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The Artistic Value Of A Statue Is More Important Than Its History


When a mob tears down a statue, they are tearing down art. The artistic aspect of a sculpture is more important than its historic significance, and grows more so over time. All of this wrecking is a great shame. Furthermore, moving the statues to “safe spaces” for political reasons plays right into the hands of the destroyers.

The sculptor of the greatest of the so-called “Confederate” monuments, the Confederate Memorial in Arlington Cemetery, was a Sephardic Jewish gay fellow by the name of Moses Jacob Ezekial. He had been a not-particularly-effective Confederate officer before taking Robert E. Lee’s sage advice to give art a try after the war. He’s the sculptor of many other monuments.

According to the excellent article on Ezekial at the Virtual Jewish Library, when a Daughters of the Confederacy group commissioned him for this one, “He insisted that the Daughters give him full artistic license for the monument, which was based on the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.’ They agreed nervously to Ezekiel’s conditions, but were delighted with the results.”

In fact, the memorial is a mess, and a neo-baroque masterpiece, with touches of Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. It is by turns beautiful, inspiring, macabre, and just plain weird—which is just what Ezekial was shooting for. It does its job, and evokes the emotional aspects of war and its aftermath.

It reminds me of another favorite sculpture found in a wholly different setting, but with an oddly similar theme: the Peace Fountain in front of St. John’s Cathedral at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 111th Street up by Columbia University in New York, which was created by sculptor Greg Wyatt. I would like both to remain where they are, inspiring and confounding people every day.

Time Changes Art

The history of the construction of the Confederate Memorial is complex and fascinating. Basically, there was a perceived neglect of Confederate graves in Arlington and the capital area by newly ascendant Democrats (remember that Arlington was Robert E. Lee’s house, and Union Quartermaster General Meigs put the cemetery on the grounds of the estate to make a point). Various Confederates were also buried there from the start, and all the Confederate military graves in the area were consolidated to Arlington in 1901. (There are also many graves of killed freed black people in the cemetery.)

The Daughters of the Confederacy, after much infighting, agreed to fund a memorial. A committee hired Ezekial to do it. He demanded autonomy, but they gave him plenty of input anyway. (If you want to understand why, and what a feuding committee of DOC harridans might sound like, I invite you to read Owen Wister’s excellent novel “Lady Baltimore.”) In the end, Ezekial turned out his masterpiece. It was dedicated in 1914 by none other than Woodrow Wilson, lately president of Princeton University.

So what does this weigh against the moral abomination of Jim Crow? Or, as somebody put it when I voiced the thesis of this article to a few people, “What if someone put up a statue of Hitler in Jerusalem? Would the Jews not be justified in tearing it down?” Putting aside the amusing notion that Israel has a monolithic political culture, it’s a false comparison.

First, nobody is erecting Confederate statues now. Almost all these went up after the Democrats returned to power in the Southern legislatures in the late 19th and early 20th century. These memorials and little gardens of statues, frequently found at Southern state capitals, are their own indictment of the Jim Crow South. They are reminders of a bad political era when the South effectively condemned itself to being a collection of banana republics for 75 years by handicapping the entrepreneurial spirit and economic dynamism of a quarter of its population. One thing Confederate monuments are is an effective memento to a time nobody wants to return to.

Second, comparing the Confederacy to Nazi Germany, and Robert E. Lee, or even Jefferson Davis, to Hitler is facile nonsense. To develop this obvious point would take a wearisome digression into the Fire Swamp of Civil War polemics, where one encounters Lightning Sand and Rodents of Unusual Size, so let’s don’t and say we did.

Anyway, all of this is beside the point. Art does not need moral justification. We humans should not tear down the Coliseum in Rome, the pyramids, or have allowed the Taliban to blast the Bamiyan Buddhas away. It doesn’t matter if we don’t approve of their original uses.

Furthermore, art needs to remain in its setting. This especially so for memorial sculpture and architecture. You don’t look at sculpture, you inhabit it. You move around it and consider it in relation to the background, the landscape, or the lack of landscape, or wherever it is.

An artist commissioned to produce a memorial thinks about this as he works. It becomes part of the project. In fact, for a lot of modern sculptures, the work is explicitly that relationship between the location and the piece. But the same thing holds true of older work, as well, in a subtler, better way—because meaning accretes. Time and change become part of a piece.

Nothing Lasts

Those conservatives who want to put Confederate statues in explaining houses (one hesitates to call their idea of where they should be placed “museums”) are perhaps well-meaning, but what they want would be just as destructive as beating them into shanks and espresso machines. They already are in historical context—right where they stand.

