Biden’s putsch at Fine Arts

Justin Shubow examines model of Frank Gehry’s Ike memorial in 2013. (Bloomberg)

President Biden on Monday asked four of the seven members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts to resign or be frog-marched out of the picture if they did not do so by 6 p.m. that same day. In his response to the official letter from the White House, CFA chairman Justin Shubow stated:

I respectfully decline your request to resign. I request an explanation of the legal basis and grounds of your extraordinary request and accompanying threat of termination.

Shubow was joined in this by the three other members asked to resign. All seven of the current members were appointed by President Trump to fill normal vacancies, including Shubow in 2018 and four others appointed on Jan. 12, 2021, to replace members appointed by President Obama as he left office in 2017. Shubow was voted in as chairman on Jan. 21.

He noted that in the commission’s 110-year history, no president has ever sought a member’s resignation: “Any such removal would set a terrible precedent.”

Shubow was referring to the fact that the commission is an independent federal agency. Presidents may not remove any member without good cause, and such causes surely do not include members’ architectural tastes, which a spokeswoman cited as Biden’s rationale for the move. Nor would race qualify as an appropriate rationale, which some believe to be the real motive. All seven current members, at least as of the day before yesterday, are white males. That is awkward in this day and age but not illegal. To sack a member on grounds of his or her race, sex, religion, ethnicity or other such factor is illegal, unconstitutional or both, but no better a rationale than sacking a member for being a classicist or a modernist.

The remaining Trump appointees who were not asked to resign are its vice chairman, Rodney Mims Cook Jr., architect Duncan G. Stroik and architect James C. ­McCrery. All of them are classicists. Although Biden has selected four replacements, who in theory now hold office according to the White House letter, they may end up on the wrong side of a run-in with the law. In any event, they are all members in good standing of the modernist-industrial complex.

To remove a member of an independent federal agency without good cause will not just degrade the status of the Commission of Fine Arts but every commission that Congress has seen fit to protect from overreach by the executive branch.

No doubt Shubow and his colleagues are consulting with lawyers. It may be that refusing an illegal request to resign can moot the request. After all, none of the four members’ terms is up, and if they legally continue in their offices, there will be no vacancy for Biden to fill. (Unless he can manage to pack the commission, as if it were the Supreme Court.)

Laws that create federal agencies often are written with trapdoors or loopholes that enable politicians and bureaucrats to evade restrictions they don’t like, and perhaps this is the case with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Shubow and his three colleagues – architect Steven Spandle, painter and sculptor Chas Fagan, and landscape architect Perry Guillot – might be doomed by such legislative or bureaucratic trickery, or by the recent timidity of the judicial branch.

In any event, Shubow & Co.’s lawyers should urge them to seek an injunction against the White House’s latest move in this game of architectural chess, which is likely to last a lot longer than some suspect. In the absence of a spine at the national level of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (which has kicked “advocacy” off its mission statement), I have asked its New England branch to urge that such an injunction be sought.

Biden’s move will counteract Trump’s effort to change the correlation of forces in U.S. architecture away from the modern architecture and toward classical and traditional architecture. These were the templates for official American design chosen by Jefferson and Washington as reflecting the ideals of democratic Greece and republican Rome that inspired the founding fathers. Biden has already cancelled an executive order signed in December by Trump that would have changed the modernist mandate for federal design that has been in force for six decades to a mandate favoring classical and traditional design.

Traditional and classical architecture are preferred by almost three-quarters of Americans, according a survey performed by the Harris Poll in October 2020. Its large majorities, extending across a wide range of demographic categories – age, race, income, education, geography, and political party – reflect a long train of earlier studies and anecdotal evidence stretching back to the early years of the 20th century. There are neither studies nor stories to be found arguing that modern architecture is preferred by majorities of anyone but its architects’ mothers. Over time, the correlation of forces between historical traditions of beauty and success, and a failed exercise in novelty a mere century old, is likely, regardless of Joe Biden, to reflect what most Americans (and probably the president himself) prefer – as would be appropriate in a democracy.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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10 Responses to Biden’s putsch at Fine Arts

  1. kenorenstein@gmail.com says:

    I would enjoy and maybe agree more with some of the arguments you make in your columns if you’d stop using Nazi and earlier European terminology like defenestration, which refers to murdering people by pushing them out windows to their deaths and putsch, which refers to the Nazi’s 1923 failed violent coup attempt, to title decisions that you don’t agree with.

    Ken Orenstein

    330 Lloyd Ave.

    Providence, RI 02906

    401.699.2121

    Like

    • Ken, we have known each other long enough that you must be aware that I use these words as metaphors. In the case of defenestration, it is evocative, and I use it in relation to things I approve and disapprove. I am familiar with its origin, and there certainly are words that I would not play with in this manner – such as holocaust. But neither putsch (which I do not believe I have ever used before) nor defenestration rises to that level. I am sorry that you find these words so distressing, but I hope, and trust, that you will judge the articles I write base on merit rather than the emotional content of certain words. My use of putsch was designed to elicit some of the unthinking objections to my post that I would never impute to you; the word defenestration, despite its actual practice in history, conjures up such a cartoon-like sort of humor that I cannot resist its use in spite of that history, for which I can only beg your forgiveness.

