I’m on Amtrak heading to Richmond this morning for the March for Life Virginia. It’s early (so still darkish) and it’s overcast and raining.
If your experience of the world is exclusively or primarily in our cities and along routes like the one I’m traveling this morning (whether by car or train), you’ll tend to think we’re destroying the world because of the way we’re developing it. The sights from my Amtrak window are not exactly ugly, but what’s built along railroad tracks doesn’t tend to be beautiful. The same goes for our highways.
But we’re not destroying the world because we’re developing it. If we are destroying the world, it’s because we’re developing it in an ugly way—that is, we’re building things that degrade rather than elevate the natural landscape. And in turn that degrades our own experience of it and eventually our lived experience generally.
This isn’t a new or controversial idea, but if you survey folks across the political spectrum I suspect you’d find we’ve forgotten the principle behind building beautiful things—that aesthetics aren’t just how something looks but speak to what something is. And if we’re committed to the idea that form and function don’t have a meaningful relationship, we’ll keep building things that act as a spiritual corrosive.
There was the news recently that the White House might be considering an executive order instructing that future federal architecture be classical rather than brutalist, for instance. Why classical architecture matters isn’t simply because it’s “old,” but because its form and its age means it has been tested and that its form carries within it knowledge about what serves all of our needs as human beings—our need for beauty and symmetry and thoughtfulness as much as function.
If you’re inclined to say that “it’s all relative,” or especially that “beauty is relative,” ask yourself why we seek and conserve those things produced by craftsman (art, homes, public buildings, statues, etc.) and treat the pre-fabricated as basically disposable. It’s because crafted and beautiful things are in harmony with the world as we feel it should be, and we recognize the value in living amidst beauty if we can afford to do so.
When I was in San Francisco last week I was walking down Market Street and heading toward a restaurant after leaving a friend’s work party. That’s when I noticed this sculpture.
Do you see it? I know it’s dark. Even during the day, this art is designed to be sort of tucked away. It’s an ornament for this building’s entrance. It’s an angel, I guess. In its own way, it’s the perfect symbol of our time.
It might be an angel, but it could just as easily be a demon or nothing at all, actually. There’s the featureless face, saying nothing. There are the limpish wings, apparently holding this figure upright at least as much as the internal metal piping that’s (cleverly?) left visible in its legs. There are no arms, because even if it had something to say it definitely shouldn’t call out or gesture to passersby. It’s just bad art, commissioned for a limited public purpose to be unobjectionable and sort of pleasant without the chance of any aesthetic or sectarian dispute over it, because while it was made to seem like something that might stir the spirit, it doesn’t convict the observer and tends not to stir sentiment, either.
Why settle for something like this when sculptors used to produce remarkable public goods like Angel of the Resurrection? What is bad art for?
I think bad art helps satisfy our sense of the sacred in public life (of the human need for symbols of transcendence) without saying anything concrete that anyone would really have to talk about, disagree about, or have their lives arrested by and shaped in some positive way. We’re able to have art that suggests “there’s something more to all of this,” but without trying to cultivate virtue in the lives of its admirers, because what is truth? It’s better not to get into that.
Another thing that bad art is good for is removing the need for conservationists to worry about more stuff to preserve in the future. Artists who could be inheriting and iterating on the received wisdom of thousands of years of human experience are instead choosing to flow with the fashions of their time by making disposable ornamentation with the cheapest materials. It’s as disposable as so much of its surroundings in the rest of our culture, which makes it simpler to replace with something else in the future.
Bad art is encouraging, too. It reminds us that we can be mediocre and still successful. It might be a distinctly American thing in this way, where in the midst of one of our most ambitious and wealthy cities, we prove that we still don’t really know why we’re walking into these buildings every day in the first place.
But in the Borough of State College’s formulation? Of MLK being honored as part of a parking garage “rehabilitation” project? No.
He spoke to Penn Staters months before his historical visit to Selma, Alabama. He spoke about American values in a time when others were pushing to speak exclusively about racial values. He spoke inclusively about issues that were too often then perceived to be exclusive by their nature. He was a remarkable visitor in the Nittany Valley’s history. He deserves far better than to be recognized as part of a municipal parking project.
He deserves a place on Penn State’s campus, specifically in bronze in front of Rec Hall where he spoke. I hope someday, regardless of what happens in State College, the deciders at Penn State place a fitting monument to a man who embodied Pennsylvanian ideals of inclusion far earlier than when they came to be understood as American ideals.
