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New Volume! “The Professions and Civic Life” arriving June 15, 2016

This volume on the professions and civic life undertakes a unique and timely examination of 12 individual professions to see how each affects the character of American citizenship and the civic culture of the nation through their practices and ethos. What is distinctive — or not — about the specific profession as it came to be practiced in the United States? Given the specialized knowledge, training, and sometimes licensing of a profession, what do the professions perceive to be their role in promoting the larger common good? How can we bring professionals’ expert knowledge to bear on social problems in an open and deliberative way? Is the ethic of a particular profession as it understands itself today at odds with the American conception of self-government and a healthy civic life?

Through analysis of these questions, the chapters present a rich treatment of how the 12 long-standing professions of political science, teaching, the law, the military, economics, medicine, journalism, literature, science, architecture, music, and history help support and challenge the general public’s civic behavior in general and their attachment to the American regime in particular.

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NEW Policy Brief: Architects and Citizenship

In the latest addition to “The Professions and Civic Culture” series, Williams College professor of art history Michael J. Lewis discusses the idea of “architectural citizenship” and the role architects play in American civic life. According to Lewis, the making of any building is a social act that stakes a claim on finite resources of land and space and that can enhance the value of the buildings around it or diminish it. Only the most solitary and remote building is without implications for society.

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Architects and Citizenship

Architects and Citizenship
By Michael J. Lewis
(February 2014)

Here are three conceptions of the architect, as mutually exclusive as can be. According to venerable Vitruvius, whose Ten Books of Architecture is the only treatise on the subject to survive from classical antiquity, it is the architect who gives tangible form to the history, traditions, and “moral philosophy” of his civilization. To Richard Morris Hunt, the elegant virtuoso of Gilded Age mansions, the architect is a mere employee, duty-bound to gratify his client’s whims and wishes. But to Howard Roark, the fictional subject of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the architect is an existential hero whose buildings belong to him and not his clients and who would even dynamite his own work if its integrity of vision was violated. In all of literature there is no more arresting portrayal of the architect: the exalted form-giver who recognizes no law but his own titanic force of will.

All these outrageously contradictory portraits are equally valid—such is the paradox of the architectural profession. It is indeed true that the architect is the advocate of the client who engages him, whose best interests he represents as would a doctor or lawyer. And it is just as true that every building is an individual artistic statement. Just as a handwritten signature is the work of a single human hand, so the contours, masses, and volumes of a building must be shaped by a controlling artistic intelligence; it cannot help but express the personality of its creator, although few are as arrogant as Roark. And yet Vitruvius too is correct to recognize that architecture has a civic dimension, that it is the essential civic art. “Moral philosophy” is not out of place in an architect’s tool kit if one recognizes how profoundly the spaces and facades of buildings affect our public life.

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The Professions and Civic Culture

This project explores the role of specific professions in a modern, liberal democratic society and their effect on the civic culture of the nation. Each essay analyzes and comments on a profession and its impact on the character and quality of American citizenship today. Among the questions we will address are:

  • What is distinctive (or not) about the specific profession as it came to be practiced in the United States?
  • Given the specialized knowledge, training, and sometimes licensing of a profession, what do the professions perceive to be their role in promoting the larger common good? Is that perspective adequate? If not, what might its shortfalls be and how might one develop a corrective for those shortfalls?
  • How can we bring professionals’ expert knowledge to bear on social problems in an open and deliberative way?
  • Is the “ethic” of a particular profession at odds with the American conception of self-government and/or a healthy civic life?
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Washington: The Classical City

Last June, the Program on American Citizenship teamed with the National Civic Art Society to present a panel discussion on the important role that memorials play in civic life, using the recent controversies over the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the proposed Eisenhower Memorial to guide the conversation. You can watch the full discussion between panelists Michael J. Lewis (Williams College), Roger Scruton (AEI), Bruce Cole (Hudson Institute) and Diana Schaub (Loyola University Maryland) here. In the January 17th issue of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, the National Civic Art Society continued the conversation.

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Doing right by Ike

In the last few weeks, The Weekly Standard has published two articles discussing Dwight D. Eisenhower and the proposed memorial in honor of him, designed by architect Frank Gehry.

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Monumental Fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life

Over the past year, the recently dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial and the planned Eisenhower Memorial have renewed controversy about the meaning and purpose of public memorials. What do America’s memorials and monuments tell us about our nation and our identity as citizens? How should we memorialize past events and individuals?

At an event on Friday, May 18, 2012, that was co-sponsored by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship and theNational Civic Art Society, a distinguished panel discussed the important role of public memorials in civic life, using the recent controversies over the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial and the proposed Eisenhower Memorial to guide the conversation.

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Eisenhower memorial criticism all around

As criticism of the proposed memorial has grown, so too have attacks on the critics. Writing in the Architectural Record about the Program’s recent event on memorials, Ben Adler characterized the monument’s critics as simply conservative “curmudgeons” who will “always revile Modernism for both ideological and aesthetic reasons.”

Responding to Adler in the same journal, the Program’s Gary Schmitt and Cheryl Miller write, “In defending architectural Modernism, Adler falls into the very trap he warns against.”

