Horatio Greenough’s writings on the aesthetics and function of art seem like a key point to explore if one wants to trace our contemporary North American assumptions about minimalism and simplicity. However, Greenough is also principally known to history as the sculptor of a blatantly racist monument in praise of the European colonization of North America. Also called: white supremacy. I’m speaking here of The Rescue, which was completed in 1850, and exhibited at the United States Capitol from 1853 until 1958, alongside Luigi Persico’s Discovery of America.
Greenough’s essays notably prefigure the ideas of later functionalists. Addressing his contributions to the evolution of functionalism, and by extension minimalism, is an important chapter in the overall story of how simplicity develops conceptually in American thinking. So, I have been doing a lot of thinking about how to handle the theoretical contributions of Greenough without excusing or ignoring the racism manifested in his art and writing. To say nothing of this aspect of his legacy is to literally “white wash” the past. As much as a “segue” into the story of white supremacy might feel like throwing the reader a curveball, it is equally incoherent to pretend that the topic of architecture and the topic of white supremacy are two different stories that never overlap. The Rescue was commissioned specifically to adorn the United States Capitol building. The art, like the building, espouses not only a facade of neoclassical imagery but also an underlying set of neoclassical values and ideas.
My friend Brian recently sent me an article that highlights this point exquisitely: you cannot treat objects and artifacts from the past in a vacuum of the values which gave rise to them, nor can you dissociate them from the values they perpetuate by the way they are used or abused in the present.
So it is that I find myself attempting to write about the lineage of contemporary notions of minimalism and simplicity, yet now compelled to investigate how the thread of racism shapes the story. It makes me think about this chronic liability we have in inherited from the rationalism of the Enlightenment to categorize and silo ideas. On the face of it, we think, the history of minimalism and the history of “imperialized” white supremacy are entirely different topics, each fitting into its own nicely defined bucket of ideas. This a priori belief subsequently reinforces itself as we produce volumes of texts about, say, minimalism, but do not consider the legacies and values entwined in the conceptual back story.
I’m going to be honest and admit that it would be much easier to take the typical approach that white people historically employ in these situations. Such as issuing a tokenistic, superficial acknowledgement of the problem, such as, “He was a product of his times.” This usually suffices to avoid implicating the author’s whiteness by exonerating the historical figure for lack of personal agency. “Yes, Horatio was a racist son of a gun, but he really couldn’t help it, could he? Poor guy, stuck in his culture. Anyway, he contributed other important ideas that inform our world today, so on with the story!” Clean cut, even if logically incoherent. Atomize and isolate history into streamlined components, justified in the interest of “staying on topic.”
It is like the way we differentiate the meaning of capitol buildings’ architecture and what happens inside of them from the meaning of the statues we placed in front of them.
When you take a complex systems lens to history, you realize everything involves the story of everything else. The past is as nonlinear as the present, but we must cram it into human narratives to give it a shape that we can manage and retell. To embrace uncertainty and complexity is to deconstruct the stories that we use — and, as important, the ones we ignore — to situate ourselves.