After he spoke at Mount Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day, Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect public statuary, to reconstruct statues damaged or destroyed by vandals in the weeks leading up to the president’s oration, and to create a National Garden of American Heroes. The E.O., “Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes,” stated:
[M]onuments express our noblest ideals: respect for our ancestors, love of freedom, and striving for a more perfect union. They are works of beauty, created as enduring tributes. In preserving them, we show reverence for our past, we dignify our present, and we inspire those who are to come. To build a monument is to ratify our shared national project.
That passage, intended to describe federal statuary, could be dedicated with equal profundity to federal architecture. A great monument can be a statue or a building.
In fact, the executive order on statuary arises in the aftermath of a related and more ambitious, more controversial executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” that has not been signed as yet but which has principles in common that connect the pair of E.O.s to each other. The first order, which was leaked, causing a brouhaha among architects in February, stated that classical architecture would be preferred for federal buildings over the modernist designs that have been mandated officially over the past half century. Recognition of the importance of stylistic choice has now also been incorporated into the E.O. on statues, which states:
When a statue or work of art commissioned pursuant to this section is meant to depict a historically significant American, the statue or work of art shall be a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation. … Such works of art should be designed to be appreciated by the general public and by those who use and interact with Federal buildings.
This preference for statuary and monument design that is legible to the general public is reiterated in sections of the executive order relating to new statuary commissioned for the Garden of Heroes and also in sections on the reform of statuary principles. The task force assigned to administer the E.O. would incorporate its aesthetic principles into a host of federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the General Services Administration (which oversees all federal architecture), and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
The order suggests these aesthetic reforms at the federal level might generate pushback from the professional busybodies of the American Institute of Architecture, which was so upset by the E.O. that proposed regulatory change in the design of federal buildings. “[R]evisions made pursuant to this subsection,” said the statuary E.O., “shall be made to supersede any regulatory provisions of AIA that may conflict with or otherwise impede advancing the purposes of this subsection.”
Both of these executive orders, the first as yet unsigned and the second signed on July 3, should be seen as two sides of the same coin. Not only does federal statuary cry out for aesthetic reform but so do federal buildings. Art and architecture were once dedicated to each other, wrapped in each other’s arms. Modern architecture threw Art out of the Garden of Beauty. Perhaps on some not too distant tomorrow, they can be repatriated to each other.