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.
I’m glad that you brought renewed light to Niemoller’s powerful and short piece. We must use our voice, all of us, to steer the country in a sustainable and compassionate path.
I live in South Carolina and we are about to have our Democratic Primary on February 29th. I’m undecided actually. I’m a single-issue voter this year – I’m “Anybody But Trump”. Friends here in South Carolina that I talk politics with are all antsy – all seem nervous that we might not nominate the right person who can defeat The Monster. I’m nervous too. My favorite – Senator Kamala Harris is no longer in the race – and I’ve just not gotten that excited over the other Democratic candidates. Being a Gay man I’m of course thrilled with the groundbreaking candidacy of Mayor Pete – but being a deaf man with bilateral cochlear implants I’m still not sure how to pronounce his last name – as if that even matters – as most of my friends with perfectly normal hearing seem unsure themselves. So as the Primary date approaches, I receive texts from friends both here in South Carolina and outside the state, asking me to predict “Who is gonna win the Palmetto State?”. And being a long-time “Good Democrat” here, I’ve been inundated with texts and phone calls and letters and flyers and emails and what-not from each of the Democratic Campaigns. So I guess I should be excited but somehow I’m just not. I woke early this morning and thought I’d take a few minutes to check emails – I work at a CPA’s office and we are in the midst of tax season and I’ve hardly had time to catch my breath – and up popped an email alerting me that Suzanne had a new blog post so of course I came right over. After reading about Trump’s MABA initiative – especially from Suzanne’s always brilliant perspective – I know I’ve got to get more involved in making sure we nominate that person who will defeat Trump – as I’m scared to death of this man and frightened as to what four more years might do to our country and my friends and me. Thank you, Suzanne.
Thanks. I keep my fingers crossed. Suzanne