Public Artworks as Progressive Lenses on the United States
The Mullins family has what might occasionally be called an unfortunate sense of humor. This frustrates people who are determined that things have one fixed meaning, and no other.
For instance, I regularly laugh my way through the story of Jonah, because it touches the “I don’t wanna,” childish quality found throughout the human condition, and because God seems to be having a little fun in God’s loving exasperation with creation.
Jonah is told to go to Ninevah and warn the people of the disaster that will befall them if they don’t repent. Jonah knows God will forgive these people if they do repent, and he doesn’t want that because, in his mind, you can’t punish Ninevah enough. So he says, “Right you are,” then tries to do a bunk. God chases him down, Jonah’s companions toss him into the sea, he is belched up by a large fish, and … he ends up going to Ninevah. Where the people repent.
And Jonah sulks.
God gives Jonah a bush while he’s sulking, which gives him shade; and this makes Jonah happy. But then the bush dies, and Jonah is mad because the sun is beating down on his bald head. God closes the matter by saying, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11, NRSV).
End of the story. (Don’t forget the animals.)
Hey, don’t blame me – I didn’t come up with it! (And for the record, the Swedish sculptor Carl Milles – about whom, more in a future blog – thought the story of Jonah a funny one too.)
The United States today is full of Jonahs. They get caught up in their sense of “rightness,” wanting to blame and punish people and have their own way. And unfortunately (perhaps actionably), right now they are causing international as well as national uneasiness.
A quirky look at our history through the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden frames our current U.S. story with a different perspective and a bit of humor, both dark and light. Public art may seem an odd stimulus for laughter, but as in most things, it’s a matter of accepting the grays and holding a balance. It is one thing (and often wrong) to say the artist meant a piece to be humorous or ironic. It is quite another for a person to approach a piece in a certain mood or context and find it humorous or ironic.
For example: sculptor Harry Rosin couldn’t predict his statue The Puritan would be looking down on a scantily clad sunbather when I entered the South Terrace of the Samuel Garden nearly 70 years after he finished it. But there she was, in a swimsuit and wrap lying on one of the stone benches, in full view of the stony gaze of one of America’s forefathers. (I didn’t have the guts to take the picture, as she was awake and talking on an iPhone.)
I’m pretty sure Rosin – who had a taste for sculpting Polynesian women – would have loved it. The Puritan would not.
The fixing of the monuments’ meaning in those who came to America seeking religious freedom (The Quaker and The Puritan) is shaken by the fact of public art: that people do not merely interpret it but interact with it, in ever-changing, everyday ways that refocus and even distort its intent. A Puritan, who would probably be all in favor of burqas, is forced to look down on exposed female flesh – not to mention witness a stream of “frivolities” as people take their social ease in his presence.
Quite a comeuppance for one of the least tolerant religious figures in American history – until this latest crop of Republican hopefuls for the presidency (Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum … no, “Republican” and “hopeful” don’t really go together with these characters).
The Quaker and Puritan flank a relief recalling the Settling of the Seaboard, which might also be called “There Goes the Neighborhood.” (Given my difficulty getting a balanced shot, I wondered about the settling of the statue.) The ironic title – the Atlantic seaboard was settled when the Europeans arrived; the “settlement” was more one where it was decided the natives had to go – is accompanied by a quotation from William Penn to the Indians: “I have great love and regard towards you and desire to win your love and friendship by a kind, just and peaceable life, and the people I send are of the same mind and shall in all things behave themselves accordingly.”
These may have been Penn’s sentiments in his perspective, but in the hindsight of history, they ring as hollowly (if not quite as self-righteously) as a contemporary campaign pledge.
The relief is the only original piece here to feature a Native American. (Stone Age in America, mentioned earlier, was added to the area in the 1980s.) As history progresses through the garden, the native inhabitants vanish. In this sense, the garden mirrors the mainstream American tale through the 1960s. That this tendency is unconscious makes it all the more revealing.
What societies suppress says a lot.
The South Terrace also features the 1943 relief The Birth of a Nation, by German immigrant sculptor Henry Kreis. The sculpture is inoffensive, albeit peculiar in its coupling of the notion of “birth” with entirely masculine figures. It is flanked by The Revolutionary Soldier and The Statesman (1943), by Ohio artist Erwin Frey, as (the sign says) “twin necessities of the new republic: military might to secure freedom, and political intelligence to preserve those freedoms.”
The pigeons seem very fond of The Statesman.
The Central Terrace has less potential for broad historical criticism but speaks sardonically to our present. Highlighting “Westward Expansion, Slavery Emancipation and the Welcoming of Immigrants,” its focus is directed to the central statue, The Spirit of Enterprise (1950-1960), by Lithuanian Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.* According to the Fairmount Park Art Association, its trustees imagined a piece conveying “the vigor, the power of harnessed nature, or the strength of men harnessing nature and making it conform to their uses and desires.”
A few volcanoes in Iceland and a tsunami in Japan might have something to say about the success of that notion.