Recently, Memorials for the Future came across my radar, a similar concept with a different approach to building monuments:
The National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service, working in tandem with the Van Alen Institute in New York, announced “Memorials for the Future,” an open design competition for new memorials. The contest is asking not only for memorial designs but memorial concepts—opening up the questions of whom, what, and why to the public.
In effect, the people responsible for guiding memorials to completion are putting the cart before the horse. They’re asking for designs that will drive the debate about what memorials should do. …
The contest is purely for honors, not to produce a built memorial. But any memorial starts with a grassroots campaign. A gripping memorial design associated with Black Lives Matter, for example, or Vision Zero—or abortion or suicide or gun violence or drug abuse or really any controversial subject in life—could generate its own momentum.
This seems like a better way to approach building monuments. Let the people themselves express ways to enshrine their spirit across the landscape.
Over the weekend I was in Philadelphia and went with a friend from Old City to Brewerytown to check out the neighborhood. We Ubered there for $10, but it was a beautiful day and we ended up with more time than we expected so we walked back through Fairmount Park and across the city.
On Logan Circle near the Free Library we came across this Shakespeare Memorial. I’m sure I’ve seen it before, but I hadn’t really looked at it before.
What does Shakespeare imply? If all the world’s a stage, and we’re but players, we’ve got a responsibility to put on a good show.
I remember John Mayer commenting one time about what it feels like to miss the gym for a while, something about feeling “like a pile of wet cement.” That’s how I feel if I don’t run every so often. I spent Independence Day in Philadelphia, and fit a run in while there from Old City across past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and back.
When running past the museum, I stopped to admire John Marshall welcoming visitors to the Impressionist exhibit. The podium he’s sitting on reads:
Chief Justice of the United States
As soldier he fought that the nation might come into being.
As expounder of the Constitution he gave it length of days.
This reminded me John Adam’s remark to the French, (paraphrasing) that he studied war in order that his children might enjoy peace, and in turn study things like the arts.
Independence Day is a celebration not only of our freedom as a people, but also of the Constitutional order that preserves our liberty. Like art, it’s important to study.
Bruce Shakely, my great uncle, turns 92 this month. It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since I headed out to Western Pennsylvania to celebrate his 90th birthday with him in what became a national family reunion. It was during that visit that my grandfather’s cousin’s daughter and I connected and she provided me with the genealogical records that I needed to join the Sons of the American Revolution:
The SAR is a historical, educational, and patriotic non-profit, United States 501(c)3, corporation that seeks to maintain and extend: the institutions of American freedom, an appreciation for true patriotism, a respect for our national symbols, the value of American citizenship, the unifying force of e pluribus unum that has created, from the people of many nations, one nation and one people.
We do this by perpetuating the stories of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, tragedy, and triumph of the men who achieved the independence of the American people in the belief that these stories are universal ones of man’s eternal struggle against tyranny, relevant to all time, and will inspire and strengthen each succeeding generation as it too is called upon to defend our freedoms on the battlefield and in our public institutions.
SAR has roughly 30,000 national members. This pales in comparison to the Daughters of the American Revolution that have more like 300,000 members. I don’t know whether that means SAR has historically done a poor job of recruitment, whether DAR has done better, or whether one gender tends to be more or less interested in membership.
It is fascinating to be a member, and receive the regular news mailings from the national, state, and local chapter. I feel a bit more connected both to my Revolutionary-era ancestors and my family, and also to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. A small example is Washington Square in Philadelphia, where a small memorial to Washington stands with a little altar and perpetual flame. This was placed there in part through SAR efforts in the 1950s.
Having the SAR connection is helpful for me to think about the sort of things that might be done in the future based on the past. I’m glad I joined and hope it can become a wider family tradition.
I wrote in April about the value of personifying monumental leaders through monumental statuary. Specifically, I was urging Penn State do be more imaginative in its approach to its campus in honoring its most significant personalities.
The project, which will set up outside City Hall in May with an array of installations, public events, and talks by artists, will try to enlist the public to talk and think about a new monument for Philadelphia.
“An ideal monument is one that would reflect our core values and visions for the city,” said Monument Lab co-curator Paul Farber.
What Monument Lab seeks to do sounds great. I’m generally skeptical of projects that define themselves with one-cent phrases like “core values and visions,” but Classicizing Philadelphia’s take helps me understand the vision better:
Few people engage the classical world in conversation any more. Classicism and its monuments seem to reflect the values and monuments of an elite. The conversation with Greece and Rome belongs, it seems, to the past, and to the people who imagined the Second Bank, or the statue of McClellan next to City Hall, or the Latin inscriptions that are in every sense over people’s heads on Philadelphia streets.
