I must confess to a certain smugness as the debate regarding the removal of Confederate statuary has taken on an aesthetic perspective. For years, I have endured the tacit, passive-aggressive notion from some newspaper colleagues and even bosses that my job as a cultural writer was not as important as those of the political and municipal writers and even the sports reporters. (Indeed, I lost that job partly because it was considered of lesser significance.)
But the arts – somewhat like religion and the family – are the refuge of the desperate and the inconsolable. Unfortunately for the arts, they are a refuge that their seekers often do not fully understand.
Some of my colleagues in my present job as an editor wonder about the artistic value that may be lost in the removal of the Confederate statues. No less an art lover than President Donald J. Trump bemoaned “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks.”
But are these works beautiful and, more to the point, are they art?
Let’s face it, the subjects – grizzled generals for the most part astride horses – were no Apollo Belvedere in the looks department. They weren’t even Alexander the Great, who with his trusty steed Bucephalus, helped inspire the trend to equestrian sculpture and painting. When I was in Thessaloniki, my fellow tour companions and I couldn’t get enough of the city’s sweeping monument to the Greco-Macedonian conqueror of the Persian Empire astride Bucephalus. It’s a beautiful work, but then, Alexander has come down to us as a real beauty, and he remains a source of great pride for the Greek people.
Art, however, is not necessarily about traditional physical beauty. Consider the poignant Hellenistic (post-Alexander) sculpture “The Boxer,” which captures a pugilist – his face bruised and swollen; his hands gnarled – at rest. Or Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the novelist Honoré de Balzac, with his outsized head and portly body. These works are no less artistic for the subjects’ lack of beauty. And, I would argue, they are artistic in a way that the Confederate sculptures are not.
Art is the meeting of a gift and an intent. The artist seeks to explain something to the world – and to himself. (Often what he seeks to explain is something of himself.) That is why even when a work is commissioned, as in Daniel Chester French’s Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, it is about nothing but itself. The moving figure of Lincoln – contemplative, weighted by worldly cares – is both self-contained and transcendent, partly Lincoln and partly the artist himself.
So art begins with an intention – to create a work of art that transcends any other purpose. It is achieved with a kind of talent that transcends mere skill. And it contains a psychological truth that is part of its self-possession. Hamlet always dies, because “Hamlet” is a portrait of what it means to contemplate death, to grieve, and to die yourself.
None of this is true of the Confederate statuary. First, the intention was not to create an artwork in and of itself. Do we know the artists? Do we care? Not at all.
In this, I echo the brilliant comments of artist Adam Pendleton in a New York Times article:
“These are not works of art, they’re propaganda,” he told The Times. “To equate them with how a work of art exists in the world is a false equation. They’re instruments of a political agenda and it would be real folly to suggest that there is any kind of ambiguity."
“Their artistic merit is irrelevant because it’s beside the point,” he added. “We don’t think about who created the statue of Robert E. Lee and what her intentions were. We think about who and what Robert E. Lee signifies.”
Secondly, the works, while skilled, are not exceptional in craft, though the horses are often very fine. But the various generals? Meh. This is true even of the commanding, gilded statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman that stands in Grand Army Plaza outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, which Trump once owned. It’s by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a brilliant sculptor, but it in no way compares to his fabulous Diana at The Metropolitan Museum of Art or his heartbreaking grave stele for Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park Cemetery that Eleanor Roosevelt often visited after she discovered the unfaithfulness of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Again, following Adam Pendleton’s train of thought, the Diana and Adams memorial, true artworks, are not about the goddess and the woman they in different ways represent. They’re about ideas – myth and grief respectively – and Saint-Gaudens’ artistry. Whereas, the Sherman memorial is only about Sherman, whose scorched earth policies garnered success and criticism.
This brings us to why the memorials to the Union generals were erected. Not for art’s sake, certainly. And not even for history’s. No, they were put up for one purpose and one purpose only – power, the power of a Union Army that laid waste to the South and its way of life. Look at the images of Atlanta in photographs of the era. When Margaret Mitchell titled her novel “Gone With the Wind,” this is what she meant. Still, they are symbols of victory.
And what of the Confederate monuments? They are about power, too, the stubborn power of a people who have refused to accept the reality of defeat and who in statuary lorded that refusal over the ex-slaves and their descendants, on whose backs they had built their way of life. The losers shouldn’t get to exhibit the trophies of loss anymore than the runner-up at Wimbledon gets the trophy.
And that is why it is time for the statues to move to museums, where curators and educators can tell their stories in a wider context for present and future generations.
As for Trump and all those who are worried about the loss of their “artistic” value, I suggest they visit a museum, read an art history book – and get a clue.