VAN NATTA: Modern Art and the West’s Decline


Friday, March 3, 2023

There is no better indication of a civilization’s health than the art it produces. Beauty and aesthetics are often disregarded today, but they are necessary for a flourishing nation. A culture begins its steady decline when beauty becomes an afterthought and classical buildings are replaced with concrete slabs. Sculptors once transformed stone into silk, but now they create monstrosities that glorify vice. Modern art is corrosive to the soul and a blot on our cities, but the West’s decline can be reversed with a return to beautiful art.

When I traveled to Washington D.C., I was struck by the symmetry and the simplistic beauty of the federal buildings, particularly the US Capitol. The architecture of the US Capitol Building is neoclassical, which emulates the style popular in ancient Greece and Rome, including the “use of tall columns, symmetrical shapes, triangular pediments and domed roofs.” Thomas Jefferson desired for Congress to convene in a “spherical” model of a Roman temple. The US Supreme Court is also a breathtaking example of neoclassical architecture. Cass Gilbert, the architect, based the building on a “classical Roman temple.” The temple has marble Corinthian columns and elaborate carvings.

Neoclassical architecture is not only pleasing to the public eye but it is overwhelmingly popular. A 2020 study by the National Civic Art Society discovered that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, preferred classicism to modernism. Architecture serves the public good and architects should not have free reign in the design of American buildings. Modernist architects revolted against President Trump’s executive order—Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture—which mandated federal buildings in Washington D.C. conform to classical architectural styles. Upon entering office, President Biden repealed the executive order. Voices such as Robert Ivy, head of the American Institute of Architects, opposed the order on the grounds that classical architecture does not meet the needs of modern buildings. “To try to force-fit new systems in old forms is, in of itself difficult to do, inefficient, and is not who we are today,” he said.

While modernists argue neoclassical architecture does not reflect the needs of the modern era, they are forgetting that the main purpose of a public building is to serve the common good. Whether it is the Capitol Building, the US Supreme Court, or the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, traditional architecture is objectively beautiful. Depressing brutalist structures and futuristic glass buildings are eyesores and do not embody the founding values of our republic. As Senator Mike Lee noted, as Washington’s architecture degraded, so too did our government. The classical style of the Treasury Department, built in 1842, starkly contrasts with the bland, domineering block of concrete that is the Department of Health and Human Services, which was constructed more than a century later.

It is not just architecture that has been cast into the wasteland of modernity. Public art is created without any regard for the laws of aesthetics. In fact, modern art outright rejects beauty (an implicit statement against objective truth). Two works come to mind: Boston’s Martin Luther King Jr. statue, titled The Embrace, and New York City’s abortion rights statue in honor of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Embrace was created to show MLK hugging his wife after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The artwork was ridiculed across the board for its ugliness. The hovering arms—detached from a body—embrace each other in a rather unsettling fashion. The tragic part about the statue is that the detail in the hands is evidence of artistic talent. But the minimal creativity is dwarfed by the overall grotesqueness of the statue. As James Stevens Curl in The American Conservative notes, “Modernism became the medium by which anything could be justified and passed off as ‘art’ …”  Modernity takes the creative aspirations of artists and crushes them by demanding universal ugliness.

The Embrace, no matter how unappealing, is unparalleled in repulsiveness when compared to one NYC Courthouse’s newest addition. An eight-foot-tall golden statue adorned with coiled horns and tentacles for arms was unveiled in January. Titled NOW, the statue commemorates Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “fight for abortion rights.” The creator of the statue, Shahzia Sikander, named it NOW because the right to abortion is under attack “now.” Sikander’s creation is uglier than The Embrace not only because it pays tribute to an abhorrent practice, but because it glorifies worship of the self.

Art reflects the values of its respective civilization, and modern art conveys that America needs to reverse course or else abandon the values that undergird Western Civilization. But while art reflects culture, it also has the power to shape it. Those who favor beauty should not dismiss the arts and should instead create and invest in alternatives to modernism. Artists are the future, and their talents should be harnessed for promoting that which is good, true, and beautiful.   

Erin is a college senior pursuing journalism and writing. She enjoys reading, art, and listening to podcasts about politics. She can be found walking her golden retriever, Gus.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Erin Van Natta

Erin is a college senior pursuing journalism and writing. She enjoys reading, art, and listening to podcasts about politics. She can be found walking her golden retriever, Gus.

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