Who Wants to MFBBA?

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As widely reported in the liberal media, somebody in the Trump White House is worried about architecture.

The leading journal in its field, Architectural Record, has obtained a draft of a Trump Executive Order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” (MFBBA for short).

The document calls for the creation of a “President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture,” which would aim to integrate “our national values into Federal buildings,” by mandating the classical style of democratic Athens and republican Rome on new and upgraded Federal buildings, and prohibiting modernist styles.

The Chicago Sun-Times, which published the Order in its entirety, condemned it as “the stuff of authoritarian regimes, which always distrust the new and unexpected. It doesn’t go unnoticed here that Mussolini, Franco and a particular failed German art student all pushed for a singular, classically inspired state architecture intended to project tradition, order and the superiority of the state.”

The document also fits nicely into the anti-rock & roll genre of the 1950s. Like the preachers and other moralists who knew which music teenagers truly wanted to hear, the anonymous critic-in-residence complains that “the Federal Government has largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.” Many of the buildings are “just plain ugly,” the expert profoundly adds.

My guess is that the mystery author is a disciple of Allan Bloom, whose 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind became a #1 bestseller by condemning modern American art as decadent. “Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such tableaux,” Bloom wrote. To which Frank Zappa replied: “This is not a noble, delicate, sublime country. This is a mess run by criminals.”

Hair Furor would no doubt relish the role of architect-in-chief, but classicism obviously isn’t his style. As the Record notes, “Trump’s taste in architecture tended to the glass and steel of modernism, albeit in an often glitzy style,” such as when he turned Manhattan’s Gulf & Western Building into a “skyscraper decked out in a gold lamé party dress.” So it seems unlikely he would sign the decree unless it is revised to suit his hideous taste.

One can’t help but wonder what Trump’s arch-enemies in the Deep State think of MFBBA, considering the CIA’s historical connection to modern art. In the early years of the Cold War, the Agency hatched a plot to use modernism as a weapon against the Commies, using Abstract Expressionist painting as the primary weapon of choice. (The pioneering study is Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.)

Saunders explains: “Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.”

She also quotes former CIA officer Tom Braden, who ran the program. “We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union.” (Too bad it didn’t occur to the CIA that not overthrowing democratic governments would have also been a good way to demonstrate America’s devotion to freedom.)

While the CIA was covertly funding our avant-garde, the U.S. Army was also trying to fight the Cold War with art, but it concluded that modernism was the wrong weapon.

As Nicolas Slonimsky first reported in his book Lexicon of Musical Invective (a treasury of “critical assaults on composers since Beethoven’s time”), the Army in 1955 commissioned a secret study titled “Communist Vulnerability to the Use of Music in Psychological Warfare.” It advised that we should take advantage of the “failure of the Communist-approved musical diet to wholly satisfy” its listeners. The study warned: “Modern Western music of the dissonant or radical type — among both jazz and art repertories — is liable to evoke a confused or adverse response,” and therefore “should not be used.”

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