      Like

  2. Susan says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for writing this article. Hey, isn’t there a Classical Architecture group in New York?
    And isn’t classical architecture what they teach and promote? A little help from the organization would go a long way! Just a thought…..

    Like

    • Susan, you are probably referring to the group I mentioned, the ICAA – Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which no longer advocates for classical architecture except through its classes, tours and lectures. Which is fine, and they are very good at it, but when I joined years ago it was a more robust organization which embraced advocacy as well as those other methods of spreading the faith, so to speak. Now it is mostly run as a place for wealthy donors to party hearty. The New England chapter, whose board I am on, has not been willing to give up on advocacy.

      Like

  3. LazyReader says:

    The city of Houston abounds with public art and public galleries. All of it is funded by voluntary philanthropy. The interesting thing is that the amount of philanthropy going to fine arts in Houston is far greater than the amount spent on our three stadiums, which exist for the exclusive benefit of billionaires, and which were built via tax dollars. That speaks a great deal about the corruption in our county government. It knows that the county residents are too cynical to hand their dollars voluntarily to the sports billionaires so the county forces them to.

    Like

  4. LazyReader says:

    Better idea; No More new Taxes for Art.
    I have no objection to people making art or calling half the trash they make art (actually I do) and other people buying it. I’ve purchased a variety of art pieces for my home. But what makes art so important that the government needs to tax everyone to make more?

    I don’t like a lot of what passes for art these days. Especially the modern art we put up in our cities and it’s everywhere now. What good is art and how valuable is it when it becomes ubiquitous. Does every open space need to be filled in? Sculptor Richard Cera’s work “Tilted Arch” was put up at a cost of $175,000. It was a leaning slab of rusty metal. There was a war brewing in New York over people who hated it and those accusing the haters of being cultureless. Eventually it taken down, cut up into pieces and stashed in a warehouse and so far culture hasn’t suffered it’s loss. Take that art.

    If someone chucked a molotov cocktail into a museum of modern art, we wouldn’t miss it.
    1: Nobody visits these fucking dumps as tourist attractions.
    2: Also it’s composition of non-flammable material like scrap metal an plastic; ensures little is actually destroyed.
    3: Even if it was; no one can tell the difference between art and vandalism.

    Like

    • Modern art museums, Lazy, are useful tool for keeping modern art from being inflicted upon the public through siting on public streets and squares. Although, granted, evidently not good enough.

      Like

  5. sethweine says:

    Dear David,
    Thanks for this good piece.
    I’m so glad that Duncan, Rodney, and James remain on the Commission—all worthy and positive thinkers, practitioners, and voices!
    I’d like to make a distinction about the 2 moves of the White house:
    1. Taking Justin, et. al. off the Commission— which may be illegal, is certainly bad precedent (as Justin has said), and is bad for the things that the Commission works on.
    –as distinct from–
    2. Rescinding the Executive Order— Which I think should never have been made in the first place (but I know you and I agree-to-disagree about that, so we needn’t rehash that here).
    They are separate actions—involved with each other, true—but separable:
    It wold have been possible to do one of these without the other—and we should discourse about them, including being clear about that.
    I hope Justin and the others put up a good fight for their positions!!
    Thank you.
    Seth J. W.
    Seth Joseph Weine
    sethweine@aol.com

    Like

    • Thank you, Seth, for your commendable agreeability. There are good reasons on both sides of the E.O. debate. I think time will be good to classicism and bad for modernism, not just for its effect on aging and beauty but for its eventual triumph in the style wars.

      Like

  6. John the First says:

    It is actually a good thing that Biden does what he does in this respect. He is not to be blamed, the trouble has started by the mixing of institutions of art with democratic politics. Biden unintentionally brings the issue to light. To make art and beauty a matter of politics and democratic vote, as well as delivering it to the commercial class is a sure solicitation for problems, which should best be so severe that finally a people in some future will be wise enough to never try that again.
    Enough artists have tried their best to make this clear in the nineteenth century, the experiences consolidated in the history writing of the twentieth/twentieth century and the views of these historical artists and art lovers combined will hopefully be sufficient proof for progeny in some distant future.
    In that case ‘urban planning’ commissions or institutional organizations with public functions, in as far as top down control and planning are even needed and desired, and the architecture ‘scene’ (not ‘commissions’ or ‘institutions’) should remain separate spheres.

    “There are neither studies nor stories to be found arguing that modern architecture is preferred by majorities of anyone but its architects’ mothers.”

    It appears that the more the democracy with its obsessive politicizing of everything produces what it produces inevitably, which is cultural annihilation, the more adherents of democracy work their way into trouble by means of resorting to arguments of democracy, which is just more politicizing and democratization of art, more trouble.

    Back to pre-democratic times where monarchs and aristocracies have been the patrons of art? or, after separation of church and state the future hopefully brings wholesale separation of art and state.

    Like

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