On the Ideals of Art

In observance of our 400th post here, together with the anniversary this week of Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 Address before the 400 delegates gathered together from the American Federation of Arts and the American Association of Museums, we will offer some especially cogent highlights from the speech. These excerpts illustrate what Coolidge thought of art and that what gave it value and meaning resides in its revelation of reality, truth, and beauty. Here are some of my favorite gems from a little known, oft overlooked but insightful message from President Calvin Coolidge:

“While we have been devoted to the development of our material resources, as a nation ought to be which heeds the admonition to be diligent at business, we have not been neglectful of the higher things of life. In fact, I believe it can be demonstrated that the intellectual and moral awakening which characterized our people in their early experiences was the fore-runner and foundation of the remarkable era of development in which we now live. But in the midst of all the swift-moving events, we have an increasing need for inspiration. Men and women become conscious that they must seek for satisfaction in something more than worldly success. They are moved with a desire to rise above themselves. It is but natural, therefore, that we should turn to the field of art…

“…[I]n a wider sense, the arts include all those manifestations of beauty created by man which broaden and enrich life. It is an attempt to transfer to others the highest and best thoughts which the race has experienced. The self-expression which it makes possible rises into the realm of the divine.” Not everything is art or artistic, Coolidge knew, and though beauty may be in the eye of the beholder it is real art to conceive and design something that broadens and enriches life, that serves as a vessel to bequeath the “highest and best thoughts” mankind has known. That inspiring standard is simply missing from much of what is now sponsored as great, modern art.

A night snapshot of "White City" with its famous tower, a landmark visible up to fifteen miles away. In his mention of this turn-of-the-century amusement park, Coolidge lauds one very specific quality of that site: the inspiration it fostered in those "who had the good fortune to visit it" of a desire to beautify surroundings nation-wide. Coolidge was keenly aware that many had never been there and yet, as with so many things, Coolidge appealed to ideals, to what could and should be, not merely settling for what is.

A night snapshot of “White City” with its famous tower. The tower was a landmark visible up to fifteen miles away. In his mention of this turn-of-the-century amusement park, Coolidge lauds one very specific quality of that site: the inspiration it fostered in those “who had the good fortune to visit it” of a desire to beautify surroundings nation-wide. Coolidge was keenly aware that circumstances had not always been peaceful in and around White City and many had never been there — yet, as with so many things, Coolidge appealed to higher ideals, to what could and should be, to the potential each individual possesses instead of an acceptance of what is now.

Emerging out of the struggle to survive during the first half of the nineteenth century and then to build the country, America turned to the mastery of architecture. Coolidge recounts the great names whose mark remains in the lines and form of Henry H. Richardson’s work, Trinity Church in Boston, the labors of Stanford White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the resplendence of the White City in south Chicago, the ornate grandeur of the murals at the Library of Congress and the majestic redesign of Washington’s public buildings making it, as even Coolidge envisioned, “the most beautiful capital in the world.”

Trinity Church, Boston, as it appears today.

Trinity Church, Boston, as it appears today.

Born in Louisiana, Henry H. Richardson would become a legendary designer of Northern landmarks, ushering in his own Romanesque style to what he created and standing as one of the foremost influences on American architectural designs.

Born in Louisiana, Henry H. Richardson would become a legendary designer of many a Northern landmark, ushering in his own Romanesque style and standing as one of the foremost influences on American architectural designs.

It was not only in creating great art, however, that service to nobler principles is rendered, it is also in the preservation and availability afforded by museums that people can find “the development of an artistic sense” as well as “the love of the beautiful.” Coolidge ushers us to the expansive outdoors in full appreciation for the unsurpassed natural canvas within our reach. “Encouragement and aid have been given in the establishment of new museums, particularly those of the small-community type. To furnish facilities for nature study and to enhance the enjoyment of life out of doors, museums have been started in our National and State parks. Whatever may be done to increase museum facilities and to render their collections of more use to mankind as a most valuable service…deserves every encouragement.”

The profile of Stanford White's Madison Square Garden stand against the skyline, beside the Clock Tower (right), in this photograph from 1923. It was the second tallest building in New York City in its time.

The profile of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden stand against the skyline, left of the Clock Tower (at right), in this photograph from 1923. It was the second tallest building in New York City in its time.

Here is the very controversial statue of Diana the huntress at the pinnacle of the Madison Square Gardens' tower. It was designed by none other than the great Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Concerns over the modesty (or lack thereof) of the design caused quite an uproar for many years. A cloth was manufactured to cover the statue but it soon blew away. Interestingly, Diana now resides with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, given in 1932 by the owners of the old Garden location, New York Life Insurance Company.

Here is the very controversial statue of Diana the huntress standing at the pinnacle of the Madison Square Gardens’ tower. It was designed by none other than the great Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Concerns over the modesty (or lack thereof) of the design caused quite an uproar for many years. A cloth was actually manufactured to cover the statue but it soon blew away. Interestingly, Diana now resides with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, given in 1932 by the owners of the old Garden location, New York Life Insurance Company.

