Classicism by Decree: “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”

Athenaeum Review, Issue 5, Winter 2021

The Winter 2021 issue of arts and humanities quarterly Athenaeum Review is out on newsstands. Its Current Affairs section contains my essay “Classicism by Decree” (pp. 148–155) about an attempted change in the aesthetic direction of federal architecture in the US. Since 1962, the General Services Administration (the same governmental body that was recently in the news for not “ascertaining” the results of 2020 presidential race) has been relying on the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture with its two-fold requirement of practicality and symbolism in all federal buildings. These requirements were put in place  the aim of maximizing architectural innovation while upholding quality and longevity of construction. The new rules, if signed into law, would mandate that all federal buildings shall be erected in “classical architectural style.” In the essay, I discuss the pitfalls of promoting one specific architectural style at the expense of an open meritocratic competition. This is especially the case if the preferred style is a derivation of classicism, given the contentious history of association between classical architecture and totalitarian regimes in the past century. Mandating classicism by decree seems like a very bad idea.

Update: On December 22, President Trump signed “Make Federal Architecture Beautiful Again” Executive Order into law. Here is a link to the coverage of the Executive Order, across the political spectrum.


Moderated by Crocker Art Museum Associate Director & Chief Curator Scott A. Shields, Ph.D., this informative discussion between three people connected to Wayne Thiebaud will center around insights and unique experiences. Join the artist’s daughter, model, and writer Twinka Thiebaud; painter and professor Hearne Pardee; and critic and art historian Julia Friedman, Ph.D., for a singular program on Thiebaud and his life.

When: December 5th, 2 PM (PST)

Recording of the panel. Courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum.

Philip Guston (Not) Now: the Impact Argument

October was a watershed month for the museum world. A week before the month started, the National Gallery of Art announced that the long-anticipated Philip Guston retrospective, already delayed because of pandemic-related closures, was to be postponed for another four years, until the summer of 2024, for reasons that could be best described as ideological. By the end of the month, the administration’s decision to postpone was amended with a new date of 2022, now two years out. The initial postponement prompted an impressive public pushback, which likely caused the NGA to cave in, offering a compromise date. I attempted to explain what had happened, and why, in an essay recently published by the Athenaeum Review.

Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969. Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 106.7 cm / 48 x 42 in. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Private Collection. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

“If considerations of “impact” supersede considerations of merit in the choice of the art, then the Directors were absolutely right to halt the show because some of the work, according to the “impact” argument, is unpalatable for consumption within a culture that prioritizes viewers’ emotional safety. But should the argument that is at the base of the “Philip Guston Now” postponement become a precedent, then art museums will be transformed into consciousness-raising platforms where ideological considerations will overtake aesthetics and art history. This path had already been trodden by the infamous 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition mounted in Munich, where the public was “educated” on the art of modernist decay, with the help of derogatory wall texts aimed to reveal the ideological misdeeds of the painters who dared to distort color and human form. That exhibition was built on the premise that modernist art was harmful to the spirit and body of the German people. Its potential harmful impact was to be mitigated with the proper ideological framing of the offending artwork.”

Wayne Thiebaud’s “100 Year Old Clown”

According to Wayne Thiebaud, his latest painting, which he cheekily named “100 Year-old clown,” is the summation of his clown series that has been in the works for the last five years. “Clowns” will be exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum December 6, 2020–April 4, 2012.

