This morning, the Victims of Communism Memorial will become a permanent part of the Washington, D.C. landscape, at a formal dedication ceremony two blocks from Union Station. The centerpiece of the memorial is the “Goddess of Democracy,” a statue based upon the one built by Chinese students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. NR’s John J. Miller recently talked to Thomas Marsh, the sculptor behind the memorial:
John J. Miller: Why is the “Goddess of Democracy” a fitting symbol for the memorial?
Thomas Marsh: The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation chose that sculptural image as the central symbol because it is widely recognized as standing for the ideals of democracy and liberty. The students who first fashioned the 40-foot-high rough plaster sculpture wished to make a direct reference to our Statue of Liberty. Though the Democracy statue is noticeably different, the similarities are significant. One can find photos of the original in Tiananmen Square, with the statue’s name clearly printed in Chinese characters: Statue of Democracy. (“Goddess of Democracy” emerged for some reason in the news, and the statue has been identified as such ever since.) The Democracy statue is unambiguous in its meaning: It stands for man against the State. Specifically, it stood and stands for man against the most brutal tyranny ever devised, communism. In fact, the students in Tiananmen Square placed the statue such that it directly confronted a gigantic portrait of Mao Zedong.
Miller: How did you become involved with the Victims of Communism Memorial?
Marsh: In July 2003, Jay Katzen (now with the Peace Corps) called me at home in rural Santa Rosa, California. He said Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy had recommended me as a sculptor who would be able to work with the organization Mr. Katzen headed at the time, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, to build their memorial. Because of my history of having worked with the Democracy Statue image (including providing small scale versions to NED for their annual awards, and having been the primary sculptor and co-leader of the project to place a “Goddess of Democracy” in San Francisco) I was sought out as an appropriate artist to design this memorial. When Lee Edwards took over as president of the VOC Memorial Foundation in early 2004, we began our work in earnest.
Miller: You didn’t charge the memorial foundation a fee for your services as a sculptor. Don’t you need to make a living?
Marsh: Though I don’t come from a wealthy background and I’ve really never known financial freedom, I do make a living as an artist, and I am my family’s breadwinner. In 1989 when I witnessed the brutalities (via television and print news) of the Tiananmen massacre, I vowed to rebuild the statue, and to never profit from that act. I feel it is wrong to make money from human suffering. I knew that if that sculptural image recreated from my hand could generate money, that such money ought to go to the cause for which those students and citizens died: the twin ideals of democracy and liberty (fraternal twins).
Miller: How long does it take to create one of your statues?
Marsh: Naturally that varies depending on the size and complexity of the statue. A fairly good estimate would be ten to twelve months for a life-size figure. I’m able to produce a bronze statue fairly quickly because of a marvelous working relationship with Nordhammer Foundry in California.
Miller: Your work is figurative rather than abstract, the way a lot of memorial art has become ever since Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. What do you make of this trend?
Marsh: All good art representational art throughout history is, in a structural sense, abstract. It is a synthesis of realism and abstraction. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is fundamentally architectural, thus it is abstract by its very nature. I don’t view it at all in conflict with figurative, representational art. I think it is a very fitting and mournfully elegant memorial. Yes, there has been a trend toward abstract public sculpture and away from figurative public sculpture since the mid-20th century. I think that was inevitable, given the (temporary) dominance of expression theory over classical ideals, a power which manifested itself as Modernism. But Modernism is dying, perhaps in its death throes, because the “shock of the new” no longer shocks and originality alone never really was a sound basis for aesthetic value. Originality, though important, could not function long as the fundamental criterion for artistic excellence, as it did during the era of Modernism. Although the branch of modern art which emphasizes abstraction and pure form has much to be said for it, I feel the emerging primary role of art in human life will be personal and social transformation. I view the Democracy statue as a moving example of this kind of art. It certainly was not an act of self-expression.