On February 10, 2020, I came across a small headline in The New York Times proclaiming that Donald Trump is making “America beautiful again.” It was paired with an image of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAH&C), whose golden hue has added luster to our nation’s Washington Mall since 2013. The building is a three-part corona enclosed in a lace-like skin woven from 3,600 filigree panels reminiscent of the iron grills built by enslaved African Americans in South Carolina and Louisiana. The structure, designed by David Adjaye, has received numerous endorsements and prizes.
Further reading proved that the President had not actually insulted this museum, but was protesting the look of other edifices built with federal funds. As a consequence of his distaste, Trump plans to introduce an executive order requiring that federal buildings adhere to Greek and Roman architectural designs. This executive order would interfere with the freedom of architectural development, one of the major arts, and would cost the General Service Administration more than fifty million dollars.
It so happens that for more years than I would like to admit, I have been working on a book that examines the consequences of Hitler’s war on art.
On May 10, 1933, fewer than four months after they had assumed power in Germany, the Nazis issued a short manifesto that would dominate their culture and philosophy during the next twelve years, and whose consequences still rock the art world today. The five points of the manifesto deal with the removal, shaming, and eventual destruction of so-called Bolshevik works of art, as well as the dismissal of museum directors who had spent public money on their acquisition.
The Nazis also decreed that no boxlike buildings should be built.
This was a particular criticism of the German Bauhaus, a design school whose ideas were greatly influential in the 20th century. By now the institution’s International style dominates the look of most “downtowns” the world over.
The Nazis abhorred modern art. Eventually they would ransack their museums and torch thousands of artworks by then-contemporary artists whose work is now venerated everywhere.
Like Hitler, Trump apparently favors columns and soft arches to innovative design. Per se, I do not object to classic architecture—some of my favorite buildings are updated Classicism—nor do I love every modern building; but Trump’s directive smacks of dictatorship, as do some of his other actions and pronouncements.
As a still-free society, we must be vigilant about the encroachment on our rights; we must insist that avant-garde art and self-expression can flourish in America. As Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor, put it so perfectly:
First they came for the Communists,
And I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
And I did not speak out because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me. By that time
no one was left to speak up.