This was a week when blogging-as-usual struck me as irredeemably frivolous. Trying to promulgate commentary about art and the artworld seemed fatuous, at a time when our nation’s adherence to the rule of law, reason and humane values (and even its very existence) seemed at stake.
Shell shocked and blocked, I found unexpected inspiration to continue my life as CultureGrrl from a spiritual source—my synagogue’s Rabbi. In an email titled, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It”—a phrase that kept occurring to me (and others) on Wednesday as we watched the horrific attacks on our Republic—Rabbi Jordan Millstein yesterday invited his congregants to join “a vigil on Zoom [which I attended], as we respond to yesterday’s attack on the Capitol with prayers for peace and healing.”
Rabbi Millstein’s remark about the art in the Capitol rotunda is what renewed my desire to write. At the conclusion of his email to us, he wrote this:
As I was watching the chaos that enveloped the Capitol yesterday, there was one moment that struck me as particularly ironic: The TV camera showed the mob inside the Capitol rotunda. They were completely oblivious to the fact that behind them was the giant painting by John Trumbull depicting the scene of General George Washington Resigning His Commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 [one of four revolutionary period scenes in the Capitol Rotunda].
It was the moment Washington established the model of leadership that continues to be the foundation of our democracy. Leaders are elected. They lead. Then they leave and hand the reigns [I think he meant, “the reins,” but “reigns” is a nice double entendre] to the next elected leader. This is what makes America great.
This made me wonder about the condition of the art and architecture in the ransacked “People’s House.” For an informed assessment, I turned to the Capitol’s Office of the Architect, now headed by J. Brett Blanton, who must navigate through this crisis after assuming his post barely a year ago. (Is this what Rudy Giuliani meant by “trial by combat”?)
Blanton’s responsibilities as Architect of the Capitol (AOC) include overseeing the care and preservation of the Capitol’s more than 300 works of art, architectural elements and landscape features.
Here’s what his press spokesperson told me today about what is being done in the wake of the mayhem:
Once cleared to inspect the building by security personnel, multiple Architect of the Capitol damage assessment teams were dispatched to evaluate and document the damage.
Our initial assessment is that most of the damage on the interior and envelope of the building is limited to broken glass, broken doors and graffiti. On the West Front, the teams identified graffiti on the building near the Inaugural Stands and two broken Olmsted light fixtures. There was also significant amounts of trash and debris. Statues, murals, historic benches and original shutters all suffered varying degrees of damage—primarily from pepper spray accretions and residue from tear gas and fire extinguishers—that will require cleaning and conservation.
[According to an early report in the NY Times, “a bust of former President Zachary Taylor was defaced with a red substance that appeared to be blood.”]
Over the years, the AOC has assembled a team of highly specialized professionals to treat and maintain the Capitol’s historic fabric and artworks. In the coming weeks and months, we will be addressing repair needs throughout the building to ensure that the Capitol will continue to appropriately inspire future generations.
Here are Blanton’s personal reflections about this unprecedented moment in the Capitol’s history:
As the Architect of the Capitol’s mission calls us to serve, preserve and inspire, it was particularly hard to watch the scene unfold.
Our staff showed exemplary professionalism during such a stressful time. Many employees worked through the night to clean up and begin repair work. Our teams have started carefully assessing the damage to the historic building and grounds. AOC employees have already served above and beyond throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and now we must continue to meet our mission in the days and months ahead as we support this clean-up and prepare for the upcoming presidential inauguration.
Since becoming Architect of the Capitol almost one year ago, I have continually been impressed and inspired by the great work of my colleagues. I’m proud to serve with each of them as we ensure future generations have the opportunity to appropriately experience the U.S. Capitol.”
Not addressed by the AOC (although I asked) is how much the repairs to the battered building and restoration of its objects are estimated to cost the taxpayers. The cost to our national psyche from this profoundly troubling incident is inestimable.
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