The surest reflection of the present is its view of the past. History turns out to be the most contemporary of the plastic arts. For we're always remaking it in our own image. Which may explain the great wave of mediocrity now sweeping over Washington in the form of new public monuments.
Put all new additions together and you have a Picasso-like portrait of the disjointed, sentimental, unsatisfying spirit of the times. Or rather spiritlessness. For these structures lack exactly what any great memorial should have: A unifying vision. Like the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, or the towering Washington Monument.
Critics of classical architecture may assume that it is revered only because it has been around so long; they forget why it has lasted -- because it embodies ideal geometric forms: the pyramid, the circle, the square. Call them platonic forms, a concept that would be instantly understood if anybody read Plato any more.
The simple pillar, the over-arching dome, the columned temple ... they have more than just the passage of time to recommend them; they were right from the first. And remain so.
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Remember those funhouse mirrors that amused you -- and maybe frightened you too -- when you were a little kid? The superstitious fear they invoked? Why, if you stared at them long enough, you might start to look like that!
The feeling is related to the childhood legend that if you put on some awful face to amuse or frighten others, your own features would be frozen in a permanent grimace. In the case of awful public monuments, the fear is all too real. Impressionable young minds could be shaped forever by images that are misbegotten from the first and then perpetuated generation after generation.
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The worst of this new crop of monuments in Washington has got to be the super-sized image of Martin Luther King, which does indeed have a single theme. And it is awful: He was great, we are small. Not just small but tiny. Visitors are reduced to pygmies come to pay tribute to some great mute idol, its eyes only slits, its mouth immobile, its arms folded, its expression forbidding. The monument's sculptor reversed Martin Luther King's metaphor: He took a stone of hope and turned it into a mountain of despair.
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It is hard to think of any way in which this image of Baal is true to the man or his message. The great preacher, the master orator, is reduced to a wordless monolith. The designers did add some of Dr. King's words here and there as a kind of afterthought, but they couldn't even get all those right.
The spirit of the classical, its sensitivity both to its own time and to eternity, can still be captured, even heightened in modern public art. See the Vietnam Memorial by a 21-year-old architecture student at Yale named Maya Lin, whose design demonstrated a classical sensibility, a perfectly attuned sense of place, a respect for the terrain, and a Periclean reverence for the war dead. Not to mention her understanding that the democratic ethos is the most individualistic of all, name by name.
The natural serenity of her design could not be marred even after it was potchkied up by some statuary here and there. Such is the power of public art that is art.
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The best news in the paper the other day may have been the congressional revolt against the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, which is really more a nondescript little park than a tribute to a man who is only now being recognized as one of our great presidents.
Ike long had been recognized as one of our greatest -- and least dramatic -- generals. Maybe that's what kept so many of us from seeing his greatness for so long; he recoiled at the aura of Great Man that lesser leaders cultivate. He was just Ike to millions of Americans -- in war and peace.
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Ike's proposed memorial in Washington (at last!) is much like the one dedicated to another great president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, for it, too, consists of a series of disjointed scenes rather than one unifying vision. It is the antithesis of the classical. And it too is wrong in every way:
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This memorial to the supreme commander of the Crusade in Europe is depicted as a simple Kansas farm boy, as if Supreme Commanders rise to the top by being simple-minded. The man who brought peace and unity to a country disheartened and divided by a deadlocked war on a still dangerous Asian peninsula is to be remembered as ... what? It's not clear. There are too many images presented for any one to be worth remembering.
A president who guided the country to prosperity by sticking to the oldest of copybook maxims (like balanced budgets) is to be memorialized by an extravagant memorial that says little or nothing except that it would cost a lot. And already has.
In the end, the design for the Eisenhower Memorial is not a tribute to the Ike we knew or want future generations to know, but to its designer, a globe-trotting entrepreneur who specializes in memorializing mainly himself -- the atrocious Frank Gehry, whose work has disfigured the landscape from Seattle to Bilbao.
Mr. Gehry's trademark forms do not follow function but betray it -- unless the function is to reduce public art to his own corporate brand. But there's no denying that this most celebrated architect of our age has caught and, worse, shaped the spirit of his times. Or maybe the absence of any clear spirit. Call it the Age of Uncertainty. His guiding muse seems to be Chaos, accompanied as always by her handmaidens Anarchy and Irony.
No wonder Hillary Clinton, on winding down her quite literal tour(s) as secretary of state, called for "a new architecture for this new world, more Frank Gehry than formal Greek...." As she explained: "Some of his work at first might appear haphazard, but in fact, it's highly intentional and sophisticated. Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, today we need a dynamic mix of materials and structures."
Yes, and all arranged, in the style of Mr. Gehry's more funhouse designs, as if collapsing. No wonder, too, that Ms. Clinton would cap her stewardship of American foreign policy -- which became an ever more haphazard, unaccountable, unfocused, and uncertain blob under her "leadership" -- by presiding over that bloody debacle at Benghazi.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)