The Art Our Nation Needs
Every summer for the last eight years, I've spent a week in Washington teaching political philosophy to undergraduates. The New York Times once called the program in which I teach "Great Books Camp." That gets something right; we do read great books together. (I teach Plato some years and Adam Smith others.) But there's more to the program than this. After all, it's in Washington.
Being in D.C. gives the students access to all that the nation's capital offers. For a few that means bars and clubs. For many it means politics and politicians. But as some of them will come to discover, it also means art.
Washington is an extraordinary city for art lovers, and I do all I can to encourage the students to explore its magnificent museums in their free time. But as much as I love these museums (and I am not sure I could love them more — Delacroix's Paganini at the Phillips Collection opened my eyes to a new world), it's the art outside the museums that I'd most like them to see. For the art in D.C.'s public spaces raises some of our most pressing civic questions.
To this end, for the past two years I've led a running tour with the students at the end of their first week. Its focus is the public statuary of the National Mall and the Tidal Basin. In the course of our run we stop and see all the memorials you'd expect, as well as a couple you might not. We stop and see the wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam. We stop and see some warriors: John Paul Jones, Simón Bolívar. We stop and see some thinkers: Longfellow, Einstein. We stop and see rights-fighters: George Mason, MLK. And of course we stop and see the presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, and FDR.
All of this makes for a good run. (If you do it yourself, plan on 11 miles.) To break it up, at each memorial we stop a few minutes to listen as one of the student runners presents a talk he has prepared on its significance. These moments are often magical, largely owing to how good the talks tend to be. But just as memorable as the presentations are the looks on the faces of the other students as they listen. For as they listen, the students aren't only hearing; they're looking up.
They look up, of course, because they have to. With the sole exceptions of George Mason seated next to his books (Locke and, quite interestingly, Rousseau), and FDR seated famously in his wheelchair, all the other monuments to individuals reach soaring heights. The natural and clearly intended consequence of this is that the viewer has to look up in order to take the whole thing in. Herein of course lies the dual premise on which public memorial statuary is founded: that moral greatness is best conveyed by physical greatness, and just as physical greatness is only seen by raising the head, moral greatness can only be seen when we lift our gaze to behold that which transcends our ordinary moral horizons.
I've long known, or at least been vaguely aware, of all this. But it wasn't until I saw my students looking at these monuments that I realized how unusual this experience must be for them. Our cultural moment isn't one that encourages looking upward, to say the least. At best, lovers of equality that we are, we look straight ahead, with eyes trained on what's on our level — that in which we see ourselves. But more often our gaze gets dragged down. Today we hear a lot from those who speak as if they see through it all. But a natural effect of seeing through things (and listening to those who claim to see through things) is that we start looking down on those things — especially the sorts of things our less enlightened predecessors held dear.
Looking upward, I thus suspect, is a pretty rare experience for these students. I also suspect it's a fairly important experience for them, at least if Plato can be trusted. During the week that preceded our running tour we studied Plato's Republic, examining with care the famous allegory of the cave. As I tried to help the students see, what Socrates encourages us to take from this story is how those who see the light direct their eyes. Education, he explains, isn't what most people say it is. They think education means putting knowledge into the soul, akin to putting sight into blind eyes. The truth, he explains, is otherwise: Real education assumes we can see already, but that we're just looking in the wrong direction. True learning, Socrates explains, lies in being "turned around" so that we face, and thereby see, the good.
Reflecting on this, I've come to suspect that whatever value my teaching of Plato may have, there's probably at least as much benefit in providing my students with a chance to spend a morning getting some exercise and looking at some good things on the Mall. At the same time, while the Mall has many good things, it doesn't have everything. And this led me to wonder: If I could curate my dream exhibition (or closer to home, teach a course on public art and political philosophy), what would I include? What public art might my students and I do especially well to see and study right now?
This question stayed with me on my flight home from D.C. to Concord, Massachusetts. My stay in Concord was brief; two days after arriving back home, I had to drive to Plainfield, New Hampshire, on an errand. But moving quickly between D.C. and Concord and Plainfield ended up offering an answer to my question — a solution that started with another run.
