In 2013 I spoke with the CEO of Americans for the Arts, Robert Lynch, who said that art provides a guiding light “in a time in history where that is desperately needed.” This is not just speculation and hyperbole. Lynch also said in the article that “today we are seeing the arts being used to help solve other problems: the arts and community development, the arts and law enforcement for crime prevention, the arts and healing.” And that he wants “to see more opportunity for kids and adults to have access to the arts to be used in community advancement.”
As I discovered in my article with Lynch, quantifiable research demonstrates what he is saying, which was cited in the article:
[S]tudies show the multiplied benefits of art. For instance, in a report by Americans for the Arts, which cites research from The College Board on SAT scores for high school students, it was discovered that students who had four years of art and music classes “on average scored about 100 points better on their SATs than students who took only one-half year or less” of art and music. And another report by Americans for the Arts that cites James Catterall, professor emeritus at UCLA and author of”Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art,” informs that low-income students “who are highly engaged in the arts are more than twice as likely as their peers with low arts involvement to have earned a Bachelor’s degree.”
It is not simply the absence of war that creates prosperity or the preservation of good things — education and an enriched sense of civility does that, for which Merriam Webster offers a definition as a “refinement of thought, manners, or taste,” and at Vocabulary.com, the chief definition states:
Civilization is the opposite of barbarism and chaos. Civilization is an advanced stage of human society, where people live with a reasonable degree of organization and comfort and can think about things like art and education.
This includes the study and preservation of anthropology, archaeology and architecture, which is not just for those with nothing better to do. These things make humans humane, and when I learned earlier this year that my friend — the renowned modernist architect, author and archaeologist William Morgan, passed away — a man who was an “earth architecture” visionary, who was one of the first to be taught by Walter Gropius at Harvard University, and who thereafter worked as an office manager for Paul Rudolph before starting what would become a 50 year practice based in Florida — I thought to myself: What a civilized individual.
In the news everyday are reports about the craven killings and wanton destruction by the Islamic Caliphate, known as ISIS. I have no direct experience with war or violence on that scale, and can only offer condolences to those suffering the loss of loved ones. I do grieve and can relate directly to witnessing the destruction of irreplaceable historic monuments, like the ancient City of Palmyra, Syria, at the hands of ISIS. And to this point, a recent article questions: [W]here does Palmyra belong, to Syria or the world? I believe it a very good question that needs to be asked about all historic sites, especially those which have meaning far beyond their specific locale; those that are and should be protected by UNESCO.
In Palmyra and elsewhere — whether as a result of war, greed or ignorance — now more than ever the world needs UNESCO.
Additionally, we need our museums to be truly affordable, accessible and inclusive. We need art in every public school, for every student of every age. Our collective soul and civility depends on it.
Marcel Breuer knew this, and during an extraordinary career that spanned multiple decades, Breuer would build an impressive roster of architectural sites worldwide, including libraries, colleges and churches. He was the architectural genius commissioned to lead the team that built the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France, and in his lifetime Breuer would accrue over 300 commissions, including The Whitney Museum in New York City, which once came close to being destroyed and is now owned and operated under the auspices of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Breuer was a citizen of the world, and so is his work. He built the Atlanta-Fulton Central Public Library (AFCPL), and it would be a setback to civilization if Breuer’s final commission, before his death in 1981, meets fate in the wrecking ball of political ignorance and gentrification.
What a cruel irony that Marcel Breuer would build UNESCO, the very organization that came in to being to protect global sites like Palmyra, only to have his final building destroyed at the hands of a rather juvenile politician in Atlanta.
In 2010, when I spoke at length with Barry Bergdoll, who was at that time Chief Curator of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, he called Breuer’s last building “a masterpiece.” Yet in spite of all this, an aggressive campaign continues to destroy AFCPL site, with its chief detractor recently quoted as saying Atlanta needs a new “iconic” library.
Yet, what could be more iconic than an elegant, bold and very statuesque library, built by the man who built UNESCO?
In recent weeks there has been much talk of African-American hero and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, whose image is slated to replace the image of President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. An editorial at the Baltimore Sun points out that “Jackson engineered the forced removal of peaceful Indian tribes from their homes in the South to lands west of the Mississippi River. ” Yet what the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author of the article fails to mention are all [the White people] who benefited from the millions of acres of subsequent stolen land — still living on that land — still making money from that land.
Somehow Jackson is now being characterized as being outside the norm, when in fact he was emblematic of the mainstream, says the former senator, Jim Webb. Writing in a Washington Post editorial, Webb said “Jackson became the very face of the New America, focusing on intense patriotism and the dignity of the common man.”
President George Washington, and many other presidents held people captive for free labor and worked them to death on stolen land for hundreds of years in a practice called chattel slavery…now considered “barbaric.”
President Thomas Jefferson was the chief author of The Declaration of Independence — a document representing the core structure of democracy in the US. Jefferson was a distinguished writer, statesman and architect, and he also had many slaves.
Like Jackson, Jefferson was a man of his age, but political correctness aside can he be considered truly civilized when his lifestyle was supported by ill-gotten gains and resulted in the deaths of who knows how many?
Notwithstanding, it may be tempting to conveniently blame and assign ignorance on the past, or even the current mainstream morons and despots of the world, but where does their power come from? How many have, and continue to, benefit from the stolen lands of American Indians, and the barbaric enslavement of Africans? And how many are benefiting today from newly realized ill-gotten gains?
To answer that question, look no further than the Panama Papers!
Yet beyond the nightmare of genocide, slavery and the engineered poverty of today, beyond the transgressions of morally bankrupt leaders in the East and the West, beyond the starvation and unmet basic needs allowed to happen around the world, people must, as well, fight for education, architecture and art. Being civil means being willing to do the work necessary to protect a vision of beauty — to enshrine local, national and global treasures — to stand up and defend the ability to express oneself creatively. These things make the life water of the soul.
UPDATE: Less than a week after this article was published, it was announced that keeping the Marcel Breuer designed Atlanta Fulton Central Public Library is on the agenda of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, with Vice Chairman, Liz Hausmann, saying “I think we need to be very careful about leaving that building.”
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