‘Deconstruct’ the Eisenhower memorial committee

Dwight D. Eisenhower was as elementary to our lives as the five-star highways are today. He was a man like Ulysses S. Grant and Lord Nelson, but he did not strive to be. Hear Nelson declaring that England demands that every man will do his duty. Read Grant’s memoirs; he was as formidable a figure on the page as he was in the field of battle. But perhaps the greatest tribute to Eisenhower is that iconic photograph of him talking to the soldiers about to enter battle in Normandy. The photo speaks to American purpose and determination. What was he talking about? A tour of the Capitol will explain that he was talking about fly-fishing. And that is the honorable riddle behind Ike. Behind the general was always the man. The general was not an artifice apart. The general and the man were the same. But Susan Eisenhower is right in her criticism of the Frank Gehry design of the Eisenhower memorial, which includes a gigundous bas relief of the famous photo. Presented this way, it looks like something out of Stalingrad.

Gehry’s buildings always look like they are falling apart or blowing up or the ship is sinking. He speaks to the times and our times are not the times of Grant, Nelson or Eisenhower. Ours are the times of Charlie Sheehan, Lady Gaga and Bart Simpson. And appropriately, Gehry has had his moment immortalized on “The Simpsons.” Ours is an age of falling apart.

Gehry’s ideas are all old pre-war European-based ideas that can be seen reflected in Dada, Duchamp and Picasso. Virtually every piece of work in the Gehry oeuvre seems to default back specifically to one painting, “Nude Descending a Staircase” by Marcel Duchamp, done in 1912. That age rose to mastery when it shifted from the nihilism of Dada to transcendence with André Breton’s small, visionary sanga of Surrealists. Breton and his artists came to understand the difference. But they never got the memo at the American university in the post-war period, and defaulted back to nihilism.

Artists of the Gehry culture or geist tend to be Europeanists. They tend to see the long, slow death of Europe in what Raymond Aron called “the century of total war” and translate it to America. But America did not die with Europe in 1917 or 1946, and incidentally, neither did England. Were these issues discussed by the Eisenhower memorial committee? Because this is a legitimate point of view academically (call it institutionalized Dada), but for a government monument committee to chose Gehry, who speaks to the unraveling, would be the very worst choice to convey Eisenhower.

Eisenhower built the roads for Jack Kerouac and company and awakened America after the fall of Europe. It doesn’t matter what they do in academic culture. But Washington must understand that America is not Europe.

If the Eisenhower committee could just wait a few minutes and start again, say, next year, for there are strong indications the age is turning and the new century is about to start. The falling apart is ending and the awakening and building will soon begin again. Gehry is the perfect choice for the waning times and the end of the last century. He is essentially fin de siècle. But Eisenhower, like Grant and Nelson, is the one who comes next. We seek him out to fight our way back after we have broken everything, and we are still in the midst of the breakage.