Back home the day after our Mall run, I ran a familiar route that starts in the center of Concord and then heads north out of town into Minute Man National Historical Park. In the park, it crosses the North Bridge, site of the famous "shot heard round the world" — the shot of April 19, 1775, which marked the first forcible resistance to the British and thus the start of the American Revolution. Next to the North Bridge stands a statue, The Minute Man of Daniel Chester French. I've run past that sculpture many times, but seeing it the day after observing French's Lincoln on the Mall, I noticed something I hadn't considered before.
A day later, I found myself in New Hampshire on my errand, which gave me an excuse to see another national historical park — and with it more sculptures. Next to Plainfield is the town of Cornish, where the home and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens was located. He was French's main rival to the title of greatest American sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and here in his beautifully preserved estate in Cornish, one can see casts of many of the works to which he owed his fame.
It was while walking the grounds of Saint-Gaudens's estate in Cornish that the answer to my question came. The works I'd most like to show my students, now more than ever, are the sculptures of Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Now, if they had been keeping their eyes open in D.C., the students would have already observed a fair bit of French's and Saint-Gaudens's work. After all, Saint-Gaudens was the foremost artist on the congressional commission charged with redesigning the Mall into its current form. If my student runners ever ventured off the Mall into Rock Creek Park (one of D.C.'s best places for runners), they might come across Saint-Gaudens's memorial to the wife of Henry Adams. Running aside, I know several of my students liked to study in the reading room of the Library of Congress: I wonder if they ever looked up to see French's History, or Herodotus, looking down on them. Did any of them ever notice that the obstacle in the circle they walked around each morning on the way to class is French's Admiral Francis Dupont Memorial? Probably not. So much of this is just part of the backdrop now. Seeing it requires attention — maybe even being turned around to face it.
In any case, our nation would do well to turn around and face the work of French and Saint-Gaudens. As it happens, I'm not alone in thinking so, as a traveling exhibition of their work has just been launched. I have not yet seen it, but I've read the catalogue, and it's hard not to worry that the exhibition might end up a missed opportunity. Take its title — Monuments and Myths: The America of Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French. Or take the first lines of its foreword: "In the past decade hard and necessary questions about the relationships between historic public sculpture, systemic inequities, and structural racism have garnered greater attention." Even before seeing a single sculpture, it's clear how one is supposed to view them. Only dupes and rubes fall for the myth: If you're in the know, you know to see through it.
Personally, I'm not so sure. When I look at the work of French and Saint-Gaudens, I get the humbling sense that they were made by men who knew a lot — and maybe a lot more than I — about things I want to understand, including what it means to be good or even great in a difficult and troubled world. For French and Saint-Gaudens created art that aspired, among other things, to help heal the wounds of a difficult and troubled world by showing a scarred nation how its characteristic virtues held a key to a brighter future. Put simply: The fact that polarization and division — specifically the disunion consequent to racism — have shaped our country was not a lesson that needed to be told to two men whose greatest work focused on the tragedies of the Civil War. But French and Saint-Gaudens, in their monuments to the greatness of the heroes of this and other wars, show us something more, something about their unique virtues, in which lies a lesson that we would do well now more than ever to study.
Daniel Chester French designed The Minute Man when he was 23 years old. It was his first major commission, and were he not a native son of Concord — and also warmly supported by a notable family friend named Ralph Waldo Emerson — it's unlikely he would have been commissioned for the monument to commemorate the centennial of the Battle at the North Bridge. The Minute Man received great public acclaim upon its unveiling, inaugurating an illustrious career that would ultimately culminate in French's commission for Lincoln on the Mall in D.C. But it's also good for us that the monument committee chose French, for in that work he captured not simply an image of America, but an image of American virtue that we would do well to see today.
Formally, The Minute Man depicts a colonial at the moment he leaves his plow and takes up his musket. It's said that French modeled the figure after Isaac Davis, one of the Acton minute men who fell at the North Bridge. This gives the sculpture all the more power: The plow we see the minute man leaving is at once the plow to which he'll never return. It's also said that the bronze used to cast the statue at the North Bridge came from decommissioned Civil War cannons. Knowing this further increases the monument's power; for not only were the Civil War's wounds raw in 1873 when French was modeling the sculpture, his monument quite literally casts the moment of America's first founding in the material of its second founding.