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Event re-cap: Monumental Fights


Missed Friday’s discussion on “Monumental fights: The role of memorials in civic life”? Don’t worry–you can watch the video of the event here, read about it it in the Washington Examiner, or check out our event re-cap.

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The problems with Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial

In our preparation for May 18’s discussion panel at AEI on “Monumental Fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life” (register at the link), we bring you another essay by a panel participant discussing the importance of proper memorials to honor our great statesmen. In this selection from First Things, Eric Wind and Erik Bootsma, both of the National Civic Art Society (with whom we are co-sponsoring the event), raise concerns about Frank Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial and the way the design process was conducted.

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The Decline of American Monuments

As we look forward to our May 18 discussion panel on “Monumental Fights: The Role of Memorials in Civic Life” (register at the link) with the National Civic Art Society, we will be showcasing essays on the subject to help us prepare for the discussion. Today’s selection is by panelist and Williams College professor of art Michael J. Lewis, who writes on “The Decline of American Monuments and Memorials” in this month’s Imprimis.

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Upcoming event: Monumental Fights

Over the past year, the recently dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Memorial and the planned Eisenhower Memorial have renewed controversy about the meaning and purpose of public memorials. What do America’s memorials and monuments tell us about our nation and our identity as citizens? How should we memorialize past events and individuals? In this event, co-sponsored by the Program on American Citizenship and the National Civic Art Society, a distinguished panel will address these questions and comment on the MLK and Eisenhower memorials.

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Sizing Up America’s Memorials

Joining a long line of criticism of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial–finally dedicated a couple of weeks ago after Hurricane Irene delayed the ceremony–Jack Carlson (Clarendon Scholar at Oxford University) and Eric Wind (National Civic Art Society) have penned another critique of the monument. Writing in the American Thinker, the duo go beyond most other criticism (which tends to focus on the poor execution and lack of realism of the monument) and argue that one reason the memorial fails is its complete break from Classical antiquity: “for the idea of a ‘monument’ (from the Latin monumentum) as it has come to us, and in the built environment of Washington, DC, in particular, is classical.”

“It is not closed-mindedness,” they continue, “that compels us to suggest that the King and Eisenhower Memorial designs are inapt: the tradition of public contribution followed by public recognition in this way was virtually unique to ancient Greece and Rome, and it is bound up inextricably with our own nation’s architectural, political and cultural heritage. It is this tradition that we have received, and the classical idiom remains the lexis by which we are able to engage with honorific monuments…The hallowed built environment of our National Mall mirrors our nation’s heritage, history and highest ambitions.”

Carlson and Wind don’t mention that one of the most popular memorials on the National Mall is the decidedly anti-Classicist Vietnam War Memorial. However, they are right to point out that a thoughtful discussion is in order about what, exactly, the purpose of memorializing events and people is–and whether a link to or bifurcation of our shared past is necessary to properly memorialize anything. In a thoughtful article in Commentary in 2001 (when it was the World War II Memorial that was attracting all the controversy), Michael J. Lewis made a similar point.

In discussing the flurry of (disappointing) memorials that were built after the success of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Wall, Lewis identifies the problem somewhat differently than Carlson and Wind–as a failure to think allegorically:

The fear of leaving someone or something out is hostile to the allegorical impulse, which seeks not to itemize but to generalize, and to speak not specific truths but great truths. Without allegory, however, it is difficult to make a memorial truly monumental.

At first glance, this critique (levied mainly at the  FDR  monument) seems at odds with many of those of the MLK Memorial: the latter, it is argued, is too metaphorical, showing a poor resemblance of the civil-rights leader emerging from a giant rock (the “Stone of Hope”)–itself cut from the “Mountain of Despair”–with arms folded, in a Socialist Realist style.

This would be missing the point. Carlson and Wind–and Lewis–aren’t arguing for allegory-for-its-own-sake, but rather for an allegorical connection to something real: like the actual Martin Luther King, Jr., or our shared past of looking to antiquity for wisdom. Indeed, as Lewis writes, “in some cases, it must be said, no allegory at all would have been preferable to the simplistic and hackneyed symbolism with which we are confronted.” Here, Lewis is talking about the Korean War Memorial, but the criticism could just as easily apply to the MLK statue.

This, in fact, shows precisely why the Vietnam War Memorial is so successful: its allegory was real and exceptional. Its minimalist restraint, its unfamiliar and unsettling form, its polished black granite that disappeared on either end into the earth was, in Lewis’s words, “the war itself, overwhelming and incomprehensible.” The Wall fits and describes its subject in a way that the MLK memorial simply doesn’t do.

The next memorial to be built on our National Mall, for Dwight D. Eisenhower, is planned to consist of a modernist collection of 80-foot-tall concrete columns and stainless steel mesh screens. Wind’s National Civic Art Society has opposed this design and has hosted a competition for a counter-proposal using more Classical elements. Regardless of what the Memorial turns out to be, Carlson and Wind and others should be complimented for their efforts to spark a conversation about how we as a nation want to commemorate and memorialize our national heroes.

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Projects

In 2010, AEI launched a major new initiative, the Program on American Citizenship, dedicated to strengthening the foundations of American freedom and self-government by renewing our understanding of American citizenship. The ultimate goal of the Program is to deepen Americans’ appreciation for and attachment to those principles that are necessary to keep the United States […]

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