Art Toppled- Controversy of Context
Updated: Mar 20
On a Plinth or in a Gilded Frame- Public Art in the limelight- An essay by Brian Keeler
We’ve been through some tumultuous times in recent months and one very public part of this turmoil has been the toppling of public statuary. The marble edifices of confederate generals have been some of the first to go, and in my opinion, long overdue. In fact, I would say it was a major glitch of our policies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that permitted these misplaced commemorations in the first place.
The statues of Robert E. Lee in Richmond and Charlottesville, VA, as we all know now, have been at the center of the storm and one causing the rupture of our nation. The unleashing of rightwing extremist and the ensuing ugly demonstrations by the KKK have all been part of this. To our utter dismay, the entire episode instigated by the KKK and NRA, and much more, all condoned by our current president.
As an artist, I think I have a unique perspective here about the art in question. But, as many of us are not subscribers to Brietbart News or watchers of that entertainment show called Fox, we are still occasionally privy to the opinions of those on the right through occasional social media posts, letters to the editors and some op-ed columns in the press. I get the gist of the those who object to the razing of equestrian statues of our nations traitors. The usual reasoning from these quarters is that our history is being destroyed. This is a rather facile and superficial reasoning that does not serve the issue well. It is misplaced and does not address the core issues in other words. An even more incredulous rationale, as in a letter to the editor this week of my hometown newspaper, that writer believes; the Columbus statues are inviolable because he was a Christian and named one of his three ships after the Virgin. Then all the atrocities carried out by Christopher, Cortez, Pissaro and the rest of the conquistadors and other imperialists are to be given a nod of approval because they carried the cross while enacting unspeakable cruelties? The Trail of Tears continues today, but now reinvented.
And now to bring the Trail of Tears into our awareness again, Trump is calling Andrew Jackson a swashbuckler, as if Jackson was some kind of cavalier hero. We know Jackson as the US president behind this national travesty of the early nineteenth century. The American Indians forced from their homes during the Trail of Tears or many other episodes, would probably have other appellations for Jackson. Can we even fathom the breathtaking crassness, ignorance and arrogance of our current president for uttering these cruel and demeaning comments?
But back to the statuary. Let me tell you why I think statuary is particularly volatile and incendiary and not just a bland statement of history. Statues by their nature are on a plinth or pedestal, which makes the work of art exalted and renders the person represented into a hero. This is not equivalent to a biographical account or a scholarly analysis of any given character, event or episode of history. It is not even like the Viet Nam War Memorial in Washington either. I am referring to the wall with a record of soldiers names who lost their lives, not the figurative sculpture also in DC. The wall is a record and commemoration, whereas the statue is elevated and high. There are many wonderful art works about history and our own civil war that do not cross the line of appropriateness, such as the diorama in Gettysburg and paintings of the war by Winslow Homer. Think of Homer's oil painting of a sharpshooter using the the new invention of the rifle with a scored barrel to allow for long distance accuracy. A chronicle, interprets, reports, records and expresses but does not idealize perpetrators of fraught policy. A statue on high in a musuem, home or public square by contrast, often tends to valorize. In Florence Italy we see massive murals by Giorgio Vasari in the hall of Cinque Cento that depict war but do not eulogize. There are many other works of art that do the same, without a propagandistic underpinning, such as John Singer Sargent's oil of WWI soldiers that are depicted with bandaged eyes after being gassed in the trenches of France.
My father was a World War II veteran who served in the US Navy in the Pacific. Where, among other things, he was the lead singer in the 7th Fleet Band, and during those performances he got to meet and play with Irving Berlin and other celebrities of the era. He also witnessed the carnage of war as well. I found his diary several years ago and included passages in the book of his art that I wrote for a retrospective at the Everhart Museum held in 2004. In that diary he reported about meeting survivors or the Bataan Death March and hearing of the atrocities committed there. So, in regards to this statuary and public art issue, would we want the perpetrators of these acts by the Japanese to be commemorated with statues on our courthouse steps? Certainly not. So you can see that this argument for preserving history is rather thin. By extension we would not want Joseph Mengeles, the angle of death in Nazi Germany or Joseph Goebbles commemorated in marble either. My father also painted many works during WWII that record and report everyday life of a seaman.
History yes, records yes, interpretation of history yes, diaries and documents preserved yes, but exalted equestrians or depicting the perpetrators of atrocities on canvas in public places no.