These facts aside, what visitors to the park tend to see when they behold the monument is an image of American virtue: the embodiment of courage, of resolve, of determination, of responsibility. Its power on this level is undeniable, and upon seeing it in person, one clearly understands why it has become such a symbol of American pride, inspiring countless postage stamps and recruiting posters. The sculpture's imagery also has deep roots. For its stance, French drew on the form of the famed Apollo Belvedere. For its symbolism, he drew on traditional republican tropes: With hand on plow, The Minute Man takes his place in a long tradition extending back to Cato and forward to George Washington. So too with his other hand: That grip suggests he knows not just that he has a right to own a musket, but that he knows how to use it.
There's yet something more to this monument, something I only saw for the first time on my run that day after returning home to Concord from D.C. It has to do with the minute man's hat. If you look at the sculpture straight on, as most viewers do as they come over the North Bridge, you notice something strange about the hat. On its right side (your left), the brim of the hat has an upward turn to it. From a distance it looks as if it's been caught in a breeze; up close you see it's been pinned that way. But what matters is how the hat changes as you walk around the monument. When you're on the left side of the minute man — the side with the plow on which he's left his coat — the hat is clearly the round, rolled-brim cap of a farmer. But when you come around to his right side, the side that holds the rifle, you see something entirely different: Here the hat is clearly a tricorn, the cap of the 18th-century American soldier.
The Minute Man, then, quite literally wears two hats at once. It's hard not to marvel at young French's dexterity in pulling off a trick like this so adeptly, right under our noses (or above our noses — the statue is seven feet tall and stands on a seven-and-a-half-foot pedestal). But there's something more here. The minute man, as we tend to see and think of him, is a farmer one minute and a soldier the next. But in some deep sense, the all-too-familiar idea that we're catching him at a moment of transition doesn't do justice to the complexity of the monument or the man it represents. The truth is that the minute man is at once farmer and solider, at once a man of both private interests and public duty.
In 1775, while Isaac Davis was plowing his field and preparing for war, Adam Smith was putting the last touches on his Wealth of Nations. In this work Smith would argue that commercial nations should not depend on volunteer citizen militias for their defense. This is because in commercial nations, opportunities for moneymaking discourage military service; workers earn their keep in their shops, not in the barracks. Smith's lesson is clear: Military service is inimical to economic self-interest. Of course, he proved prescient on this front. Take my summer students, so many of whom hail from elite institutions: Why join the Army when McKinsey and Google are calling? (And, for that matter, why even think of volunteering to fight and die for a country that everyone from exhibition curators to editorial writers reminds us is a myth built on systemic inequities and structural racism? Small wonder we're facing a military recruiting crisis.) That said, every year a few of my Great Books Camp students tell me that they did ROTC at Yale or Princeton or Virginia and are going to serve. They are the exception to the rule. But I suspect if they were to come to Concord, they're the ones who would be most likely to see the minute man's two hats at a glance. We would all do well to follow their gaze.
COURAGE AND COMMON PURPOSE
Twenty miles to the southeast of The Minute Man stands another monument to yet another fallen warrior. This one stands directly across from the Massachusetts State House on the corner of Boston Common. It's by Saint-Gaudens: the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial. Of course when you read the full title, you see it may be a little misleading to call it a monument to a fallen warrior; in truth it commemorates the fall of many warriors, together in a common cause. Herein lies its power, both in its day and ours.
Robert Gould Shaw commanded the 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War. He died at just 25, shot and killed leading his troops into battle at the siege of Fort Wagner in 1863. Prominent Boston abolitionists commissioned the memorial from Saint-Gaudens, who then spent 13 full years of painstaking labor on it, starting in 1884 and not finishing until 1897. Even then, Saint-Gaudens would return to the memorial over and over in the years to come, tweaking details in later casts. The result of all of this labor was a striking equestrian memorial to the fallen young commander, here distinguished by his pose.
Bolt upright in his saddle, Shaw forms a solitary vertical line at cross-purposes to the dominant diagonals that more generally define the composition. Seated powerfully erect, eyes grimly facing forward, he becomes the personification of a warrior's resolve to face danger and fulfill duty, at whatever cost. The text inscribed between his mount's head and the outstretched hand of the angel above reminds us of this cost. It reads: "omnia relinquit servare rempublicam" — which my students who know a bit of Latin will know means "he sacrificed all to serve the commonweal," and which my students majoring in history may know to be the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati.