Monument Lab invites a different kind of dialogue: what do we want to say about who we are now? As their guiding question puts it, “What is an appropriate monument for the currentcity of Philadelphia?” …
A monument for 21st century Philadelphia, he suggested, should look beneath the classical veneer to the core underneath, and the work of the people who made it. The current city of Philadelphia wants to remember itself as a city made not only by a classically minded elite, but also by the people who made the bricks in City Hall.
I think that the most timeless monuments tend to be the ones that seek to convey knowledge in some way, usually through embodiment of a particular person or a monument that represents a person or foundational story.
The Washington Monument does this as well as the Lincoln Memorial. They’re timeless, they tell stories, and they invite admirers to understand themselves better as a result. On the other hand, Chicago’s Millennium Park Cloud Gate I think does none of these things.
“To Thy Happy Children / Of The Future Those Of The Past / Send Greetings”
This is the inscription that the University of Illinois’s Alma Mater statue bears for the curious passerby. It’s a perfect encapsulation of everything a place of learning exists to achieve—bringing the reality and wisdom of the past alive in the present, so it can do the same for the future. I wrote about this earlier this year, and shared a few pictures including the iconic personification of Alma Mater at the University of Havana:
At the time I mentioned a concept for Penn State that I want to convey in the hope that it can be brought to life sooner rather than later.
The concept: a “Penn State Encountering Heritage” initiative, the purpose being to honor monumental men and women in our history by personifying them across campus through monumental statuary that would make them feel closer to a living part of the university experience.
We possess an incredibly rich history, thick with the vision and strength of countless men and women who’ve helped build Penn State into what it has become. But aside from Joe and Sue Paterno (and maybe George Atherton) I doubt most could name the most significant figures in our creation or development. Let alone the personalities of our best cultural values or local folklore.
Why personify leaders of the past
It’s necessary to acknowledge, even despite our incredibly rich history, that we live in a practical time. What practical value is there in beautiful and romantic notions about honoring monumental leaders?
“The past, because it was lived, cannot really be destroyed. It can only be covered over, like a lush jungle that gets condensed into a pool of oil or a vein of coal, just waiting to be drilled or mined to have its energy released. But you have to dig for it, and you have to know how to use it. When we don’t know what is in the past, we cannot use it, and we cannot release its power.” There’s a reason that millennia after their death we continually re-approach the Greek philosophers. There is an evergreen sort of power in their thinking and stories. There is similar power in Penn State’s past.
“Fortunately,” Novak underscores, “we do not live in a world where the past, present, and future are in airtight cubicles that we must look at separately as though the past is dead and gone, the present stinks, and the future is always bright. Rather, the past, present, and future are fluid, and keep washing over each other. There were a lot of good things in the past that can brighten the present, and a lot of things in the past that seem to be missing in the present, but which could brighten your future.”
“Spirit,” Novak concludes, “is indestructible. But only if, in a practical sense, we allow it to come alive in us.” By personifying some of the most monumental figures in our history, we can enshrine them as a physical and concrete part of the campus. Doing so creates the context for the sort of personal and communal encounters with our institutional spirit that allows it to come alive in each new class.
An abundance of practical value, both institutionally and personally, can be realized in helping the newest members of the Penn State family encounter a few of her oldest as a means to fulfill the Greek challenge at the root of learning, which is to know thyself.
Who deserves a place on campus
So who are the sort of people that could brighten our future if we were to encounter them on campus?
I’m thinking about Evan Pugh, our visionary founding president whose whole story is little known. His spirit lingers near University House, his home. I’m thinking about his remarkable wife Rebecca, Bellefonte-native, whose faith in her husband and his vision outshone death itself. She wanders campus as a symbol of fidelity. I’m thinking about George Atherton, who sustained Evan Pugh’s vision at the turn of the 20th century while encouraging and implementing the development of the modern university structure and who, like Evan, died in striving to realize his vision. Only his grave presently remains.
I’m thinking of Wally Triplett, who came to Penn State in 1945 on academic scholarship as one of our first African American varsity football players and who during the 1946 season came to embody our community’s cultural values a generation before integration became a serious national conversation. Triplett in bronze stands in spirit near Beaver Stadium, sharing the stories of his time. I’m thinking of Joe and Sue Paterno, who as nominally athletics figures improbably elevated the academic mission of Penn State while supporting the viability of its diverse athletics programs through the powerhouse of college football. The Paternos belong by their library as much as, if not more so, the athletics fields.