Cubist sculpture is not intended to be realistic, so it’s a bit dangerous to put too much interpretative fancy toward what one is seeing. (Yes, I wonder what that is that the “eagle” – or is it a phoenix? – is sitting on, too. Ouch.) Without any such filtering, however, Spirit of Enterprise might well be described as a “mess” – and while that is an appropriate descriptor of certain U.S. enterprises, not to mention the national and global economies, it’s not what we’re supposed to get out of it.
The official version is that it depicts a muscular pioneer scanning the horizon of the future, and that the eagle before him shares in the arduous and resourceful undertaking. This is echoed by the quote on the pedestal, from Theodore Roosevelt: “Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with fearless and eager eyes, as vigorous as a young man to run a race.”
This is absolutely not the prevailing attitude in the United States today. In the shadow of the eternal debt-and-deficit debates, one might reword it “Our nation, anxious and wary as senior citizens, holds onto what it has for dear life, and refuses to set foot outside the house.” (And no, that is not the president’s fault.)
Seeing this statue after a week that featured one discussion partner arguing why businesses shouldn’t be expected to hire anyone (“They’re scared of what taxes and regulations government might come up with”), and another asserting we are “absolutely” headed for a double-dip recession, I wondered what this “irrepressible, belligerent, and enthusiastic” Roosevelt would have made of today’s political and economic bickerers. I suspect he, like his fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wouldn’t have had patience for any of them – or much willingness to mollify them.
On either end of the Central Terrace, scanning from south to north, are statues depicting Spanning the Continent (1937, by French American sculptor Robert Laurent) and Welcoming to Freedom (1939, by Latvian American sculptor Maurice Sterne). The first made me think of Lizzie Borden, as the woman of the pioneer couple it depicts not only holds an axe but has the expression of a malicious fanatic about her. With their wide stances, the figures seem set to trample anything and anyone who comes across their path.
But it is Welcoming to Freedom that gives me pause. The seated figure is said to be “breaking his chains” (and a closer look reveals something like a chain link in his hand), but he looks for all the world as if he’s giving a bras d’honneur (oh yeah? same to you, buddy), while the standing figure seems to be surrendering to arrest or a mugging. As two possible reactions to arriving in today’s America, they strike me as quite appropriate – though not, of course, what Sterne had in mind.
This is another of those ways in which the times change the art. The United States today is noticeably uncivil, personally confrontational, and often violent. Recent decades have seen a rise in hostility toward immigrants, in temper-driven gun violence, and in personal, gut-reaction political discourse that often has been racist and nearly always has been disrespectful of the right of people to disagree, making imaginary “threats” personal (“You want to destroy our economy! You want to steal my money!”).
This hardly fits the spirit in the quotation by Abraham Lincoln that decorates half the wall behind the sculpture: “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” That work, which Lincoln went on to describe as “binding up wounds” and caring for the people, has a long way to go – and is regularly back-burnered while “the people” fuss about who is right, worry about how much money they have, and insult those with whom they disagree.
The Lincoln quotation brought to mind the Statue of Liberty‘s famous motto: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. …” I’m afraid that if the motto were to be written by those who wave the banner of America the most today, it would read “You’re not our problem. You aren’t entitled to what we have. We have our pension funds, our houses, our cable television, and our children’s desire for video games to worry about. Quit sponging.”
But then, that message was sent before. We just don’t memorialize it.
The Central Terrace features an additional four figures on pedestals at the corners: The Slave (1940, by Belgian immigrant sculptor Helene Sardeau); The Immigrant (1940, by German immigrant sculptor Heinz Warneke); The Ploughman (1938, by Philadelphia sculptor J. Wallace Kelly); and The Miner (1938, by North Dakota sculptor John B. Flannagan). In the expansion of the nation in the 1800s, these were major icons. Looking at it today, one is struck by the absence of “The CEO.” While this comes almost as a relief, it also gives me pause: Would the expansion have been possible without “The Banker,” “The Merchant,” “The Railroad Worker”?
Incidentally, it helps to remember that nine-tenths of the railroad workers (and a good many miners) were immigrant Chinese – not the “poor European” depicted. If they reap the profits of their labor investment today, perhaps they earned it.
In the 1800s – a century that saw American “exceptionalism” in spades, from Manifest Destiny to economic liberalism (ironically promoted today by conservatives, but that’s part of its weirdness; everyone appeals to it at some point or other) – the controlling forces of American growth became invisible entities in the background, as did the unique ethnic character of many of the actors. Similarly, by the North Terrace the emphasis on historical figures and individuals morphs into representations of “the spiritual, intellectual, and physical ‘inner energies’ that shaped the nation.”
In the current atmosphere, these are particularly interesting, as the energies that dominate are the ones at the corners (and often in opposition, as they are on the terrace): The Preacher (1952, by German sculptor Waldemar Raemisch) and The Laborer (1958, by New York sculptor Ahron Ben-Shmuel). The first looks terribly worried at his assignment, carved on the pedestal below him: “He guided our ways.”