The Shaw Memorial thus replicates many of the same themes as The Minute Man; we again see sacrifice, courage, and resolve. But to these it adds something new and powerful. For Shaw is not alone: This is no ordinary equestrian monument. Behind him, beside him, and before him march his men. And these in turn are no ordinary men: They're the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, the first American military unit composed entirely of black men.
When the unit was first proposed, even many Northern abolitionists and sympathizers had qualms: Will black soldiers really have the courage to stand and fight when fired on? The question was answered soon enough: The men of the 54th not only stood and fought, but battled proudly unto death. A century after Saint-Gaudens's sculpture, their heroism would inspire another work of American art — the film Glory, whose creation we owe to the filmmaker's visiting the Saint-Gaudens memorial on Boston Common.
So what did that filmmaker see, and what can we perceive when we approach it today? In part the sculpture asks us to see the humanity and indeed the individuality of the men it depicts. One of the most striking and powerful elements of the piece is the realism of the differentiated faces of the various soldiers. But the piece gets its particular power from the fact that these highly differentiated men march together toward a common purpose under a single banner. They are, for all of their distinctions — most notably, the difference between the race of the soldiers and that of their commander — united in a single shared cause: the preservation of the idea that all men are created equal. Today that seems hard for us to imagine: not just that men would be willing to die for an idea, but that men distinguished by their differences might yet unite. Today our identities both define us and divide us. How welcome this different image.
Robert Gould Shaw and over 250 men of the 54th Massachusetts marched to war, never to return home. Many other men also marched forward to that war never to return, including three brothers from Concord. Asa, John, and Samuel Melvin served in the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery during the Civil War, and all three died in the course of the war. James, fourth and youngest of the Melvin brothers, also served. But he survived, and as the sole survivor he commissioned from French a monument in his brothers' memory — a sculpture that may well be French's greatest work.
The Melvin Memorial, which also bears the name Mourning Victory, was unveiled in 1909 in a corner of Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Sleepy Hollow is best known today as the final resting place of many of Concord's 19th-century literary greats: Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Louisa May Alcott. But below them in the shadow of Author's Ridge stands the Melvin Memorial, more striking now than ever in the wake of a remarkably effective restoration undertaken by the Friends of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in 2019.
The monument itself depicts the goddess Victory, recognizable by the laurels she holds high, in a moment of emergence — or perhaps in two moments of emergence. One of these moments sees her coming forward, toward us, out of the rock from which she has been hewn, right knee bent in stride. Yet even as she emerges forward out of her background, she simultaneously comes out from under the drapery above her. In the moment that French captures, her left hand thrusts the laurels out from underneath the heavy tapestry (which is, on close inspection, an American flag) at the same time her right hand lifts the tapestry to unveil her face.
The duality of this emergence is central to the memorial. For the memorial itself is ultimately a study in contrasts, both in terms of its formal composition and the emotions it aims to evoke. Look again at Victory's two arms. The left arm holding the laurels of victory is stiff and defiant, with elbow locked, wrist rigid, thumb and fingers grasping the laurels in a fist. This all stands in stark contrast to the right arm which, in the act of lifting the veil, bends at the elbow and sags gently at the wrist. Seeing them together gives the impression that Victory here has two sides — much like the two hats of The Minute Man who stands just a mile away.
Today's political context only enhances the memorial's effect. Years ago in these pages I lamented that ours is a political culture obsessed with winning, a culture that regards winning as not just the best thing, but the only thing. The Melvin Memorial, with its portrayal of Victory, bespeaks a love of winning. But French understood — in ways we often don't today — the difference that separates victory from triumphalism. French knew what it meant for the North to have won the Civil War: The pride rightly taken in victory for a righteous cause never overwhelms, but is balanced by, a profound sense of the tragic costs of such a victory. From its composition to its alternative title, Mourning Victory stands as a reminder that winning alone cannot be what defines the politics of any nation that still cares about the just and the right.
