Civic Art: The Progressive or The Classive

Civic Art: The Progressive or the Classive


Remarks Delivered at the Cosmos, Club, Washington, D.C., 14 September, 2021: Progressive, or Classive Civic Art?

When asked to join this panel, I wondered: “What might I, an old craftsman, contribute to a discussion of architecture and urbanism.  Yes, I’ve tinkered with civic planning, designed some little houses, some, over-large, even so …  I wondered:  

“Authenticity, Beauty, and Human Well-Being: Architecture & Urbanism”

Propylaea, Athens, circa, 435 B.C.; Mnesikles, architect

Hum, I wondered … and there it was … well, here it is, “Human”, our first question: quae sumus“What are we?”  What is appropriate to creatures of our type, what is well, what is best for our being.  Depends, I suppose, on what we are.  Are we creatures of material, only; or, are we creatures of material and of that something immaterial, let us say, “soul”.  The souled and the soulless are different things, different persons with different needs, different wants, differing expectations.  What do you suppose we are?  Body, or body and soul.

Long ago, upon the shore of the “wine dark sea”, some hundred years after Homer, seven centuries before Christ, the Pre-Socratics, the Milesians, “Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes”, inquired into the nature of the All, of man, our being, postulated “spirited atoms” and the cause of change: “Change”, that necessary condition which brings all things into being. 

Before long, the man, “spirited atom” – and there, a pun – would split, would change, would become two things: “spirit and body”, or, merely, “‘atoms’, and the void”.  Socrates, by admission, claimed himself to be “spirit and body”: a body of “physical form”, that face which seems a Papposilenus; and, a spirit, invisible, almost divine, a Platonic Form, “eternal in God”, you might say.  Socrates named his spirit, a, psyche, as Plato in the Phaedo, “On the Soul”, relates.  Democritus (contemporary of Socrates, late 5th Century before Christ), insisted that all that is, is merely atoms and the void, and nothing more.  His “atoms”, you might conceive as, “molecules”, or as, “DNA”, a thing inside the thing that models its form, a pattern patterning, “progressive change”, you might say.  Democritus said so, and he laughed.

Plato, it is said, burned the books of Democritus, which I might believe.  The immaterial, eternal, divine “Form”, and the variable “atom”, are things so very different that the one cannot exist if the other survives.  And this, the cause of conflict, the cause of confusion from the Classical Age until this, this Age yet to be named … a name that will be known when one side, the “Classive”, or the other side, the “Progressive”, prevails.

As for myself, for accuracy, I name us, we of Homer and all that ascends thereafter, “Classive”, a thing of one whole.  True, we might employ the term, “Occidental”, the occident, that side of the horizon, the west, where the “sun rests”.  The “Oriental”, the orient, that side of the horizon, the east, where the “sun arises”. 

If in Athens, which, for the most part, yet we are, we would have recognized that those people of the East are a thing remarkably different from the people of the West, the people alike us who know liberty of thought, of speech, of action, of property we earn and hold, property that we might bestow upon our posterity …

yes, well … we might say of all alike ourselves, “Western Civilization”, those who reside where the sun rests, and saying, would be, for the most part, correct.  Should have mentioned, that, “soul”, in Iliad, is a species of “warm breath”, that invisible thing which is the life of the warrior, a warrior who, bodiless, becomes a shade, a shadow lacking moral force, an airy thing a-wandering in Hades after the boatman is paid the fee.  This notion of man, of moral force, of “soul, spirit, shade” endowed eternally with afterlife, wants a description more telling than a word of place, the West, where the sun rests. 

Seems to me: “Classive” which incorporates the, “Classical”, encompasses more of who, of what we are than does “Western” or “Classical”.  Here, I am put in mind of Thomas Jefferson who, when praised for originality of thought, admitted, that all of what he and the Founders wrote could be found first in Aristotle, or in Cicero, et alia.  We are a people little changed these three millennia, a people of one heritage, ascending by reason, by practice in tradition.  Then too, “Classive” may best be employed when describing its opposite, “Progressive”.

