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Beauty Over Utility

In his 2009 documentary “the late Roger Scruton said, “If you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless. . .. Nobody has a use for it because nobody wants to be in it.” A myopic vision toward utility alone seems to be a crime in itself when considering architectural art. The only greater aesthetic crime than this is a utilitarian attitude toward those buildings that must be used, specifically those structures that serve our federal civic institutions.

When distasteful architecture is introduced in the realm of civil society or the marketplace, offended souls can abandon it in the pursuit of more uplifting manifestations of human creativity. Government buildings, on the other hand, remain standing through years of jeering and nostalgic references to an era of bygone refinement.

One of the Donald Trump administration’s final wishes was clarified in President Trump’s executive order signed on December 21, 2020, on promoting beautiful federal civic architecture. In the document, the president refers back to the architectural ideals of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and then, in much more detail, the aesthetic sensibilities of the Founding Fathers.

This call to construct federal civic architecture with a more classical mindset was simultaneously a call to more broadly refocus the federal government’s attention on human persons and the communities that band them together. The document states that the newly constructed federal buildings should “uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, command respect from the general public, and, as appropriate, respect the architectural heritage of a region.” An enumeration of these ideals reengages the true object of art — that is, beauty and the primary observers of this beauty or, in other words, the human person.

If, then, these buildings are constructed to serve the human person, why should utility be considered of lesser worth than abstract and unquantifiable concepts such as beauty? We are, after all, beings attentive and responsive to the usefulness of things and their quantifiable value. It seems that Scruton and other thinkers like him are not completely dismissive of utility but are rather hesitant to assign it a position of preeminent importance.

The projects of rigid brutalism and distorted deconstructivism were such sore developments in the progression of artistic movements because they ripped the human person out of the equation. The questions that asked, “Does this image lift the soul up to God?” and “Will this shape inspire or confuse?” were replaced with effete interpretations of artistic creativity that most people could never, and would never care to, comprehend.

The schools from which our federally contracted artists seek their inspiration is essential to the life of our towns and cities. These pieces of art are manifestations of humanity because they suggest a gratitude and enthusiasm for the gift of creativity that God has given each of us. Man’s frequent self-reference as a being made in the “image of God” is pertinent here because God’s loving act of making man in His own image indicates what man does and should do when he loves something: make an image of it. When an artist has completed his work, the art and artist have become two distinct but mutually fulfilling realities. The artist and that which he loves are both present simultaneously, and the art is a certain reflection of the artist.

The art, then, is made present to be observed by the beings made for observation. In this way, the artist participates in a gift of himself through his art to the people for whom he intentionally or unintentionally made it. Those structures that last, such as the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and the Taj Mahal, are brought into being by artists motivated to give of themselves for the people and accepted by those same people for their common enrichment. It’s difficult for this project to succeed when artistic schools serve as an eccentric barrier between artist and observer instead of an unblemished mirror between the observer’s eyes and the artist’s impulse to create.

Far from a partisan political move or the establishment of technical legal reforms, this executive order finds its strength as a formal indication of a shifting culture among the body politic. Our federal buildings serve as physical manifestations of our national pride, and the structures themselves, beyond mere utility, should reflect the strength of our nation and the spirit of its people.