What such well-meaning folks are really advocating is placing the statues in quarantine, a kind of historical stasis that freezes in place the prejudices of the moment. Frankly, it’s just another way to destroy art some people don’t like in a seemingly civilized faction. It’s also, well, kinda Marxist. History has no teleological arrow. Things could get worse just as easily as they could get better. Your statue barns sound like a terrible idea.

Am I being a big fat hypocrite? What about conservative protests of “Piss Christ,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s dive into photographs of late 1970s gay S&M clubs, Damien Hirst’s monstrosities, and such? Is art only art when it’s your ox getting gored?

“Piss Christ” is a photograph. Prints are on display all over the place. It was most recently on national display at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Nobody is censoring it. Whether a National Endowment of the Arts grant should have paid for it is another matter entirely.

Considering the mounds of crap art out there today, I think most conservatives are more or less okay with the existence of “Piss Christ,” and don’t want to cancel it. That was never really the objection. Furthermore, I believe Serrano wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, but had in mind saying that Jesus came into a sewer-like world to redeem it. As if anybody would take it that way. Artists can be very naïve.

When a piece is created, its artistic worth is coequal with its moral worth—which includes the politics surround it. But the art side grows more important, and the political less so, with each passing day. Nowadays, I don’t think much of “Piss Christ” because it’s kitsch, not because I have a religious objection to it.

Hey, if somebody forced me to tear down or fix monuments, the first thing I’d take a hammer to would be that awful slash in the ground known as the Vietnam War Memorial. Then I would hire somebody who can do figures to bring some healing chiselwork to the MLK statue next to the National Mall. He looks like a Maoist thug about to send Tibetans to the camps, and MLK deserves better.

I might then direct the same artist over to the National Portrait Gallery to touch up Kehinde Wiley’s awful depiction of President Obama. Or maybe just pull the leaves over him and start again. But I don’t want to destroy any of that, because I’m not an idiot.

We should leave everything the way it is and let time take care of things, as it always does. In the end, nothing lasts and everything passes without human aid. There is no Indiana Jones warehouse where all interesting things survive. If you hate a piece enough, you can take solace in the fact that, sooner or later, it will disappear forever, and that forever is a very long time.

I do have faith in C.S. Lewis’s notion that there is a heaven that will be the resurrection of all the cool stuff, starting with individual souls (even, perhaps, that of Robert E. Lee!). But, considering the mortal days of man and the sands of time, we should be willing to entertain the possibility that our momentary judgement is wrong, and maybe we should defend even art that we don’t like very much.

We might be wrong in our judgement. Eternity may hold surprises. Perhaps, to instruct me in my own hubris, the Lord will see to it that my portion of heaven (or the other place) is full of paintings of dogs playing poker with a continual soundtrack provided by REO Speedwagon.

Art Is More Than Politics

Back on Earth, politics surely does affect art. All of the Christopher Columbus statues in America were pushed for or paid for by Italian-Americans after they became middle-class prosperous—Columbus was Italian, after all. They were an announcement of having arrived. Contrary to Marxist aesthetic dogma, this rise to a bourgeoisie existence by one group or another has paid for almost every piece of great art in, well, ever.

Now, after struggling through 40 years of failed Great Society nonsense, black American families as an economic group have achieved a new level of affluence. The desire to get rid of Jim Crow era statues is an expression of commercial and political muscle. The plans of Antifa and BLM to do so is more nefarious.

Both efforts will backfire. Art means something deeper to people than politics—even the art in those rusty old statues. A better course would be to simply surround the old Rebs with new, bigger creations to look up to. Or, better yet, leave J.E.B. and Stonewall be, as pigeon-dirtied ghosts that are irrelevant to you and yours. That is the true victory.

But spare a thought for Moses Jacob Ezekial, and his tribe of Gilded Age sculptors. Ezekial gave it his best at the Field of Lost Shoes, watched his friends die horribly, and later gathered their mangled bodies for burial. He tried to work that misery, resignation, and hope for peace into his art, and sometimes succeeded. He went on to fame in Europe, and domestic bliss with his “lifelong companion,” Fedor Encke, a painter and the illegitimate grandson of Friedrich Wilhelm II.

Ezekial made hundreds of sculptures. He created the huge Columbus statue for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. His last work was the Edgar Allan Poe in Wyman Park in Baltimore. He was gay as the day is long, a bit of a bigot, a bit of a freak, and a great American. Above all, he was a hell of a sculptor. Whatever or whoever a “Confederate” statue may depict, the men (and women!) who created those statues the mob is so mad to destroy deserve to have their work respected. And left in place.