For Coolidge, the importance of art was not merely its aesthetic qualities but its practical role in improving our lives and the places around us. It meant getting out of the stifling office and back to the woods, the hills and plains, steams and lakes of our country. It meant getting back outside, reconnecting with reality and regaining the unique perspective time in nature can alone provide. “If clothes make the man – and certainly good dress gives one a sense of self-respect and poise – how much more is it true that clean, beautiful surroundings lend a moral tone to a community.” Consequently, without a single government program or legislative package, the “squalor of the slums of our big cities and…the oppressive ugliness of some of the small towns” began going away during the 1920s, a point Coolidge praised. Economic growth encouraged by Coolidge’s tax and budgetary cutting helped, of course, but so did his repeated admonitions to take stock of spiritual things, cultivating our moral power above and beyond our material success. After all, it was the strength of the soul and the resilience of the family that made the home stand, not the steel and concrete or bricks and mortar of a building, however impressive on the outside.

A view up the stairs in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress

A view up the stairs in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress

Looking up at the Dome of the Library of Congress, featuring the "Evolution of Civilizations" mural

Looking up at the Dome of the Library of Congress, featuring the “Evolution of Civilizations” mural

Senator James McMillan

Senator James McMillan

Envisioned by Mcmillan to convey the dignity and grandeur of our Republic, embodied in its traditions and institutions, what became known as the "Federal Triangle" had been advocated for many years before the 1920s. It would be largely through the vision and persistence of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (including no insignificant part by Coolidge himself) who would see it realized in the 1930s.

Envisioned by Mcmillan and his commission to convey the dignity and grandeur of our Republic, as embodied in its traditions and institutions, the “Federal Triangle” project had been advocated for many years before the 1920s. It would be largely through the sacrifice and persistence of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (including no insignificant part by Coolidge himself) that it would finally see completion in 1938.

The incomparable Frederick L. Olmstead left a profound mark on landscape architecture in America, from New York's Central Park to the design of the Capitol grounds in Washington to the Bok Tower and Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida. He, more than any other of his time, underscored the enduring importance of renewing again our appreciation for and connection to America's natural beauty.

The incomparable Frederick L. Olmstead left a profound mark on landscape architecture in America, from New York’s Central Park to the design of the Capitol grounds in Washington and, through sons John and Frederick Jr., from the Chicago World’s Fair to the Bok Tower and Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida. He, more than any other designer of his time, underscored the enduring importance of what Coolidge emphasizes in this speech: renewing again our appreciation for and connection to America’s natural beauty.

Art was something more to him than a mere abstraction, it was a reflection of the soul, a diagnosis of the spirit, nationally and individually. This is why caring about genuine beauty and truth had a larger significance than the artifacts in a museum gallery. “It is especially the practical side of art that requires more emphasis. We need to put more effort into translating art into the daily life of the people. If we could surround ourselves with forms of beauty, the evil things of life would tend to disappear and our moral standards would be raised. Through our contact with the beautiful we see more of the truth and are brought into closer harmony with the infinite.”

Coolidge present for the bi-annual meeting of the American Antiquarian Society, this time held outside Academy of Arts and Sciences, 28 Newbury Street, April 15, 1931.

Coolidge present for the bi-annual meeting of the American Antiquarian Society, this time held outside Academy of Arts and Sciences, 28 Newbury Street, April 15, 1931.

Chapter One of Calvin Coolidge’s Autobiography

Chapter One of Calvin Coolidge’s Autobiography

Read by the new Program and Editorial Associate of the Coolidge Foundation, Rushad Thomas, here is the first installment of the finest Presidential memoirs ever written. It is aptly suited for reading, written as it was for child and adult alike. Listen carefully, take time to reflect on the observations and insights offered and be ready to learn from one of the wisest and most underestimated of our Presidents.

Calvin at age 3, 1875-76

Calvin at age 3, 1875-76. This was the year his grandfather carried him the to the Vermont State House in Montpelier. When little Calvin reached for the gavel, it was time to leave. Little could anyone suspect that the authority of a presiding officer would loom large in his future (The Autobiography p.18).

On Arizona

AZ Stone Memorial 4-15-24

Tomorrow, April 15, will mark the ninetieth anniversary of the dedication by President Calvin Coolidge of Arizona’s distinctive state stone into the internal walls of the Washington Monument in 1924. Despite being the last of the 48 to join what Coolidge called the “family” of states, the President knew Arizona would not be the last. In his vision of the future, Arizona, like all of America’s states, carried boundless potential and would reach into vast horizons of great achievement.

