Monday, February 27, 2012

The Eisenhower Monument and the Overestimation of Ourselves

As the Eisenhower monument controversy rages on, with contributions from George Will, David Frum, and now Ross Douthat, I find myself wondering why. Could this be just a pleasant way for conservatives to distract themselves from the wreckage of the Republican Presidential campaign? An excuse to branch out from punditry to art criticism? Something to fill a column? What all these gentlemen argue is that the design of the monument matters because Eisenhower was a great man and Americans need to be reminded of his accomplishments. I am myself an admirer of Eisenhower's modest approach to the presidency, and while he was no military genius he did get the job done in World War II. But what does this have to do with his monument?

It seem to me that political writers who dislike Gehry's design are relying on a very shallow understanding of both art and memory. It should first be said that Eisenhower's place in our national memory does not depend on the design of his monument in Washington. Douthat laments that Eisenhower is less famous than, among others, Truman and Kennedy. Can anybody name a monument to either? They probably exist, but I can't remember ever seeing one. Lincoln and Jefferson are not famous because they have temples on the Mall, and George Washington has managed to stay famous despite his awful obelisk, which I despise. By suggesting that the design of his monument matters to how we remember Ike, these columnists commit the hubris they extoll Eisenhower for avoiding. Our choices don't matter that much. And, as I keep pointing out, the monument will also be a physical thing in a particular neighborhood of Washington, and I think that how the monument will affect its place matters as much as what it says about Eisenhower.

These criticisms also rely on a strange artistic theory, which seems to be 1) Literal depictions of things leads to 2) People remembering those things better. So to get people to remember Eisenhower as a great man he has to be depicted as a great man. For centuries there was a vocabulary for these things, heroes on horseback and all that, but that vocabulary is absurdly out of date. Nobody speaks that language any more -- except, it seems, certain conservative intellectuals. The development of modern art shows that memorable images can be created in many ways, and that relying on a stock vocabulary of images can get in the way of really communicating with viewers. Is any statue of a hero on horseback as memorable as Dali's melting watches? Just by being intriguing, Gehry's monument would draw more attention to Eisenhower and get people to think about him more than some depiction of him striding ashore at Normandy.

Frum, Will and company also seem to have lost touch completely with young urban people. The people who will live near the monument and see it most often find conventional, classical monuments ridiculous. They will think it is cool to have a unique monument by Frank Gehry in their neighborhood. Some of Gehry's fans will come from all over the world to see the monument -- and I almost hate to mention this, but Gehry has, these days, a lot more fans worldwide than Eisenhower. The monument will also be added to a city that is already full of monuments, and one could argue that it will emphasize Eisenhower' greatness by being different from all the others. And, as I said before, I think it is interesting to put up a monument to Eisenhower that focuses on his overall vision of American as a place informed by rural values rather than on his particular accomplishments.

I find my feelings about this debate to be a nice microcosm of my relationship with American politics. I am not a leftist, but I feel pushed ever farther to the left by the madness of the contemporary right. I am not a fan of Frank Gehry, in fact I hate most of his buildings, but I do recognize that he is an important artist with a unique vision. I don't love his design for this monument. At least it is interesting, though, and I think that yet another statue of a man in uniform would only be lost in Washington. Putting up a big, unique monument by the famous Gehry has plusses for the city, and for the memory of Eisenhower, that another typical monument would not. So on the whole I lean toward going ahead with the Gehry design. And the more people on the right fulminate in vague terms about what an insult this is to Eisenhower's memory, the more I think that they are nuts and we should go ahead with the Gehry design just to spite them.

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