Justin Shubow - A Monumental Fight: The Eisenhower Memorial and America's Historical Memory
A Monumental Fight: The Eisenhower Memorial and America’s Historical Memory
Presented by Mr. Justin Shubow, Chairman of the National Civic Art Society
The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society     February 1, 2013

     Mr. Justin Shubow gave a presentation to the Society entitled “A Monumental Fight.” This presentation first focused on civic art, monuments, and memorials, as well as their place in—and as visual representations of—society. Mr. Shubow explored the conceptual differences between monuments and memorials, saying that a monument is a form of civic art that calls us to reflect on what we value. Monuments, usually featuring “larger than life” heroic-sized statues made from non-industrial material, are honorary and permanent. In contrast, memorials do not have to be structures per se, nor do they have to be heroic in size; a simple plaque may serve as a memorial. Mr. Shubow went on to question when these structures should achieve, answering that these types of civic art are the “embodiment of a civilization” and “the mirror in which society sees itself.” Because memorials are necessarily political, in that they serve as societal commentary, Mr. Shubow acknowledged that the design of many memorials, including sites that we now hold dear in our national memory, was at first controversial.

     Mr. Shubow then applied these concepts to the debate over the current design of the Eisenhower Memorial. Congress authorized the memorial, eventually designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, in 1999. The current plan as yet unstarted memorial features large columns supporting a steel tapestry. Perhaps following an “object in a temple” construction, Gehry places a set of statues in the center of the site. Originally, the design called for a statue of Dwight Eisenhower as a child, entitled “Dreams of a Barefoot Boy.” Mr. Shubow took great issue with this statue, calling it a travesty, and noting that a child Eisenhower would not be recognizable in photos, and—on a more fundamental level—would not yet be the man that the memorial intends to honor. He called the proposed statue “subversive of the very purpose of a memorial,” and the project inhuman, perhaps even antihuman in scope and scale. Mr. Shubow also believed the maintenance of the experimental technology of a steel tapestry to be an issue, and recalled that memorials are typically made out of non-industrial materials to signify respect for the memorial’s honoree.

     Justin Shubow shared the results of a counter design competition sponsored by The National Civic Art Society, and ended his talk by questioning the ability of governmental leaders to stand up to “experts,” in this case experts that applauded Gehry’s design and style instead of questioning such an ostentatious proposition of a simple, traditional, and classical man. Mr. Shubow reminded the audience that civic architecture can be thought of as the bellweather of a civilization, and that we should be considerate of what we let represent our society not only to others, but also to ourselves.