New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down


Lost in all the excitement surrounding Tuesday’s announcement in the New York Times of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s plans to create an inflatable meeting hall in its courtyard, was the article’s hackneyed condescension towards culture in our fair city. We’ve come to expect this from the New York Times and the article’s author, Nicolai Ouroussoff seldom misses an opportunity to take a dig at the District. It’s become rather predictable, even when Mr. Ouroussoff, the Times’ architecture critic, is writing a generally positive piece.

For instance, the article about the Hirschhorn begins,

I’ve never stepped onto the National Mall without feeling a mix of emotions — reverence, a flash of national solidarity, a feeling of loss — but pure delight has never been one of them.

Which is fairly tame compared to his praise of the proposed design for National Museum of African American History and Culture which began, “I’ll admit my expectations are pretty low when it comes to new architecture in the nation’s capital.” That seems positively glowing compared to the opening salvo of his review of the Newseum which lamented, “How many mediocre buildings can one city absorb?” We get it. The architecture here can be kind of, well, boring.

But I thought Ouroussoff missed the city for the neo-classical columns when towards the end of his article on the Hirschhorn he predicted, “The project could become something Washington has never had: a real democratic forum for the debate of cultural issues as varied as, say, Hollywood morals and the impact of fundamentalism on the arts.” What? That might have been true twenty years ago, but not now. There are plenty of opportunities in this town to critically engage with the great cultural issues of our day. You just have to get off the mall to find them.

Without speaking here about our own programs, just take a look at the cultural explosion of the last decade throughout Washington: the new venues of Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre, Gala Hispanic and Signature Theatres; the artistic renaissance Michael Kaiser has brought to the Kennedy Center, grass-roots phenomena like Artomatic, the Capital Fringe Festival and DCist Exposed, the serious cultural critiques in the films at Silverdocs, one of the best live-music venues in the country at the 9:30 Club, author talks at any number of venues on a given evening, and on and on…

Perhaps I am misunderstanding and Ouroussoff  means something grander when he talks about “a real democratic forum” beyond the citizens who actually live here engaging with the culture around them on their evenings and weekends. But I think he probably knows better. DC-bashing is a kind of unconscious reflex for New Yorkers–even when they may not even really mean it.

Ouroussoff is not without a soft spot for our city, even on the National Mall. Perhaps it was a fit of Obamania pre-inaugural euphoria that caused him to consider the merits of the Mall and reminisce specifically about the Vietnam War Memorial,

As a student, I would sometimes wander down there with friends in the middle of the night, mingling with one or two other visitors. The sense of shared pathos could be overwhelming; it seemed to be one of the few places in Washington where you could experience grief without moral judgment.

While I’m not sure that the Vietnam Memorial is without moral judgment, it is clear that this critic has some true affection for this place. And he’s probably right about the architecture. But when it comes to the debate of cultural issues, there’s plenty going on in DC. While the Hirschhorn’s Up-inspired pavilion will be a welcome addition to the scene, it won’t be the first or last venue where the real citizens of this area can be just as concerned with art and culture as our countrymen in New York.

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