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America's History in the Making

The New Nation

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with David Bjelajac .


David Bjelajac is a professor of Art History at The George Washington University. He is the author of several books including American Art: A Cultural History. He was interviewed on location at the Octagon Museum, which served as the president's residence after the White House was burned during the War of 1812.

Q: What is art history?

Bjelajac: Art history is the study of various objects. It's a discipline that's changing now to cover a broader range of objects within what we call "visual culture." Mostly, art history focuses upon objects of fine art, and situates those objects within a particular historical context to determine what the objects meant for contemporaries of the period, and how those meanings changed over time.

Q: How does art history relate to or inform the study of more formal history?

Bjelajac: Art objects can be interpreted in political terms, and in ideological terms. They relate to many different dimensions of history. Art is part of the cultural study of America, Europe, or anywhere. The study of material culture can be as expressive, if not even more so, than interpreting literature, or political texts. Visual art expresses who we are at a particular point in time. It reveals how different people express themselves, and how they relate to one another socially and politically. And it's not simply a study of connoisseurship of aesthetics, but it really relates to different levels of history in a very in-depth fashion.

Q: What can architecture, particularly that of the New Republic, tell us about the society in which it was created?

Bjelajac: The classical style that we're talking about in this building here, the Octagon House, is a kind of Federal style. In this particular context, the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, classical style signified a kind of continuity with the ancient past, going back to the ancient Greeks and the Romans and to reassuring people that this revolutionary new government had roots in the past. It was not something that was going to be unstable. So I think what the value of classicism for the American Republic and the leaders of the American Republic was to suggest a certain level of stability, of order.

The things that define Classicism are balance, order, harmony and proportion. A revolution, of course, is a very chaotic, violent event. Coming out of that chaos and violence, you want to reassure after peace has arrived that this is not going to be an experiment in government that's going to disintegrate. And so Classicism provided a certain reassurance.

The classical style known as Federal style is very much influenced by English architecture. That tradition, still powerful at that time in the new United States, suggests a certain cultural continuity with the mother country, so that the revolution, while it was a political break, still did not break the cultural ties with Europe and with the ancient past. This was especially reassuring for members of the social elite, who did not want to have a revolution that was going to be too radical, and wanted some sense of stability.

But the classical tradition also expresses the idea of personal, individual refinement too. This is an unusual building, the Octagon House, because it has this classical decorative style. Most buildings in Washington, D.C. were still one-story wood frame buildings that were not decorated in any kind of cosmopolitan, fashionable way. They were regarded as being rather crude. Buildings such as the Octagon House suggested that America was still part of a transatlantic community, that it was succeeding European countries and would still have a certain cultural respectability within an international community.

Q: How do the differences between the intentions of the artist versus the perspective of the viewer affect an art historian's examination of an item?

Bjelajac: Interpretation has always been a problem for art historians. Many art historians used to say that the true meaning of a work of art is what the author intended. But art historians have gotten away from that sort of unitary idea of meaning in recent decades, and art historians are much more sensitive to the fact that the meaning of a work of art has not only to do with authorial intention, but also how others — beholders of the work — respond to and interpret the work of art. After all, a work of art does not exist in isolation. To be a work of art it has to have an audience. Different beholders or patrons bring a different set of experiences and expectations to each piece of art. Often, an artist will become frustrated and perhaps will say, "that's not what I meant at all." But is that an incorrect interpretation? Not necessarily. I think to say that "a work of art is determined solely by the author" is a rather authoritarian way to look at a work of art. A work of art has multiple meanings that change over time.

Q: As an art historian, are you more concerned with the intentions of the creator or the meanings that the audience derives from the piece?

Bjelajac: I try to consider both. I don't dismiss the author's intention; I think it's important. On the other hand, I am very, very interested in reading critical reviews of a work; finding out how people assimilated the work, how they talked about it, what kinds of words they used to express their response if they were written down in any fashion.

I'm interested in how a work is situated spatially. How the work is exhibited or displayed is important, for that often determines how a work is interpreted. For example, a work that's exhibited in a museum space or an exhibition gallery space will be experienced differently than a painting exhibited in the dining room of someone's home.

Q: So when you come to a place like the Octagon House, you're not just thinking about what the architect or owner had in mind, but also how the building affected people in the community?

Bjelajac: That's right. For a painter, a sculptor, or even an architect, there are all kinds of unconscious decisions made that one doesn't actually think about. To say that the author has total conscious control over what he or she is doing overstates the power of the author, because the author relies upon past traditions and conventions. We don't always think of the words that we use as being a part of a tradition. There is a kind of visual language, too, that we automatically take for granted. Similarly, there is an unconscious dimension embedded within the visual language. So meanings that come from within the visual language of the arts also get transferred to the work without necessarily the author or architect being really conscious of what those meanings are.

