The National Treasures of the Horsepunk Republic, or, Keep The Muse in Museum

“Daily through the city stalks the picture of famine, L’Enfant and his dog. The plan of the city is probably his, though others claim it. He had the courage to undertake any public work whatever that was offered to him. He has not succeeded in any, but was always honest and is now miserably poor.”*

That’s according to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, in his diary in 1806. Every homeless person I saw when I visited Washington, D.C. this month reminded me of Pierre L’Enfant, who was himself homeless for a time on the streets of the city whose layout he designed.

I love D.C., and took a break from New York to get some air there during its slushy-sandy thaw. D.C. is a city with a keen understanding of itself. Visiting there is like being in a geographic enigma, sprawling and aristocratic. Its subway platforms are mod, but dark and atmospheric, as if a nightclub opened at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The walk from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, a true national treasure, is about as long as Central Park. While Central Park makes you feel like a fish in a rich person’s fishbowl, The National Mall is completely open to the sky and horizon. It gives you the impression you own a share of a vast estate.

The Washington Monument, from inside the Jefferson Memorial.

The Washington Monument, from inside the Jefferson Memorial.

If Steampunk is a fantasy of a Victorian vision of the future, then the United States is Horsepunk, an Enlightenment vision of the future. The National Park Service reinforces this at the National Mall by keeping the path you walk on a sandy-gravelly mix, which gives you the tactile feeling, and ambient sounds, of walking through the 18th Century.

Dominating all of it is the Washington Monument, which gives a bizarre, Egyptian flare to the otherwise Roman look of the republic’s holy grounds. By law it is the tallest building in the city, by far, and it’s so simple and elemental you can’t help but feel that the binding spirit of us as a people is an abstract principle. If you put a 500-foot replica of Brancusi’s Bird in Space halfway between Grand Central Station and City Hall, and then knocked out every building on the East Side of Manhattan below 50th Street, you could maybe achieve this kind of grandeur.

My favorite, though, is a place I managed to revisit one morning this month after over 20 years, the Jefferson Memorial, that dome across the tidal basin from the Washington Monument. Jefferson speaks to that part of the American heart that just wants to go to a farm and read books all summer. Never mind war and business, and the messy work of getting stuff done. Let’s dwell in ideals.

Jefferson strikes me as the smartest guy in the dorm room, the kid who already read all the books you’re struggling with, back when he was in high school. Who had an easy time with the women and already tried every drug, and whose political sensibilities could never be satisfied. Whatever you believed in, it wasn’t good enough. And his father, you find out during sophomore year, is the vice president of a nuclear bomb manufacturer. He is both wilder and more priveledged than you’ll ever be. Great idea putting this across the water from the others, since it celebrates an impulse that requires going away and thinking.

How nice it would be to have a Roman temple built in one’s honor, with a few of your prose’s greatest hits up on the walls around your statue. I was so inspired, I thought I’d take the long way back around the tidal basin.

That’s where some cheeky Virginians tucked a hidden monument behind the hidden monument! George Mason, whom both Washington and Jefferson apparently regarded as a mentor, gets a lovely fountain – empty for the season, all the lovelier – with a strange little statue behind it, and bits of his prose that all seem to protest too much. We get it! “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was a rip-off of Mason. He is the Chuck Berry to Jefferson’s John Lennon, the founding father’s founding father.




Next, since the last time I’d visited, F.D.R. and M.L.K. have gotten memorials, both completely dreadful. They’re sterile civic fitness trails meant to uplift the visitor who walks through them in an experiential manner, reading globs of text, without which they’d look like unfinished courtyards of corporate headquarters. I’m a liberal, and I can’t stand them. I can only imagine what conservatives think. They’re an embarrassment to liberalism, and should be dismantled. Start over.

A good memorial is like a good film or screenplay. It works without the dialogue. If a monument can’t be appreciated on purely aesthetic grounds, no uplifting words can save it.

(*As quoted in Scott Berg’s Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.)

And while we’re talking about excessive text or narration, let’s give museums back to the Muses.

I wonder sometimes, when exactly did the unwritten rule of museum curatorship go into effect that says an any art exhibit must be 100% real artifacts, but an exhibit at an equally prestigious history museum is allowed to be mostly text written by the curators, with maybe some video and just enough artifacts to justify going to a museum instead of a website or coffee table book?

I lasted five minutes in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Longer in the National Museum of the American Indian, mostly because it has a mind-blowing exhibit right now called Nation To Nation, a history of the major treaties between the United States and the various sovereign native nations. I bet that curators are under pressure to come up with exhibits about social history, and the till-now undervalued stories of history, but if you insist on providing all of the interpretation all the time, then you’ve curated the life out of a subject. If you can’t find any muskets or moccasins, you might as well post an essay on the website.

