Magazine | March 21, 2011, Issue

Statuary Sense

For some on the left, the default Republican position on art is generally assumed to be a) hatred of anything that isn’t a crucifixion scene painted by Norman Rockwell, or b) prudery over nudity. If you call them a philistine, they probably think you’re referring to a Jewish art critic. Ha! Idiots. But let a liberal take aim against a statue, and they’ll pause: What’s the socially conscious rationale? Well, Rep. Anthony Weiner has come out against a work of Art, a sub-baroque hunk of rock called “Triumph of Civic Virtue,” and he wants it removed from Kew Gardens in Queens, New York, and sold on craigslist. He has the most impeccable justification: It’s sexist.

It’s a statue of a big guy — Virtue — standing over defeated female forms who represent Vice. If the roles were reversed, someone would complain about woman embodying Virtue, because that antiquated notion was keeping little girls from raising their hands in class and pursuing careers as wrestlers. If something is sexist, it must be set upon with hammers; indeed, any object from the past that does not conform to the beliefs of the day must be extirpated from the public square. (If San Francisco succeeds in banning circumcision, the phallic skyscrapers will certainly offend some, and the Transamerica Tower will be outfitted with a foreskin.)

Silly old past. But allegorical statuary was part of the early 20th-century vocabulary: If anarchists had flown a biplane into the Woolworth Tower, civic leaders would have put up a statue of a huge fierce female with a terrible expression, pulling a sword from her sheath, and called it “Justice.” (And they would have rebuilt the Woolworth Tower in two years. With private money.)

Granted, these statues can look banal to modern eyes, and we laugh at their complicated symbolism. “Well, Truth has her foot on the neck of a snake, which represents the copper trusts, and the other is Duty, which is holding hands with Faith, who holds the lamp of Law, and the one in the middle is Reasonable Rate of Return on Investments, who stands for transparency in banking regulations.” But when you saw the statues in the public square, or noted a fellow riding a stone horse, you were reminded that there are great ideas, there are great deeds. If it took work and sweat and skill to coax these shapes out of a block of mute stone, the same applies to life. We may not have risen to these standards; kids may have had a rite of passage that involved climbing up on the horse and putting a cigarette in the general’s mouth. Nevertheless: Such statues were the physical embodiment of the society’s stories and ideals, and they tied every citizen to something that had come before and deserved to be remembered afterwards.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it.

#page#Modern art, thank heavens, liberated us from the tyranny of Things That Look Like Things We Recognize. We got enormous Calder statues that looked like something an ancient Egyptian robot might want to worship, or huge walls of rusty steel that symbolized our willingness to accept huge walls of rusty steel and also promoted awareness about tetanus. At a Whitney Biennial one year I saw a big block of chocolate with teethmarks, intended to raise consciousness about eating disorders. In case you missed the point there was a puddle of ersatz vomitus on the floor to raise consciousness about bulimia, and you can imagine how they had to sit the janitor down and explain that that was part of the exhibit. But should someone else throw up after looking at it, that’s different. That’s an accident. Or performance art. Ask whether anyone in the room got a grant before you mop it up.

Even if the statue weren’t sexist — say, Virtue and Vice were pre-op transsexuals — it would still rankle the right-thinking individual. “Virtue” is one of those social constructs the ruling class uses to punish the downtrodden. “Virtue” is a sword pressed to the throat of women who would otherwise decamp to the Village and paint bold, modern indictments of conditions in meat-packing factories and have passionate affairs with intense socialists who smell like goats. What is “Vice” but human desire freed from the leash and muzzle of bourgeois morality? You’d have better luck if you renamed the statue “Social Justice” and made sure everyone knew the females were Sarah Palin and the mother of the Koch brothers — and empurpled Virtue Guy’s chest with the hues of an SEIU T-shirt.

The egalitarian imperative requires not just the rearrangement of human nature to fit the bright new future, but the expunging of the old culture that produced the sinkhole of Western civilization, lest anyone gaze on the Pietà and be convinced that a woman’s role is motherhood. But if the power of art is so overwhelming, so irresistible, you have to wonder why they abandoned representational art for abstraction. Especially after Picasso’s Guernica did not, as many expected, lead to the immediate collapse of the Franco regime.

You’d also think that sculptors who plied the ancient trade would have understood what was afoot, how the death of technique meant the rise of the incoherent abstraction, explained to the congregation via the intermediary sermons of the critics. They should have kept on sculpting men on horses and robed women with laurels, but insisted that it was all an ironic commentary on the old styles. And the rubes don’t get it! Isn’t that delicious?

There’d be a statue of Reagan in every city.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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