Eisenhower Memorial opponents' McCarthyite attack
The nostalgia patrol has been out in full force in recent weeks, shrieking like Hecuba over designs for the planned memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States, to be built just off the National Mall in Washington near the Air and Space Museum.
The 4-acre project by Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry was chosen by the U.S. Fine Arts Commission in 2010, and its general concept of a tree-filled park lined on three sides with woven metal-mesh "tapestries" hung from large stone pillars was approved last fall. It's set to go before the National Capital Planning Commission in the next several weeks.
What's the complaint? Gehry's design is contemporary, not Neoclassical.
Seriously. Welcome to the 21st century.
Having seen only photographs of the model, I'll let others weigh in on the full design. (Philip Kennicott's enthusiastic, Dec. 15 Washington Post review is the most informed.) Some members of the Eisenhower family have expressed concerns, but it's worth noting that the late president's role as family man is not why he's getting a national monument. The opinions of kin are no weightier than any other American's.
Yet the loudest -- and most troubling -- noise is coming from something called the National Civic Art Society, a club founded in 2002 to wage culture war. (In Washington you can call yourself "national" and a distracted public might be duped into thinking it means something.) Never mind that the last faux-Neoclassical monument built on the Mall -- the ugly 2004 World War II Memorial -- is imperial kitsch worthy of a totalitarian state. This fusty guild wants more.
How determined are they? In a tinpot version of the McCarthyism that bedeviled Eisenhower's own administration, the Civic Art Society is willing to smear people to get it.
Here is society Chairman Justin Shubow, a lawyer and former editor at Commentary magazine, writing inflammatory hokum in a 153-page screed released last week: "The Memorial’s only statue of Eisenhower depicts him as a life-size barefoot young boy, a shrinky-dink tikey Ikey.... The design of the boy Eisenhower statue is being advised by Charles Ray, an artist whose work sexualizes children and is obscene."
Ray does often merge contemporary idioms with statuary traditions that predate Modernism, sometimes including nudes. Take "Boy With Frog," installed last summer on the front steps of Brentwood's Getty Center. The sculpture's ancient theme goes back at least to Praxiteles, a lost classical work showing a nude youth stalking a lizard. It's painted the pristine white of Carrara marble.
What does Mr. Neoclassicism have to say of it? Forget Praxiteles and Carrara. Shubow notes that the figure is modeled on the 12-year-old son of friends of the artist. He lingers on the lad's "realistic genitalia," "shapely buttocks" and lack of body hair and nipples before getting to his slavering point, which is the hapless frog: "[The] amphibian in his grasp is bumpy and veined with its stiff leg perfectly erect. The frog is phallic — an adult penis in the hand of the boy."
A sane reader would now howl with laughter at the rantings of a crank, who I'd wager never laid eyes on the actual sculpture. Except, what follows next is inexcusable: "It is unclear whether Ray made a life cast from the boy's body, in the way that Ray cast his own genitalia for his prior sculptures." Shubow's smear casts the artist as a pervert, one who preys on innocent children.
Actually, Ray's larger-than-life sculpture evolved over several years, starting with a 3-D digital model made from photographs. Numerous iterations were carved in urethane foam and fiberglass, utilizing sophisticated computer technologies. But truth wouldn't suit Shubow's smarmy innuendo.
He heads a 10-member board of Civic Art Society directors composed of local businessmen (including Neoclassical designers trolling for work), lawyers and lobbyists with close ties to the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and others in Washington's right-wing establishment. One has come to expect this type of slime from conservative ideologues whose political agenda matters most, but that sad fact makes it no less repulsive.
The fight isn't about empty styles. It's a conflict over what Eisenhower represents. Gehry's vision wins hands down, which may explain the desperation of the society's mud-slinging.
Eisenhower famously described himself as a plain guy from a plain Midwestern town. Between large stone reliefs depicting his achievements as general and president, a life-size sculpture would show him as a boy in Abilene, Kan. Gehry took his cue from the general's celebrated 1945 homecoming speech, following World War II. "Because no man is really a man who has lost out of himself all of the boy," the famous speech begins, "I want to speak first of the dreams of a barefoot boy."
Homecoming signs cheered, "Welcome to our Hero," but Eisenhower gently demurred: "I am not the hero, I am the symbol of the heroic men you people and all the United States have sent to war." Citizen-soldiers, in other words, were the true victors. That profound sentiment seems remote today, when citizens instead rely on a professionalized military-industrial complex -- one whose power Eisenhower also warned against in his presidential farewell address. Gehry and Ray should be praised, not attacked, for putting Eisenhower's conviction in the heart of his memorial.
What does the Civic Art Society want? The usual triumphalist god. It sponsored its own design competition, awarding prizes to a comical array of colossal statues, triumphal arches and colonnades.
How out of touch is the society? It subscribes to a revivalist philosophy that, according to its mission statement, extols "classical architecture, painting, sculpture and urban planning." But look at its board: There's not a woman in sight. For this backward boys' club, the worship of all things classical apparently extends to the ancient world's strict patriarchy.
Since American democracy has its roots in Athens and Rome, the 18th century Neoclassical style, current when Washington was first laid out (and women couldn't vote), supposedly should be the visual language of American officialdom in perpetuity. Under this kooky, aesthetic equivalent to constitutional originalism, the finest national monument of the last generation -- Maya Lin's abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- would never have been built.
Gehry is one of our greatest living architects. Robert Wilson, also consulting on the memorial, is an acclaimed theater designer. Ray, 58, is among the best American sculptors of the last 30 years. A more impressive group of artists has not been assembled for a national monument since the Lincoln Memorial took shape nearly a century ago.
Will Eisenhower's turn out that well? Abe's memorial itself withstood blistering criticisms when it was being conceived. Plans for Ike's are still in process. (The sculpture hasn't even been designed yet.) So let's just say this: I trust major artists with a design job far more than I do demagogic blowhards wielding political hatchets. No wonder they're losing the culture war.
-- Christopher Knight
Photos: Top, Gen. Eisenhower with American troops on D-day 1944. Credit: Associated Press. Center, Charles Ray's "Boy With Frog," 2011, painted fiberglass. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times. Bottom, Frank Gehry, Eisenhower Memorial (detail). Credit: Gehry Partners, LLP/Eisenhower Memorial Commission.