I’m also thinking of people from outside the Penn State experience who nonetheless came into it in an historic way, representing some of its best aspects. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Rec Hall, symbol not only of America’s Civil Rights achievements, but also an historic voice representative of the vision of an inclusive culture who shared his prophetic voice with Penn Staters months before Selma.
I’m even thinking of institutional and legendary symbols like Alma Mater’s personification as the source of knowledge and conveyer of institutional heritage. I’m thinking of Princess Nittany, the folkloric originator of Mount Nittany and the inspiration for our identification as Nittany Lions.
What do we presently have? We have two modest busts of Evan Pugh and George Atherton in Old Main’s foyer, a place few students ever visit. What stories do these small busts share with the people of the campus and community? What physical context is there for gathering there or for sharing moments with others? None.
Each of these men, women, and iconic symbols I’ve mentioned speak in some way to aspects of our university’s character. Each represents some fundamental strain in the DNA of the contemporary community, and each helps unlock part of the secret meaning of the declaration that “We Are Penn State.”
One of my favorite places in Philadelphia is Washington Square. In 1954, planners created what you see above, George Washington and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. It’s a remarkable yet restrained and modest honor that creates the physical context for gatherings and ceremony and admiration.
We don’t have to think as grandly as the University of Havana’s Alma Mater, or as traditionally as this Washington Square monument. But we owe it to ourselves to think more aggressively and with bolder vision than tucked-away lobby room decorations.
Where to start
I think history is most relatable when it’s personal. This is why the most engrossing stories of the past are often told through the people at the center of events, rather than through the otherwise context-shorn details of the events themselves.
To start thinking through how a sculptor might embody our founder, Runkle describes: “a rugged, energetic physique, a straight-forward common sense manner, combined with the heart of a child, and the integrity and moral robustness of mature manhood.”
Later: “On June 6th, 1863, Dr. Pugh was returning to Willow Bank when a severe thunder storm arose. The horse he was driving was frightened, and backed the buggy over the bank into the stream, throwing the future Mrs. Pugh and himself under the vehicle. Dr. Pugh managed to extricate himself, raise the buggy and rescue his fiancee who suffered severely from bruises and shock. Dr. Pugh sustained a broken arm…”
After Pugh’s death in 1864, J.B. Lawes writes Rebecca Pugh: “Although I had my fears that he was taxing his powers too severely, I was watching his course with great interest, as I felt certain that if he lived he would be the founder of a great college. I hope some permanent memorial is proposed. I shall be proud to become a contributor in honor of a man whose character and abilities I so greatly admired.”
Each of these vignettes brings Evan Pugh to life in a special way. There are countless more examples throughout Runkle’s book alone. Writing more than 80 years ago, Runkle points a lingering truth about J.B. Lawes 1864 proposition: “That memorial remains to be erected; somewhere in the Commonwealth there should be the will and consecrated means to give it fitting form and substance.”
So how can a “Penn State Encountering Heritage” initiative be implemented? I think there are a few opportunities. I think the most natural home for something like this is among student leadership, working to institutionalize this in the way that Homecoming exists to perpetuate culturally significant traditions.
In terms of revenue, support through a time-limited “Encountering Heritage” allocation approved by students or voluntarily crowdfunded for a period of time makes sense as one of many potential solutions.
But if student leaders aren’t keen, an alternative home for such an initiative is the Penn State Alumni Association—specifically through an Alumni Council standing committee. Another possibility is through the Alumni Association’s staff-led programming efforts wherein alumni might be engaged broadly—almost of an alumni version of the Senior Class Gift concept, wherein alumni would vote and support on a recurring five or ten year schedule.
Another possibility is through an Alumni Association partnership with Homecoming or the Senior Class Gift committee to jointly administer such an initiative.
The opportunity exists. The important thing is to start.
There are two beautiful things in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station that I like to stop to admire whenever I’m there. One is the Angel of the Resurrection war memorial, and the other is Karl Bitter’s 1895 Spirit of Transportation. I took these photos today before leaving for State College.
Spirit of Transportation is arresting in the best way, practically demanding you stop to look on it. It’s monumental public art that comes from a time when we had greater faith in potential for art to redeem a mundane or unremarkable experience by placing it within a more meaningful context.
It’s not simply kitsch or decoration, and that’s probably why it has survived Broad Street Station, its original home.