I have been reflecting on public art however, as a result of this, and at times it does go into a moral grey area. Some of the artists and artworks that have come to mind include the works of a figurative painter from Syracuse, NY, Jerome Witkin. To call his work powerful is an understatement, and so there is no ambiguity or moral gray area with Witkin's canvases. Witkin, who was an art faculty member at Syracuse University, had a show at the Arnot Museum in Elmira, NY several decades ago that was truly unforgettable. Witkin's social realism confronts the dark side of everyday life in genre scenes or in more casually observed studio views with models along with portraiture. But his main body of work is to portray the holocaust in unflinching realism. His work is vivid and virtuosic and impossible to be indifferent to. He honors and references the great painters of the past, like Rembrandt and Goya while addressing contemporary issues in his own methods. Could we live with these powerful portrayals in our homes or even have them in our nation’s state capitol rotundas or county court houses? Still they are expressions of history that deserve a place in our collective records. The Holocaust Museum in DC comes to mind, certainly as an example of presenting history with this terrible episode in Europe represented so we don't forget. Picasso's famous painting titled Guernica also comes to mind. It being an expression of the Germans bombing a small town in Spain at the beginning of WWII. Fascist Franco and Fascist Hitler in cahoots. Now it is beyond the pale to see the mindless perpetuation of the term antifa used as pejorative.
I have been recalling other aspects of art in museums that has been attacked for other reasons too that somewhat complicate the issue. For example, the famous bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome only escaped destruction by Christians as it was thought to be of the first Christian emperor Constantine. I have viewed this outdoor sculpture (in copy) and the original inside the Capitoline museum many times in Rome, and it would truly be a loss to history if this bronze were lost. There is also the statue of Pope Julius that was made by Michelangelo in Bologna in the renaissance. It was infamously melted down and made into a large cannon to be used against the papal forces. The cannon was dubbed, “The Julius.”
Then there is another incident, perhaps more fraught with controversy. The slashing of the 17th century Spanish painter, Velazquez's oil painting of the nude Goddess Venus, which is part of the National Gallery of Art in London 1914 is a case in point. A suffragette, Mary Richardson broke the protective glass and slashed the 17th century masterpiece multiple times. She is reported to have been offended by the lustful ways men where admiring the work. Richardson, an art student as well had motives that were more complicated. Mary Richardson was a member of parliament but also the head of the British Union of Fascist. So we see the odd mix of feminism, fascism, art and history all dovetailing in one volatile moment. Here is what Richardson said;
“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.”
We can only question the mixture of motives and rationale behind Richardson’s actions as they seem fraught with inconsistencies. The Mrs. Parkhurst, was Emmeline Parkhurst, a voting rights advocate who had been arrested in violent police oppression the day before. Sound familiar? Well the police brutality and oppression has oddly resonant tones to the George Floyd killing in today’s news.
We also think of the highly public desecration of famous works of art like Rembrandt’s Night Watch or his nude of Danae in the Hermitage. Both of these acts of vandalism had nothing to due with politics, prudishness or history. Both of these works have been restored but barely and a great expense and years of work. One report about public art destruction mused that, at times great art can evoke feelings of an inverse amount of inferiority or self-loathing. Hmm, well we can only wonder at times about the motivations of disturbed individuals that take out their ire on masterpieces.
Then there are revisionist and updaters. Coming to mind are two of Michelangelo’s works in Rome- one the Last Judgment in the Vatican and the other the Marble of Christ in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The first large mural in the Sistine was infamously worked over by Danielle Volterra, now known as the il Braggetore, the breach painter. He was hired to paint loin cloths over the genitals of some of the nude figures. And the statue of Christ later had cloth added to cover the privates.
To bring it full circle, local art here in Ithaca has been fraught with controversy. I am thinking of the modern statues on one of the bridges across the inlet that necessitated a long court battle. Then there is my friend Bill Benson’s wonderful murals in Zaza’s Restaurant and Madeline’s Restaurant. Both now removed. And then there was a wonderful mural by Mary Beth Inkhen on what is now the Police office in the West End. I am not sure of the circumstances of those work’s removal but it still underscores the delicacy of public art.
So, to sum up- a friend of mine posted on his blog in regards to public statues falling- “Another One Bites the Dust,” But that sentiment seems a bit too wistful for the loss of depictions of civil war reprobates. I will just say, history and art- YES! Inert commemoration of war traitors and perpetrators of war crimes, NO!