of creation determined by intent. Modern artists and architects are as serious as their forebears—sometimes more so, burdened as they are by the continual need to justify their forms. When they favor abstraction they face a special problem: how does a nonrepresentational art represent? Gehry took those quibbles out of the equation right at the start. Wisely. But his opponents are not satisfied; that the proposed memorial, the original and the revision, foregoes playful form-making, that it forefronts straight representation, did not quiet them.
What would? Not content to just roil the waters—even to the point of generating statements in protest from congressmen and surviving members of the Eisenhower family (the former president’s grandson has resigned his place on the memorial commission)—last year the NCAS, along with the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art, also produced its own competition. The winning counterproposals are enlightening. First prize went to a Beaux Arts triumphal arch adorned with greater-than-life-size statues, second to a neoclassical triumphal arch framing a greater-than-life-size statue and adding a columned propylaeum, and third prizes (there was a tie) to a wall of Doric columns and a little Greek temple complex with a greater-than-life-size statue fronting the steps.
Modern architecture is a poor bearer of meaning. That has always been its problem, some would argue its downfall, when it is required to do more than create a clean domestic or commercial space, an efficient factory, when it is brought into the public realm and asked to inspire, to speak. Classical architecture, through long use and habit, through the tradition of enlivening ornament, does much better. But there is more at play here than another episode of that century-long crisis. The political right in America has gone all-in for the old forms as never before. Classicism has been enjoying a vigorous revival in the last decade, since the Bush years. Very early in the World Trade Center reconstruction process, in the fall of 2001, a conservative think tank floated an uninvited classical proposal, all columns and arches and sculpture. The next year, two organizations merged to form the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, based in New York, now with 15 regional chapters. As the political life of the United States has polarized, the Institute has been actively promoting alternatives to modern architecture, which its members seem to perceive as the house style of the left.
Is it? Maybe. Modernism, like liberalism, is concerned with progress. Like liberalism, too, it can then be attacked as alien, haughty, pushing solutions foreign to the needs and tastes of an imagined stolid majority, good citizens, real people, made powerless, even victimized, by cultural flux. But if modern forms are tainted by elitism—and that is an explicit charge of the NCAS—then classicism is tainted by its own associations, its use and misuse in the last century as the preferred language of fascism. Should we remember the man who led the defeat of Nazism with the same forms that inspired Albert Speer? Excuse the descent into Godwin’s Law puerility. It’s merely polemical. This fight, like all the recent memorial battles, isn’t about art history. It’s not about the presence or size of statuary. It’s not about seriousness, high or low. Like all our left-right scuffles in every arena, it is about fear—the fear of change. That Gehry is seen as a father of the postmodern, a purveyor of the novel trafficking in the difficult-to-understand, that he has been involved with actually building icons of the scary world of the present, can’t be helping him in our divided capital. The New Criterion itself, in a report last fall that championed the alternative arch, flatly stated that “his style is ill-suited to presidential memorialization.” The fact that Gehry’s style is nowhere in evidence in the design is irrelevant: it is enough that the design is new.