clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, August 13, 2003
Pretty interesting, political-nerdy rundown about art in the Capital in the NYT. The crux of the article is that through rearrangements and new commissions, Sen. Christopher Dodd is trying to fix the fact that so many of the portraits and statues in the Capital building, especially the ones seen by touring groups of schoolkids, are of old dead white congressmen. The funny part is when the author says "lawmakers are determined to bring the Capitol's art into the current century." This is not quite true. If they were bringing the art into the twenty-first century, it would involve Jesus peeing on George Washington. Bringing it into the twentieth centure should suffice. Some of the rhetoric used by the folks leading the effort sounds a bit wacko at times, but I don't think you can really dismiss this as "political correctness."

The article gives us a useful punching bag in the form of Roger Kimball:

Mr. Kimball, who is managing editor of The New Criterion, a monthly magazine, rails against such thinking. "This is to let political correctness triumph over accurate history," he said. "The truth of the matter is that with very few exceptions the people who framed the political documents that founded this country were white men. That's just historical fact."

You know, I think the clear implication of his "statement of fact" is a bit skewed. Sure, Roger could defend himself by saying that it's just true damnit that white men have done more stuff in American history, but I think what he's alluding to is that this is the case because they are just better people. Clearly not true, but hinted at, I think, in his statement.

Still, that's subtext, so let's address the substance of his remark. The critical distinction he's missing is that the Capital is not the official record of our history. That's the job of, um, the National History Museum. The Capital, on the other hand, is a sort of showpiece for democracy and for American government specifically. And while it's historically true that white men have dominated government, it's not the job of that venue to display some weird official history of America. I don't even know how that would work--would you go through and count the pictures and a proportionate number have to be white men, or what? So since history really isn't the concern, we might want to think about how it isn't so good from a public-relations standpoint. I mean, I hope that most Americans feel, shall we say, a bit awkward about the fact that white men so dominate our history and continue to dominate our government. Schoolkids should be able to see people who look like them in the Capital, because we want them to participate in government. Call it meaningless tolerance-mongering if you want, but I think it's a policy that should be pursued in this case.

Yet the Capitol is extremely tight on space, so when the women moved into the Rotunda, a man had to be expelled. He was Roger Williams, a proponent of religious freedom and the founder of Rhode Island. His likeness is now in a far less conspicuous spot, a thought that makes Mr. Kimball seethe.

In his view, "art and politics don't make good bedfellows."

It hardly needs to be said, but never trust anyone who's saying art shouldn't be politicized, because that in itself is a pretty forceful political position. Art has always been politicized--it just used to be more in favor of the king.