Creation of Adam, 1512; Michelangelo; Sistine Chapel, Vatican

These two ancient conceptions, “Progressive and Classive”, describe different universes, “spirited”, and, “void”, describe remarkably different creatures, creatures with widely differing needs, wants, desires.  The one, the “Progressive”, a thing of body, will want, will need appetite to be satisfied with air, water, food, employments to the flesh of belly, the flesh of brain, et cetera.  The other, the “Classive”, would too have its body satisfied; yet, what feeds its soul, what air, water, food, employment does the immaterial want, what does mind need to be satisfied.  The mind, the soul, to attain satisfaction, will want eudaimonia, happiness, “well-being”, that fulfillment by virtue achieved.

Should mention – having distinguished the immaterial mind from the material brain – “intelligent design”, “natural selection” and “intelligent selection”, yet, haven’t time sufficient even for a gloss, except to say: Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian theories have, after centuries, proved themselves to be mathematical impossibilities, failures that haven’t a plausible answer to challenge.  And then, since modern science, that discipline prompted by a pope in the 13th century, Clement IV*, continuing until this-moment, we have by experiment sought evidence sufficient to see and to understand the ineffable “God”.  The notion that science and religion are at claws and throats, is a myth invented by Progressives, some hundred years ago. 

“Modern science”, yes, well, “modern”, that old word that likes a dusting when drawn from the shelf, was, in the 18th Century popularized by Jonathan Swift, of Latin coinage meaning, “just now”, a word that shall in every instance mean, “old”, because in every instance of speaking, “modern”, the just now, is past.  The “modern”, the “progressive”, the “classive”, the “classical”, each describe a thing or condition that is unique.  The “classical” describes, for the most part, Greek and Roman antiquity; for some, “Classical” refers specifically to Athens of the 5th Century.  “Modern”, describes, generally, the European ascendency, the papal encouragement of evidence by experiment, the novum organum, knowing nature by proof; for some, “Modern” refers to the, “machine culture”, that historical period book-ended by supreme Nature and supreme Information.   

The Classical, the Modern, describe, for the most part, a time in the past, a people limited in number and in place.  The Progressive, the Classive, describe conceptions, constructions of the universe, of the creature, man, of what we are, of what we build, of what we might become.

The Akropolis of Athens, 1846; Leo von Klenze

This “becoming” is the essential question of, “well-being”.  What is “well” for beings of a particular type.  Souled and soulless beings are different types, their cities are different, their literatures are different, their statuary or structures are different: The souled and the soulless are different in every particular, particulars of government, of neighborhood and home, of family and of friendship.  All that is made, as you see around you, is formed for one type of creature, or the other, for the Classive, souled man, or for the Progressive, soulless man.


And here we are, forced into answer: what is unique to the “Classive”, what is unique to the “Progressive”.  Let us compare and contrast.

“Classive” is that living tradition of Beauty, an inheritance of Liberty in thought, word, action.  The Classive was born in the search for Goodness, for Truth, the Classive grew to become humane, an urbane harmony of health in mind and body.  The Classive abides in each person who acknowledges that the internal, divine presence is found in creatures of our type, and of other types divinely created.  The Classive trusts in good, recognizes the sublime-divine in all things, and looks to “God” for the ultimate resolution.


“Progressive” is the assumption that through science, perfection will be achieved in body, behavior, society, by experimentation, through government.  Progressivism is the belief that all the universe is material, that all materials can be known, that when by science all is known, science will find its end, and all problems will be resolved.

Progressives assume that this universe, and all possible universes are “material”, physical.  Classives assume this universe to be dual, both “physically material and spirited”, metaphysical.  An assumption of a physical all that is, or acknowledgement of a metaphysical “All that Is”, forms a person’s being for well or ill, forms society, government, our monuments and memorials, our architecture and urbanism.

You might accept a Progressive World View, you might enjoy a Classive World View, each view matters for all the world.  Classive artists conceive all that is or might be in “idea”; Progressive artists reduce all to “material”.  The Classive reveals the world of story, discovery.  The Progressive tells the world in fact, statement.  For example, reference the Classive, National Gallery of Art (the NGA), West Building; the Progressive, NGA, East Building.  One, a habitation for souled man; the other, an environment for the soulless.

