Monuments are dead but museums live on. That is the news from Washington, D.C.: The Eisenhower Memorial will, if it is ever be built, be a collection of banal sculptures lost on a traffic island, while the Prada Store installation by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset has been re-classified as a “museum” and not a “sign,” and thus will be allowed to pose its surrealist challenge to the Texas landscape for a while longer. Perhaps the Eisenhower Memorial should be an outdoor museum.
These two bits of news illustrate for me an essential problem in our culture: the privatization of art. By that, by the way, I also mean architecture. It is becoming increasingly difficult for any of the arts to contribute to an open and social discourse, while those arts are flourishing in private collections, within private institutions, and as statements of private individuals. Note that the Detroit Institute of Arts could only save its public collection by privatizing it, and that the most recognizable bits and pieces of architecture currently under construction in this country are either skyscrapers for the very rich or a few museums. Even there the latter are in trouble if they look like anything other than what already exists, as the defeat of the Park City Museum shows.
The Eisenhower project has been especially troubling to watch, though it is, in a sense, a replay of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the one hand, and a smaller version of what has happened at Ground Zero on the other hand. The Vietnam Memorial, now almost universally applauded for its moving nature, was able to go ahead only after a maudlin and badly executed bronze statue group was placed near it. Ground Zero has been denuded of its most moving attributes, becoming two cascades you see from afar and an underground museum that follows the cry-here-reflect-there-buy-next formula instituted by the Holocaust Memorial.
The Eisenhower Memorial has turned from what was meant to be an evocation of the values and achievements of the General and President to a victim of the climate of negation of common cause. It was, in addition to its strictly memorial function, meant to be a piece of urban infrastructure that would integrate reflection, civic spirit and urban amenities into a difficult site. It would have abstracted and focused its surroundings as well as it content, as good memorials must, while providing a site for activities ranging from true remembrance to having an outdoor lunch. The Eisenhower family and a small band of determined, reactionary neo-classicists objected, and it looks as if they have won. As reported in the Post, Frank Gehry, FAIA, told the Eisenhower Memorial Commission that, if an amended scheme that eliminates many of his design elements is selected, he will request that his name be removed from the project.
It might be absurd to connect this drama to the satire of the Prada Store, but the lessons are startlingly similar. The Dia Arts Foundation, the arts organization that supported the artist Donald Judd’s transformation of the former army barracks there into his home, studio, and later a permanent set of installations, commissioned the “store.” Dia commissions works and sponsors an annual event that together have made this remote town an art mecca. The Elmgreen & Dragset piece is part of that duo’s ongoing efforts to create stage sets in which the objects and images of everyday life become suffused with irony, a sense of loss, and sexuality. This fully stocked store, locked and lost in the desert, is an icon of consumerism, elite taste, and unfulfilled desire.
As an ambiguous presence, inviting you to both peer in and imagine your purchases, and to view it as a monument to the fact that you cannot satisfy those desire, or to your own desires, it was and is troubling. As a museum, it will be safe: it is just art, weird, and thus classifiable. It is also private.
The Eisenhower Memorial is to be a public construction that is neither art nor a usable building, but an expression of collective values and beliefs. It is meant to evoke discussion and contemplation of those ideas, but to do so in the public sphere. It seems we cannot agree on what those are. It is a sad day in America where the power of negation extends from politics to memory and core values, while the slippery and floating world of commerce can become institutionalized.
This post has been updated. Frank Gehry's office did not respond to requests for verification of the author's initial statement that Gehry will resign from the project.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.