August 10: more knowledge, less taste

2012/08/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1846 the Smithsonian Institution was chartered.

This great national collection is not unique to its nation, but it does have a certain American quality in its particular contexts of time and place.  Oddly (perhaps) this begins with a lack of vision among American officials to be excited about the gift of significant funds from a foreigner. The date of its inauguration, 70 years after the Declaration of Independence and thus suggesting some patriotic connection, is merely coincidental.  The benefactor, British mineralogist James Smithson, had died seventeen years earlier and it just took that long to get everything sorted out in the English courts and to convince grumpy congressmen that an institution of this sort would somehow be good for the country, rather than a few hundred more miles of canals and asylums of various sorts, which represented a more “practical” expenditure of the funds in their thinking.

Finally the ball got rolling and the mission of the Institution focused on science and learning, the latter of which might have been defined rather broadly, but quickly found a niche.  Its board gathered paintings and books but emphasized rocks and stuffed birds: it was (and is) more about “practical” knowledge than high-flown cultural stuff.  Already by the 1840s Congress had become determined to spend the people’s money (even when it didn’t originate with them) on practical things and was increasingly uncomfortable about its role as a patron of art.  In spite of its earlier support of treasures like Trumbull’s paintings in the Capitol rotunda, a squeamish Congress  thought such fluffiness better left to their velvet-pantalooned forebears and the French.  (The National Gallery of Art would be founded only after Andrew William Mellon drove his gold-plated bulldozer through Congress in 1937.)  In the 1840s, the place in Washington that was most like a museum was the model room of the Patent Office, where working scale models of gizmos that had accompanied applications for patents were placed on public view.  No bigger than the size of a 12″ cube, these miniature animal traps, potato peelers, boat engines and sewing machines were displayed in a Greek building that, at the time, was seen as the most American thing ever.

But by the 1840s  a new generation professed a new taste based in the ideal of alleged practicality, and Classicism was deemed inherently impractical.  Now called by its regal-sounding nickname, the “Castle Building” was designed for its supposed utilitarian, and thus American, character.  It is the work of James Renwick, Jr. (1818-95), who won the competition in 1846.  Its brooding Norman style hewn of Maryland sandstone was a radical departure from the mostly-limestone and largely-Classical public buildings raised by the federal government to date.  Renwick’s supporters believed that the building’s irregular profile, picturesque setting, departure from the demands of ancient precedent and ease of fabrication (read: cheapness) spoke more to the American spirit than those fusty old colonnades and pediments.  Politician Robert Dale Owen, who directed the competition and wrote a book about the building, called for more American builders to embrace the ideals of “the necessary and the strictly useful” over pretentious aesthetic concerns.  He warned architects to stay on the right side of “the line of bare utility, [rather than be] tempted across that boundary into the dangerous domain of taste.”

Another dangerous domain in need of boundaries is that place where politicians dictate taste rather than simply support artists (as they ought to do), and anywhere people believe that art has no utility.

Image: the Smithsonian Institution (now the “Castle Building”) in the far upper left; image taken from “downtown” Washington (perhaps from the roof of the Treasury) in 1855 (from this source)

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You are currently reading August 10: more knowledge, less taste at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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