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.