Commentary Magazine


Ordered Liberty and Controlled Chaos

The National Civic Art Society has done yeoman’s work in highlighting the historical, cultural, and aesthetic follies of Frank Gehry’s proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower. Andrew Ferguson notes in the most recent Weekly Standard, the design is both “grandiose and pointless,” but as Jonathan has commented, the monument does in fact have a point: to revise and diminish Eisenhower. Its so-called tapestries remind the Society of a “rat’s nest of tangled steel,” though to my eye, they look more like metallic shoelaces fashioned into a post-modern memorial of mourning for Holocaust victims. There’s nothing heroic or triumphant about them, and that’s why they’re there. Entirely out of keeping with the rest of the Mall, and loathed by the Eisenhower family, they will–if constructed–soon go the way of most modern architecture: rain-stained, rusted, and broken, an enduring statement of our contempt for great men, our loss of the heroic vocabulary, and our refusal to stand up to the self-promoting cleverness of an artistic culture that exists to tell us we are not worthy of their genius.

Gehry’s philosophy of design reminds me of my encounters with deconstructionist theory in graduate school: disorienting, until you realize the point of the enterprise is not to convey meaning but to smash it, all the while assuming a pose of ironic, superior, unsmashed detachment in order to win immunity from criticism. Gehry’s leitmotif is that “life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising,” democracy is either chaos or at best “controlled chaos,” and so buildings should be chaotic as well. This is the kind of thing that sounds good until you think about it for five seconds. Modern democracies are in fact the most unchaotic, predictable, secure societies in the history of the world – the only way they look chaotic is next to the Garden of Eden, or the paradise of the planner.

Gehry’s vast metallic boils could hardly be built in societies lacking the exquisite organization and predictability of modern engineering and finance. It’s a waste of time to expect modern architects to recognize how lucky they are to live in a society that can afford to take their pretensions seriously, or to show any gratitude for their good fortune. But I would love to dispatch believers in democratic chaos to live in Sudan or Somalia for a few weeks, so they could get a sense of just how nasty, brutish, and short life is for lots of people outside the advanced democracies. The U.S. is not controlled chaos, which implies that the job of the government is to exercise control and the job of the people to be chaotic. It is an experiment in ordered liberty, where government and society rest on the popular moral sense that modern architecture seeks to debase by identifying it as the unwanted residue of the past. There are always going to be unexpected events in life – that’s the nature of it – but the purpose of memorial architecture in a democracy is to remember heroes who helped to stem for a while the tide of chaos, not to embody disorder and decay. The former is a human achievement; the latter is the normal state of affairs.

The proposed memorial has nothing to do with America’s ordered liberty, or Ike’s dedication to defending it. It’s heartening that Congressmen Dan Lungren (R-CA) and Aaron Schock (R-IL) have come out against this monstrosity, and today’s news that a House subcommittee will hold a hearing on the memorial – coupled with a letter from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) that hints at further hearings –  is even better. But where are Kansas’s representatives – in the House, Senate, and on the state level – on the question? It is one of their most famous native sons whom this memorial proposes to trivialize, and, on the political level, I doubt there are any votes to be lost in Kansas (or in Pennsylvania, around Eisenhower’s Gettysburg farm, for that matter) by stating that a hero of the Second World War and a two-term president deserves better than a stack of rusty steel shoelaces.

Anything sympathetic political leaders can do to draw broader attention to this travesty would do a world of good.