“It was a fine conception, this, of placing a stone for every State in the Monument to Washington. Who among us will venture to guess how many more times this ceremony will be performed?” He would venture that guess, “…I think we may almost say the assurance, that before many more years our successors will gather here again and once more survey the wonder of American development, as they dedicate the stone of the 49th State. After that, the story of the States will be written by the finger of destiny on the scroll of a long future. It is not for us to know what that story may be. I hope it can be of duty done to the world, but without aggrandizement, without imperialism…”

“I have thought of today’s ceremony as a sort of home gathering of the States, in honor of the coming of age of the youngest member of the family. It is Arizona’s day, and to Arizona we bring our congratulations, our tributes, our affection and our good wishes for her future…It is to this Arizona of tomorrow, to this greater Southwest which the not distant future will know, as we cannot yet fully conceive it, that we today extend the hand of welcome. We dedicated its stone in this national Monument…yet it is only one of the 48 imperial communities which make up our Nation, in which the people hold the proud distinction of being at once citizens and sovereigns.”

Coolidge identified the significance of this dedication not merely as another occasion to deliver a speech or appeal to mundane platitudes but as an opportunity to consider the importance of each state in our political system, celebrating the principle of local self-governance and the strength each state contributes to the soundness of the whole structure. Coolidge reminds us that an all-encompassing, all-consuming National Government is not an indicator of health and well-being, but rather stems from the failure of that most crucial pillar of local governance. If the people, through their States, abdicate the responsibility to manage their own affairs and make their own decisions, they become suppliant supplicants to Washington, and hasten the collapse of the entire structure.

“This occasion has its important and impressive symbolism. Just as this stone and its associates when joined together make a new and altogether different structure than is represented by each standing alone, so the joining of the States makes a new and different political structure.” Just as each stone had to retain its solidity to sustain the Monument, “so in our Nation each State must remain intact, or the political edifice falls.”

Composed of three petrified logs from the Chalcedony Forest in Holbrook, Arizona, the 2 x 4 foot stone rests oat the 320-foot level of the interior wall in the Washington Monument.

Composed of three petrified logs from the Chalcedony Forest in Holbrook, Arizona, the 2 x 4-foot stone rests at the 320-foot level of the interior wall in the Washington Monument.

As Coolidge stood beside Arizona’s striking contribution to the Monument honoring Washington, he understood that “two policies must always be supported. First, local self-government had to continue persisting not simply as a slogan or motto but “in harmony with the needs of each State. This means that in general the States should not surrender, but retain their sovereignty, and keep control of their own government.” The one-size-fits-all “democracy” enforced from a given Federal agency, office or bureau destroys this powerful role each State possesses. If the States lose control of their own sphere of obligations, it only enables the National Government to assert itself with even more inept and reckless results. Still, Coolidge understood that our system did not succeed with a rejection of all government for libertarianism. As he continues, what he would outline next was as equally indispensable for the future of America’s States as the first policy. Second, local sentiments must be a reflection of a “nation-wide public opinion. Each State must shape its course to conform to the generally accepted sanctions of society and to the needs of the Nation. It must protect the health and provide for the education of its own citizens. The policy is already well recognized in the association of the States for the promotion and adoption of uniform laws.” If the States deviated too far from the moral aims and cultural norms of the country as a whole, it would lead to the disregard and impotence of law everywhere. Even more dangerous, it would furnish another excuse for Washington to assume control in order to bring “security” to the situation: asserting jurisdiction over property it did not lawfully possess, over rights no more permitted to grant than to take away, and over details it could not competently understand.

While there would three other states (North Dakota, 1926; New Mexico, 1927; and Idaho, 1928) to join the "family" of State stones during the 1920s, President Coolidge would return only once to dedicate the 47th state, New Mexico's contribution, on December 2, 1927. Here is a small snapshot of that occasion.

While there would three other states (North Dakota, 1926; New Mexico, 1927; and Idaho, 1928) to join the “family” of State stones during the 1920s, President Coolidge would return only once more to dedicate the 47th state, New Mexico’s contribution, on December 2, 1927. Here is a small snapshot of that occasion.

President Coolidge then drove the point home, “Throughout our whole Nation there is an irresistible urge for the maintenance of the highest possible standards of government and society. Unless this sentiment is heeded and observed by appropriate state action, there is always grave danger of encroachment upon the states by the National Government. But it must always be realized that such encroachment is a hazardous undertaking, and should be adopted only as a last resort. The true course to be followed is the maintenance of the integrity of each state by local laws and social customs, which will place it in comparative harmony with all the others. By such a method, which can only be the result of great effort, constantly exerted, it will be possible to maintain an ‘Indestructible Union of Indestructible States.’ The maintenance of this position rises in importance above the hope of any other benefits, which constant changes would be likely to secure. The Nation can be inviolate only as it insists that Arizona be inviolate.”

We will do well to reflect on this ninetieth anniversary of a great dedication to Arizona and the Monument to our first President. But that is not all. Tomorrow also affords us the occasion to reflect on our responsibilities, the continuous duty we bear to zealously preserve self-government, vigilant States and a limited Washington.