You will recognize that Progressive objects are empty, spiritually, that the meaning of the thing is the physical thing, itself.  You will notice that the Classive statue is filled with spirit, genius that swells, the gives meaning, purpose to the forms.  And yes, Classive statues are beautiful, humane; Progressive objects are, most often, iron rusted, bent steel, of twisted colored plastic devoid of internal spirit, of personality, being, as they are, material substance, and nothing more.

As you see, the Progressive offers no telos, no mark, no end or purpose.  The Classive has purpose, cause, intention, it is a thing alike ourselves, bi-lateral, for the most part, tripartite, ordered, filled with life, healthy, reasonable, intelligible, alike God’s universe, meaningful and good.  The Progressive is, by definition, soulless, stuff and void; the Classive is by definition, souled, imbued with spirit.  Classive and Progressive artists create different things to different purposes.  The Classive artist creates ideas, pictures, places for souled persons.  The Progressive artist makes statements, objects, structures for biological creatures, soulless.  Classive artist are attentive to the souls of fellow men, of life beyond body, of Good and Evil, et cetera, Classives are interested in the ends of All which Is, that which is best for the soul of man.

Tell me: In which building are you at home; in which building do you belong.  Which building is healthy, which sick.  Which building honors you, which mocks you … you know the answer, no need to admit to me … the Progressive materialist (matter only) and the Classive dualist (matter and spirit) portend different ends, different artists. 

Implications of World View are obvious, more in building, in collecting patterns of Progressive Materialists (industrialists, technologists, corporatists), those of the Knowledge Class (university, media, government), than in artists, the majority of whom are Classive, and so are ignored, absent from museums, banned from public places, written-out of the History of Art.  Why.  Progressives are single-minded, troubled by complexity; and besides, where would the recent four generations of Classive artists fit-into the East Wing vacuum … Pei did not put-in enough art-closets, and darn-it, the old-fashioned progressive-mods would be crowded-out.

To study “antiquity” is to study the distant past, to study the “modern” is to study the recent past, to study the “classive” is to study the past, the present, the future: the Beautiful, the Good, the True are always present, are always Classive.  There has never been a new “classical”, except perhaps in the first realization by ancient Greeks that, in fact, the Beautiful, the Good, the True exist.

Both the Classive and the Progressive are current, are contemporary, and both ascend from antiquity, yet the Progressive denies its antiquity while the Classive acknowledges its tradition. Apart from the corporeal world, all that we see was in the first instance designed by an artist: Our civilization is an aesthetic construction formed of ideas that form and reform us. 

Civic Art
From the steps of the Capitol Building over the National Mall to Crystal City and Rosslyn.

We cannot, in fact, say that competing Progressive and Classive philosophies resolve themselves into political parties, neatly, they do not.  Yet we do observe that opinions, conceptions of the universe form persons, monuments and memorials into parties social and political.  Here, I should mention: Aristotle did not say, “man is a political animal”, Aristotle said, “man is a social animal” as are bees and cows, yet, an animal “who lives in a polis”, intending that we live, or should live, in a physical environment “suitable to our nature”. 

The question before us, “What is our nature, what is well, what is ill for beings of our type” I leave to you, with this additional question: “Are we merely Progressive, physical creatures, or are we Classive, divine creatures that transcend the physical.”  The answer to this question will determine how we shape of our monuments, our memorials, our city, and our future.

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The event, Authenticity, Beauty, and Human Wellbeing: There Is No Good Urbanism Without Good Architecture, was jointly hosted by The National Civic Art Society, The American Conservative. The event co-presenters were Ann Susman, who remarked on the neuroscience of aesthetic appreciation, and Dr. Nir Buras who discussed holistic, classic city planning. My bit, “Progressive, or Classive Civic Art”, at 40:00 to 1:00:00; Dr. Buras preceded, Ann Sussman followed.

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* Clement IV sponsored both Thomas Aquanius (Summa Theologica) and Roger Bacon (Opus Majus), authors of the books generative of “modern science” … papal sponsorship of scientific research is vast beyond number … too, uncounted clergy have been scientists, and popes have been scientists, Sylvester II, John XXI, and the current, Pope Francis, to name a few.

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Featured Image: The “Doves of Pliny”, copy of an original mosaic by Sosus, known from the Doves at Hadrian’s Villa.

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