Of course a visual, a classical vocabulary in architecture was something that was filtered down to the middle and lower-middle classes because the people who constructed buildings were artisans and craftsmen. Prior to the late eighteenth century there were actually very few professional architects working in America. The people who built homes in the United States were mostly carpenters and craftsmen who studied design books imported from England and Europe. So the importation of design books was one way for architectural knowledge to be disseminated to a fairly wide audience. This was a language that was well known to the working class, one might say.

Building these, often gargantuan, houses were a collective enterprise involving different social classes. There was fairly popular knowledge of the idea that classical architecture expressed certain human values and virtues, and was a sign of refinement.

Q: How does this concept of a visual vocabulary translate to today's audiences?

Bjelajac: Architecture is something that we all live in; it's part of our daily experience. We all walk streets and see buildings. We experience spaces, and so really, architecture is part of the fabric of living. You can see a building that has a classical vocabulary and intuit the sense of order, harmony, balance and proportion that the classical tradition expresses, even if you don't necessarily know the history of that vocabulary.

Different architectural vocabularies make us feel differently. We have different kinds of emotional responses to them in a very visceral fashion. Even if we don't intellectualize it, we have an emotional response to an architectural space. We can have a very negative response or we can have a very positive response. We can put in a sense of awe, say, if we go visit the U.S. Capitol, which is a very imposing structure that says something about the grandeur of the Republic.

Q: What sorts of clues do people need to be able to understand and read architecture?

Bjelajac: If we're talking about a classical vocabulary, we look for the telltale sign would be a sense of symmetry, that the left side of a house will balance the right side. You'll have an equal number of windows on the left side to balance the right side. They're will often be a central hallway or entranceway to separate the two sides. All of this creates a sense of balance and symmetry that is expressed by the classical tradition.

Usually, you will see the use of classical orders. By classical orders, I mean the architectural supports, or columns, that are used decoratively. The columns for the entranceway in this building, for instance, have different kinds of decorations, different proportions. They are meant to be metaphors for the beauty of the human body, but there is the Doric order, which is a very simple design regarded as the oldest of the Greek orders of architecture.

Down below in the entranceway, there is the Ionic order, which has a distinctive scroll or volute decoration in the capitals. And that scroll or volute decoration is meant to suggest a sense of refinement and education.

Q: Tell us about the symmetry of the Octagon House and what that implies socially or culturally for inhabitants of the house.

Bjelajac: I think what we're talking about is how the classical tradition encourages a certain kind of behavior. The symmetry of the building can be experienced spatially. When you enter the house, you're entering the a central space with the drawing room on one side and the dining room on the other side, you go straight through the circular entranceway, through to the stair hall, and up the beautiful spiral staircase. This entranceway and the stair hall divide the building into two equal halves, and it creates a kind of processional space.

So visitors experience the entrance of the building as a kind of ceremonial walk — up the staircase, through the formal entranceway, into the stair hall, and if they're lucky, they can go up the stair hall to the second floor library. So it creates a churchlike procession and suggests that there is something sacred about the space — borrowing from Greco-Roman temple tradition — the sacredness of the temple architecture gets transferred to the domestic interior and the domestic front.

Society and politics in Washington D.C. were intertwined. To be politically successful, you had to be socially successful, and John Tayloe, who owned this home, was a very wealthy, well-connected person, and a friend of George Washington's. He could invite foreign dignitaries here, members of the executive branch and congress, and have formal parties that would suggest the cultural, social refinement of the leaders of this new society who would then continue the classical Greco-roman tradition of Renaissance Europe. So this sense of symmetry, balance, order, or ceremonial dignity was a very important way to create a kind of theatrical space for domestic rituals.

Q: Is there anything interesting about the actual materials used to construct the building that reflect these ideas as well?

Bjelajac: A very diverse range of materials that were used. The commissioners overseeing the development of the District of Columbia wanted is to get away from wooden architecture. Wooden architecture was, dangerous because it was highly flammable, but it was also associated with back-country architecture, vernacular architecture that was associated with the lower classes. They wanted to have architecture that was at least made out of brick, which suggested stability and permanence. It was more safe, but also more dignified.

The foundation of this building is very carefully shaped and dressed sandstone that was quarried regionally and then shipped up the Potomac. Looking at the exterior, you see it's mostly a brick building, but it rests on a sandstone foundation, which suggests wealth andpermanence. It should be said that this particular sandstone apparently was not the best building material. It was very porous, and so during twentieth century restorations, it was necessary to restore much of the sandstone foundation.

Q: What about the Octagon House strikes you as particularly distinctive?

Bjelajac: This is a unique building. The design is so unusual and seemingly dictated by the space of the intersecting streets. And yet, rather than seeing that 70-degree angle as a limitation, Tayloe and William Thornton, the architects, used it as a design opportunity to create a very unusual building that would be distinctive from the urban row house, which was the norm for the more fashionable kind of architecture constructed in Washington D.C.


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