Wayne Thiebaud, 100 Year-old Clown, 2020
Oil on canvas, 18 x 14 inches
2020 © Wayne Thiebaud/VAGA at ARS, NY

“It is difficult to say whether One-hundred-year-old Clown is a genre-bending painting (in that it contains elements of and references to portraiture, landscape, and still life), or a painting outside any genre. Could it be that Thiebaud, who has been fortunate enough to have had over seven decades of experience and growth as a painter, has made the ultimate breakthrough into a meta-generic space? Thiebaud’s early interest in painters who, in the poet and critic John Yau’s words, “reinvented particular genres such as still life, landscape, and cityscape” (Yau cites Cézanne, Morandi, de Chirico, and Hopper), logically led to his own reconceptualization of painting genres to the point of merging and layering them in a single masterwork. Although Thiebaud’s reputation has long been established (Karen Wilkin hailed Thiebaud as “an American master” in 2015), it wasn’t until his latest body of work, launched that same year, that the nonagenarian painter changed his perspective from the observer to the object of observation, vicariously stepping into the ring of his circus-themed paintings and drawings. Not content with limiting himself to the still lifes and landscapes that already secured his place in the canon, Thiebaud began a new chapter, painting without presumption, but with the hope of sorting out some decades-old memories, thoughts, and sensations.” 

My article “Past continuous” about the painting and its role in Thiebaud’s oeuvre was just published by The New Criterion. An essay-length version of this article is forthcoming in the catalogue for the LAM “Wayne Thiebaud: Clowns” exhibition.

In Defense of Lecturing: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Vladimir Nabokov

Here is a recent article I wrote after the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was just published by the Athenaeum Review. Ginsburg credited this dexterity, and her understanding that language is more than a tool for communicating the semantic meaning, to the time she was an undergraduate at Cornell, where she attended the lectures by one of the greatest literary figures in the 20th century—Vladimir Nabokov.

Vladimir Nabokov writing at his desk, Cornell University, 1957. Photo: Cornell University Archives.

“Ginsburg was the first one to admit her debt to Nabokov’s teaching method, underscoring how illogical it is to condemn the inherently hierarchical and taste-based nature of lecturing. The currently fashionable assault on lecturing is at best a myopic fad, and at worst a case of closet schadenfreude. The basic claim behind the denigration of lecturing as a teaching method is that it is not sufficiently “student-oriented.” Students, we are told, learn better when they can relate to the material on a personal level. Clearly, the operating assumption here is that the material on offer is fundamentally boring, so that the only way to make it more digestible is to present everything through the prism of students’ “lived experience.” The classroom, then, becomes “an interactive learning space” and college professors turn into “learning facilitators.” Out with the lectures and in with the “active learning”! The next time an opponent of lecturing asserts the supposed superiority of “student-oriented” learning, it might be worth pondering whether an anti-meritocratic classroom dedicated to the safe space exchange of (certain) personal viewpoints and “lived experiences” inadvertently stunts the intellect of students, reaffirming whatever prejudices and superstitions they brought to the classroom in the first place.”

The power of images

An article for The New Criterion co-authored with friend and colleague Professor David Hawkes. It was recently republished in the New Discourses.

“The most ruthless, radical fringes of all great revolutions have drawn much of their initial support from more peaceful, moderate parties. They have also been unvaryingly efficient at eliminating their erstwhile allies once their purpose has been served. The English Independents ditched the Presbyterians, the French Jacobins guillotined the Girondins, the Russian Bolsheviks sent the Mensheviks to the gulag. To the immediate right of the extreme Left is often the most dangerous place to be. There are many liberal members of the American upper-middle class who would do well to remember that today.”

On George Orwell and J.K. Rowling

My latest contribution to The New Criterion is about what we can (and should) learn from George Orwell’s 1945 essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Ed Ruscha, Words…, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 64 x 64 inches. © Edward J. Ruscha IV

“The present degradation of political discourse is buttressed by the decline of language. This decline is nearly indistinguishable from the sort Orwell complained about in 1945—it is still a mixture of “vagueness and sheer incompetence.” When political language relies on “dying metaphors” (“a few bad apples”), “operators, or verbal false limbs” (“use our voices”), “pretentious diction” (“decolonize the museum”), and plain “lack of precision” (“defund the police”), actual meaning cannot manifest itself, and is supplanted by what Orwell called “emotional meaning”: “People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.” Instead of endeavoring to clarify their thinking by clarifying their language, political actors on all sides use terms with implied (but not always established) definitions.”