I mentioned this to my minister father, who drily said, “We usually are.” But I know two dominant types for this anxious energy. The first worries over the guidance given and her or his own responsibility not merely to live up to that guidance but to allow that God has the final arbitration. The second worries more about what others are doing, doesn’t give a hoot for her or his own responsibility, and would tell God what to do in a millisecond. (Sarah Palin’s senior pastor, who questioned the salvation of anyone who voted for John Kerry in 2004, seems to fall into the second group. Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor, might fall there too, though striking me as concerned more with hearing his own voice.)
The Preacher may be my favorite statue in the garden, not for personal connections to the faith but because stepping to the side of him or in front of him completely changes how I see him. Face to face, he is a worried, vulnerable figure – the energy of individual anxiety. To the side, he looks out on the other statues as if to say, “Why can’t I control these people?” The figures before him seem the greatest source of his distress: alternate energies that have their place but rarely bow to religious hysteria.
Directly in the figure’s line of sight are The Poet (1954, by Spanish immigrant sculptor José de Creeft) and The Scientist (1955, by Armenian immigrant sculptor Koren der Harootian), who are interesting more in their vagueness, their general turning away from The Preacher, and their placement toward the back of the terrace, than they are in themselves. Said to have “shaped our dreams,” The Poet now looks to have gone to sleep himself (doubtless from malnutrition due to funding cuts). The Scientist suffers from an even greater problem: his role is to have “weighed the stars.” While that is a hefty task, it’s rather a peculiar description of what scientists do.
Indeed, I got the impression that the garden, and perhaps America as a whole, isn’t quite sure what to make of poets and scientists. They stand out oddly in the national narrative as presented in the Samuel Memorial, which is so highly physical. Until the North Terrace, for better and worse, we see actions and events caused by action. But the intellectual energies of progress – measuring, weighing, calculating, combining, theorizing, speculating, reflecting, expressing – are not ones Americans are very comfortable with.
Which is funny, because our need for exercise is getting global attention these days as well. “Muscular America” is as outdated as the buggy whip; yet I’m not sure we’ve replaced it with much creative or analytical activity.
The garden returns to the physical (with some relief) in the figure of The Laborer. And he seems to want none of what’s behind him: scientists, poets, preachers, you name it. In the current landscape, he speculatively eyes the central district of Philadelphia down the line of the Schuylkill River, looking toward what he has built – or, quite possibly, wondering if there are any jobs available there.
The engraving on the pedestal says of The Laborer that he “wrought miracles.” And this is part of where the oppositional placement with The Preacher strikes me as revealing. In the latter’s worldview, it should only be God who performs miracles. In the industrial landscape of U.S. “energies,” humankind is the one with such power. And this seems highly relevant in political conversations today: the message from conservatives, particularly, that “God favors America” or a particular party; the antagonism toward unions and organizations to protect labor; the constant references to the threat of “socialism,” where that annoying proletariat might have some control in the means of production; the new contempt – shown increasingly by people who themselves protested “elitism” not a year ago – for manual workers and employees generally, while small business owners and corporate heads (especially white male ones) are afforded respect.
Perhaps The Preacher actually is trying to get across, with Baron Acton, that as far as humankind is concerned, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But whether the lesson is for America or the energies that turn away from spirituality is debatable – as is the benign and helpful character of the message as expressed by certain people.
The Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden is something I feel fortunate as a Philadelphian to have in my city. I notice the broad sweep of history, rather than today’s narrow focus on what the writers of the Declaration and the Constitution would have thought or done. I notice how considering these periods leads us to rediscovery of what was left out that has been essential for the development of the United States. (Contrary to the contemporary narrative, the country did not come into being at the Revolution, undergo a Great Depression, and then elect Ronald Reagan. A good number of other things occurred.)
The overriding theme of the garden is one of growth and progress in a nation – which raises questions about where we are now, and whether we see this country as a closed narrative or as something still to challenge our imaginations. What would such a garden for future generations depict – the energies and moments of expanding opportunities, tolerance, and diversity, or those of trying to return to the themes in the present garden? Would it reflect opportunism, international interference, fear, closed-mindedness? Or would it reflect a struggle to come to terms with those missing parts, to incorporate ever new elements, to dedicate its energies to human welfare?
The “garden,” of course, is stone. Like the past it represents, it does not live and grow. And that itself is important to remember. Just as even stone takes on different meanings with the landscape and the times, so the past is not fixed, but it does not return to us. The Founders will not be coming back to give advice on our readings of the Declaration and the Constitution.
In the reactionary world we face today, I think we do well to remember that, and to put more energy into creating a nation that deserves the efforts of future artists and philanthropists. Because, personally, I don’t favor a garden to “The Lawyer,” “The Financier,” “The Couch Potato,” “The Consumer,” “The Destruction of the Middle Class,” “The Protection of Corporations,” “Consumption of Natural Resources,” and “Turning Our Backs on the Poor.”
It seems to me we could leave the future a better legacy.
*There is a great bit of local irony about Lipchitz. His statue Government of the People (1976), on the plaza in front of the Municipal Services Building in Center City, now towers over a banal bronze of former mayor Frank Rizzo, who hated the Lipchitz statue and fought against its commissioning. I can’t say I’m fond of Lipchitz’s statue, but I remember Rizzo and find Lipchitz’s choice far the less harmful subject.