GREAT-SOULED AND GENTLE
The name David Glasgow Farragut is not terribly well known today. Ask my students if they've heard it, and I suspect most of them would mumble something about a stop on the D.C. Metro's Red Line. But in his day, Farragut was a celebrated hero. A Southerner who fought for the North in the Civil War, Farragut knew the difference between interest and principle. He also knew how to command men, rising in the Navy from his first service in the War of 1812 (at the age of 11!) to become an admiral. His greatest mark on history probably comes in the form of his famous rallying cry: "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
Memorials to Farragut stand in cities from Washington to Boston to Knoxville. But the one that I have in mind for my students resides in New York City, in Madison Square. This is the one sculpted by Saint-Gaudens, and was in fact his first major commission. Farragut did for Saint-Gaudens's career what The Minute Man did for French's, lifting him out of the world of cameo-making into the public sphere as a sought-after public memorial sculptor.
Saint-Gaudens's Farragut is especially noteworthy for its pose. Befitting his role as a naval commander, Farragut stands evenly balanced on both feet; he's unmoved by the waves. Nor is he deterred by the winds that have lifted up the hem of his tightly buttoned officer's coat. The effect is clear: The flap of his coat flies in the wind, but the man who wears it is unflappable. The modeling of the rest of his upper body augments the effect: His left hand hangs loosely at his side, while his right hand keeps his binoculars at the ready; his face radiates calm. In short: He's just the man you want piloting your ship.
For all this, what distinguishes Farragut is not just the sculpture but the setting. The base on which the sculpted figure so solidly stands is a massive piece of granite. (Originally bluestone, this deteriorated and had to be replaced; the original is now in Cornish.) On this granite pedestal is carved in relief a sword, rigidly pointing down, and at right angles to the ocean waves and flowing robes of the goddesses Loyalty and Courage, whose figures occupy the two wings extending off the pedestal as part of an exedra that Saint-Gaudens designed in collaboration with acclaimed architect Stanford White.
The exedra, or semicircular seat, is an integral part of the memorial. It introduces its subject as "a daring and sagacious commander and gentle great-souled man." This description presents the same combination of seeming opposites observed in both French's Minute Man and Melvin Memorial. The Farragut that these words invite us to reflect on and honor is a man of both valor and wisdom, boldness and prudence — a rare combination indeed. But he was also, even more strikingly, both great-souled and gentle. Today we find it hard enough to imagine, much less talk about, people being "great-souled." The virtue that Aristotle lionized in his study of magnanimity is one that strikes us today as a relic of bygone antiquity. Yet what made Farragut so interesting to Saint-Gaudens (and makes him so important to us) was his capacity to combine magnanimity and ferocity with gentleness and generosity. Farragut is a man between two worlds, one who manages to combine the virtues of both — a uniquely American hero of a type in short supply today.
AMERICA NEEDS PUBLIC ART
There are more works by both French and Saint-Gaudens that I would like my students to see if we could. I'd like them to see French's allegorical Law, Prosperity, and Power in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, with its reminder that what ultimately makes power and prosperity possible is the rule of law. I'd like them to see the version of Saint-Gaudens's Robert Louis Stevenson that stands in Cornish, which calls us to remain "down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to each other." And I'd especially like them to see French's Beneficence and Saint-Gaudens's Amor Caritas, if only to remind them that there's more to life than politics, and that love will always be a greater virtue than the political virtues, however heroic.
Not everybody feels as I do, including certain luminaries. Take Harvard art historian Benjamin Rowland, Jr., who was no great admirer of French's art. The Minute Man, he wrote, induces "a certain tedium upon repeated inspection," and he characterized the Melvin Memorial as "embarrassing and absurd posturing or play-acting in marble." The best he could say was that "if it is the purpose of public monuments to exalt the public by their insistent reminding of the noblest virtues of the race as typified in a single figure or symbol, French's works would be immortal." Rowland of course didn't mean this as praise; to make art instrumental to ethics and politics was abominable in his eyes.
He is surely right, on some level. Politics often isn't beautiful at all, and art made for political reasons is frequently as horrifically ugly as a human creation can be. Yet even as we cannot forget that there is more, indeed must be more, to art than just politics, when our politics has been reduced to nothing but ugliness, we've reached a point where we need to look beyond politics, to something more beautiful than mere politics, if we hope to redeem it. Had I set out to write an essay on the most beautiful art ever produced in America, I would have written a different essay. But right now we are a nation in sore need of a little exalting. How lucky for us that some of the things that can exalt us the most are standing right out there in front of us, if only we are able and willing to see them.