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David and Art - "Fine Arts Commission"

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A small arts commission created by Theodore Roosevelt still can make headlines in today's Washington.

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You had to be attuned for it or you may have missed it: Late last month the president asked for the resignation of four members of a small government agency called the fine arts commission.

The fine arts commission was created in 1909 by an executive order from President Theodore Roosevelt just two months before he left the White House. Roosevelt knew a great many things, thought he knew a great many more things, and was deeply rooted in his opinions about everything from foreign policy to art and architecture. The American Institute of Architects had suggested the idea of a committee to advise the government on things like the style of federal buildings and the design of American coinage and Roosevelt immediately agreed.

It may not shock you to learn that he didn’t keep his tastes a secret. Despite how progressive he later become in his politics, he was vehemently conservative when it came to cultural matters. Almost populist. He disapproved of modernism and contemporary art of pretty much any and all kinds and he didn’t care to hear your educated explanation to the contrary.

In architecture, he believed Greco Roman classicism was the best. He created the fine arts commission in large part to ensure that the federal buildings of Washington looked a certain way and comported to a particular assumption about style. Conservative and traditional were what he wanted. These conveyed stability and inherited power. Centuries had made them seem unchallengeable.

Last December in his own executive order, former president Trump mandated that classical style architecture would be the favored and preferred model for new buildings in the nation’s capital, somewhat bypassing the Fine Arts Commission. Many architects around the country called the order absurd. However, Trump appointees on the Commission already thought the same way, including its chairman Justin Shubow.

Shubow is also the president of the National Civic Art Society, a group founded in 2002 to oppose contemporary styles in federal monuments, memorials, and buildings. It contends that over the past century the quality of American civic art has “deteriorated disastrously.” To reverse that, it wants to re-establish “the great civic-art tradition that has served the nation brilliantly in times past,” by which it means the classical style of works like the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.

In February, President Biden revoked the executive order about the preferred style and then last month came his requests for resignations of members of the commission, including that of Shubow.

The whole dust up is a symptom of how readily art can become entangled into politics. But anyone who remembers Theodore Roosevelt knows that this is nothing new.  

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.