The Victorians used to jam their museums full of stuff, and it probably frustrated lots of visitors, who just saw something like a glass case full of arrowheads, many of them broken, and nothing to interpret them with. Numbing as that may sound, when you walk into an exhibit about the Dakota-U.S. war of 1862, at the national museum, and all you see are panels with text on them, then it’s time to restore some balance toward the museum’s other mission, to give us a chance to contemplate the artifacts for their own sake.

I learned something about history at the history museum, but I dreamed about history at the National Gallery of Art, where you’re left alone with a fragment of a Renaissance fresco or a Colonial soup terrine with cupids on it.

A scalloped 18th-Century pickle dish from Colonial Philadelphia, at the National Gallery.

A scalloped 18th-Century pickle dish from Colonial Philadelphia, at the National Gallery.

The Smithsonian can learn something from the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Passing through last summer, I discovered that Deerfield is basically a big historic district. You probably need twenty signatures and a permit to put a kiddie pool in your yard. I took a recon lap around town, and the first museum I saw said “Memorial Hall.” When I stopped at the general visitors center, and heard about how my admission was good for all the different houses open to the public, and something very professional-sounding called the Flynt Center for Early New England Life, I asked, “What about Memorial Hall?”

“Oh no, that’s a separate admission,” the uniformed attendant told me.

An old Yankee town with competing historical societies! Now I was curious! “Thank you very much, ma’am,” I said, and went straight to the Memorial Hall Museum. I guessed right. It’s what a museum should be. It’s full of 19th-Century plows and old shoes and every reasonably intact butter churn they could find in their basement.

“No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams famously said, and that applies to monuments and museums. What good are they if you can’t sit and muse with them?

Selma and American Sniping

The matinée of Selma at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Martin Luther King Day yesterday was sold out, but a friend had gone early and saved a seat for me. It’s the best movie about an American political organizer we’ll probably see in a long time, and a gripping story unto itself.

I have a special place in my heart for complex, tragic figures in general, and President LBJ in particular, so I hesitated to see Selma till the controversy about the director and cast getting snubbed by the Academy Awards got the best of me. The indignant posturing on Twitter and Facebook made me wonder, just how good could it be? Answer: Damn good. It’s refreshing to see King as a leader who frustrates his supporters, second-guesses himself, and makes mistakes, but also as a complicated, sometimes difficult person, the first to start stuffing his face when the bacon’s on the table.

Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL.

Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL.

What I didn’t appreciate about Selma was the thematic clumsiness. For all its unnecessary thoroughness in covering tactical disagreements, its thematic through-line is still too elusive: Aside from his skill and his beyond-his-years wisdom, King was the one who brought…what, exactly? “Cool” is the best answer I can come up with. Compared to Lincoln, in which the progress of the plot can be counted in “Yes” votes for the amendment – we’ve got 12, now we’ve got 15, etc. – progress in Selma can only be counted in how close LBJ comes to supporting the Voting Rights Act. Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb have been called out for this historical inaccuracy, which does matter, but I find it especially disappointing since the intention of the leadership gets telegraphed so sharply. If they’re going to take such license, couldn’t they come up with a better mechanism to measure their progress than just LBJ personally relenting. So cool he out-foxed LBJ? How about, managed to get LBJ’s attention for a full day, or managed to overrule a cabinet member who thought something else was more urgent than voting rights?

With hundreds of extras in the marching scenes, the Whitehouse feels cheap! You get one shot of LBJ surrounded by staff, then the rest of his scenes feel like they were shot over a weekend. I know the consensus is that everything Tom Wilkinson touches turns to gold, but I didn’t feel his LBJ was nearly formidable enough. He’s the mighty and powerful Oz. Let’s see some smoke and mirrors.

But that’s talking about the film that could have been. The film they made brought me to tears. And I especially liked how deftly it ended. Spielberg blew the ending of Lincoln. DuVernay nailed it in Selma. Judging by both a survey of the other MLK projects in development and the apparent difficulty of King’s heirs, this is the best film we’re going to see about MLK, and it gets him right.

I try to stay numb to the Academy Awards. It’s not a national film institute with a public mandate, it’s a professional association that parcels out its brand bit by bit. It’s old, white and male, yes, and risk-averse and prone to shooting itself in the foot. But we also have to remember that Selma grossed $11 Million this weekend, while American Sniper did over $100 Million. The world looks very different to semi-retired producers in Beverly Hills.

Selma did get a Best Picture award nomination. Did DuVernay deserve a nomination too? And David Oyelowo for playing King? Both probably yes. I was personally more  appalled – I suppose on behalf of louche, over-educated caucasians everywhere – that Ralph Fiennes didn’t get one for Grand Budapest Hotel. The film got nine nominations, but would have been a mess without his brilliantly three-dimensional performance, comic but with lovely, touching moments.