by Paul Zepeda
Monuments and memorials by nature long have stood, quite literally, in the public square. But within a few short years, radicalized Americans have turned on these taciturn forebears like Moses on the golden calf.
The year 2020 witnessed great anguish on this subject among part of the U.S. population. Realizing that our nation was dotted with monuments commemorating sinful men rather than angels, it was imperative for these iconoclasts that the likenesses of bronze and marble be cast down from their pedestals.
The magnitude of the crimes was irrelevant: Defenders of slavery, frontier missionaries, or big game animals all were subject to the great cleansing of America’s historical imagery.
With most of the offenders toppled, it should have been easy to please the more liberal-minded with acceptable replacements. Workers’ rights, women’s empowerment, racial justice, or the glorification of all sexual expression: There was no shortage of subjects in the pantheon of the fashionably self-righteous from which to choose.
It’s curious, then, that the two most recent examples of contemporary statuary, while proudly standing above the heads of Bostonians and New Yorkers, have fallen so flat in the public’s opinion.
“Embrace” is Boston’s new homage to the relationship that Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, had with the city where they first met. Standing in a corner of Boston Common, the structure consists of two bronze arms intertwined in the namesake position.
Unveiled in January, the work was the object of much confusion and outright derision. Some described it as “a horrible piece of art” and like “an alien.” One woman called it “inexplicable … it is worse than I ever expected.”
Public art and the decisions around it are political.
In a country that has VERY FEW public monuments and statues of Black people, the "Embrace" Martin Luther King statue in Boston sends a message.
A lot of the wrong ones. (1/n)
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) January 16, 2023
Seneca Scott, a cousin of Coretta Scott King, referred to the structure as “a grotesque symbol of postmodernism,” “an atrocity,” and, well, a few more graphic descriptions. The primary objections to the $10 million work were its faceless, alienating quality and what some took to be an appearance rife with innuendo. Citizens felt that they had been left with a work of art that was bizarre and unmoving.
New York City’s faux pas arrived on top of the New York Supreme Court building in the form of a golden female figure emerging from a lotus with stylized tendrils in lieu of limbs. Standing alongside stone lawgivers of the past such as Moses and Justinian, “NOW” (as the piece is called) is meant to serve as an affront to the all-male cohort lining the Manhattan courthouse’s roof and to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Hard to miss in its glaring incongruity with the surroundings, the golden statue elicited strongly negative opinions from public officials and private citizens alike. New York City Council member Vickie Paladino, a Republican, asked: “Was there any public input whatsoever before a satanic, golden Medusa demon with tentacle arms was installed atop a downtown courthouse?”
This is a statue of a demon. Not only that, it's OBVIOUSLY a demon, horns and all. It's like something terrifying from an archeological dig of a civilization that practiced human sacrifice. It is designed to unsettle & spread ugliness. It's on top of a New York City court house. https://t.co/npeLPgUjZ4
— Christopher Bedford (@CBedfordDC) January 25, 2023
Commenters on The New York Times’ glowing review of the statue did not share the outlet’s ecstasies. Many, while admittedly supportive of the message, decried the work as “hideous and not depicting a strong feminine side” and “a grotesque monster.” One reader, referencing Boston’s “Embrace,” quipped: “Arms and no body. Now a body with no arms.”
Both pieces ought to have been easy wins for the notably progressive citizens of their respective cities, but as illustrated in comments on the street and in editorials, opinion was substantially negative. How could the celebration of these sanctioned ideals elicit such an agonized response from their proponents?
Looking at some successful examples of monuments, we can see where these older works succeed in moving the viewer and where their contemporary counterparts fail.
Turning our gaze to more than a century past, we are presented with no shortage of acclaimed and successful examples of monuments. Washington, D.C.’s “Ulysses S. Grant Memorial,” San Francisco’s “California Volunteers,” and Springfield, Massachusetts’ “The Puritan” are all arresting in their beauty, compelling the viewer to engage with the message.
Robert Barron, bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota, describes the effect of this engagement: “The objectivity of [beauty] stops me in my tracks, works its way into my soul, and reorders me.”
Looking upon these works, we feel the weight of war upon the shoulders of a tired Gen. Grant, flanked by charging cavalry. We are caught up in the excitement as California sends men to fight in the Spanish-American War. We gaze with admiration and some trepidation at the colonial New Englander boldly striding toward a new American future.
Each piece addresses subject matter whose gravity is humbling and the beauty of these depictions pierces the soul of the viewer, allowing the virtues espoused to seep in.
Sir Roger Scruton, the late English philosopher, once stated that “beauty brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy.” Those pieces of art that are effectively somber or celebratory, and move us to emotion, are such because of the beauty that they possess.
In comparison, the two new sculptures in Boston and New York lack the qualities that would render them successful.
The subject of the MLK tribute, “Embrace,” is debatably worthy of commemoration as much as it is a noteworthy chapter in King’s larger story, but its execution is contrived, alien, and discomforting. The viewer is left wondering as to its purpose.
The statue entitled “NOW,” on the other hand, is in harmony with its pro-abortion message of the slaughter of innocents. The ugliness, incongruity, and inhuman qualities of the piece are visually offensive because they commemorate a message that is morally offensive.
The piece never could be beautiful while celebrating an act of cruelty. For a monument to succeed, it must be beautiful both in its message and its execution.
I suspect that some Americans may have objected to tearing down historic statues not so much out of admiration for the individuals who were memorialized but because they feared that those statues would be replaced by something far worse. If so, those fears may well have been justified.
Whether or not the men depicted were truly virtuous, their monuments at least portrayed heroism, magnanimity, and greatness of soul that could be beautifully and inspiringly rendered. “Embrace” and “NOW” do no such thing, instead confronting us with the contrived and the inhuman.
The great American journalist H.L. Mencken famously joked, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Be that as it may, it would seem that at least in this instance Americans still can see junk for what it is, even when gilded.
If we want to create monuments that move us, then we cannot be deceived into letting modern pieties replace eternal virtues, nor novelty replace beauty.
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Paul Zepeda is an administrative assistant in The Heritage Foundation.’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.
Photo “Ulysses S. Grant Memorial” by Daderot. CC0 1.0.