F News Question
-New York City commissioned a monument based on a photograph of three white fire fighters raising the flag at ground zero, and chose a statue that alters the fire fighters' ethnicities to
represent a level of diversity not necessarily present in the fire department.
-Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered $8,000 drapes to cover the Spirit of Justice statue
in the Great Hall in Washington after being appalled at having his picture taken in front of the statue's bared breast.
Should national monuments, symbols, or works of public art be altered to make them seem more representative of perceived/desired American cultural values, such as diversity or moral virtue? Who should be involved in this decision (artist only, government, public interest groups, voters)?
Monuments are always political because they are successful attempts to make claims about the present time. They represent the opinions of a group with enough power to erect an edifice in public space. I recommend that you separate the two issues of: 1) artistic license, the art process is itself an 'alteration' (a creative interpretation or alteration of reality in the process of creating an artworks, for example, the decision to pretend that the fire fighters were a more diverse group) and 2) censorship, defacement, erasure and removal of existing artworks over the period of its existence (for example, the Buddhas recently destroyed by the Taliban.) Both of the issues you raise are fascinating issues in public art.
-Lisa Norton, Director of
It's really of no consequence to me personally, as I treat all people the same! However, I think the government and a lot of individuals try to make themselves feel better about injustice done to minorities in the past by over-compensating in such outward public gestures. It's all about PR.
-Ryan Scarola, junior, BIA program
The altering of the fire fighters' ethnicity is a perfect example of ethnocentrism, which is essentially racism without elitism or malice. But how easy is it to cross that line when say, your country is attacked? In other words, where is the Arab fire fighter in this sculpture? Ashcroft's covering of the breast is a completely different problem - he's just a pervert.The solution to both problems is to simply stop making statues of people. The eagle has long served just fine as a symbol of America. How about some sea creatures? Scientists catalog an average of 26 new species on every deep-sea dive. Now that's diversity!
-William Voltz, SAIC staff
While I believe it is extremely important to be culturally and ethnically diverse in today's society, I don't believe that we should create paintings or build monuments that distort history or events to paint a better picture to the world.This moment in time was captured on film and represents something that I needed to see in the wake of a sorrowful time. I was not concerned with the color of the person's skin when the event occurred nor was I concerned whether the person was male, female, short, tall, fat, skinny or physically challenged. It was a vision that made me feel just a little bit better. That despite all the arguing and petty things that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, in the event of this great tragedy we could survive as a country and be one. ... I would be sad if I had to explain to my children someday that a statue of historical significance had to be altered to create a more ethnic flavor. ... Let's not rewrite history just to be politically correct. Changes should be made to reflect diversity in the work place. Everyone deserves a chance at being something better. We as a people must record truth truthfully, otherwise we will never grow as a people. I believe the Ashcroft issue with the drapes over the partially [revealed] statue is a bit absurd. The statues are beautiful and should not be covered up for any reason. ... The statue is not depicting a sexual or perverse act and should be on display as it was originally intended. ... Sensitivity is a good thing but we should never lose sight of common sense. Can you change the world and people's views of life? Yes, you can. Sometimes things such as a controversial piece of art can open one's mind as to what we are, what we are becoming, and what we will be.
-Chet Ildefonso, SAIC staff
I think history should be accurately recorded and not politically correct for that era.
No. That seems like an easy answer, but hasn't "the easy answer" been the ultimate problem in American Culture? THE BAND-AID CULTURE should be what we call the USA. By this I mean: Should you alter a work of art, like the fire fighters sculpture? No. Simply. But some folks, either well-meaning but ultimately dumb activists, lame, Kennedy-esque liberals, or guilt-ridden Republicans will cry out "make the sculpture multicultural." That sculpture representing different ethnic groups is just a band-aid, plain, simple. A twisted-logic perversion on all fronts. "WAH WAH but it should be this way." Does anyone honestly think that by adding an African-American and a Latino in with a white person (in bronze no less) will suddenly put the years of genocide and government sanctioned torture of black people behind us? NO, it won't. Just like putting a literal band-aid of velvet drapes over a naked female statue isn't going to send women back into the home. Those drapes are so that: 1) Cheney won't get a boner; and 2) Those wealthy Christians who give him money will continue to, because they all know that Eve was original sin. DUH! So basically, to reiterate, my answer to the question is/was/always will be no. Particularly since the discourse around the most recent art controversies has nothing to do with the actual art. It rarely ever does. ... But alas, we'll be all right because we have band-aids, more like blinders, they go on our eyes.
-Daniel Merkle, SAIC Alum
There are a number of historical, non-American examples of altered monuments, as well. I'm teaching nationalism and art this term ... One major example is the sculpture "par"' in Budapest that exists that has a bunch of sculptures/monuments that "celebrate" communist leaders/ideology that were taken down after 1989. ... Another is the Vendôme column in Paris. Another are war "heroes" of the Austrian army in the Czech lands that were "removed," and also in Prague a plague column was damaged so badly during a rally/attack in 1918 that they had to remove it. There's really a litany of things. These are just a few.
-Tamara Bissell, SAIC faculty member
At this point in time I do not think that works of art that were created in a past history of our time should be altered. These representations reflect the times for which they were created. They are a visual reminder of where we as a nation have come from. On a side note Mr. Ashcroft needs to relax a little. The Spirit of Justice statute has been around for a very long time and in fact was created during even more sexually repressed times than today. Plus, I feel that his decision to spend taxpayers' money to hide it is a mis-use of funds. Why should the Spirit of Justice be hidden now when we are fighting so hard to protect what it is she symbolizes? Works of the present should be created to reflect the society we have today. The society as seen through the eyes of the artist. There shouldn't be an ethnic requirement to public sculpture and monuments, but if the artist wishes to express diversity it is their choice. The monument for the firefighters of Sept. 11 may seem odd that the artist would choose to change the ethnicity of the firefighters to represent others that were lost... But the sculpture is more than a realistic representation of the actual event; it is a monument, a symbol of America pulling together. The reality that firefighters are mostly white is not really an issue, because there are black and yellow, and brown firefighters too (though the statistics are lower). The one question not being asked is if they made these changes on the basis of ethnicity why weren't decision also made in regards to their sex. Female firefighters are also a minority and female firefighters were also affected by Sept. 11. Why isn't this an issue?
-Heather Birkhead, coordinator, Cooperative Education department
No, completed, standing public art shouldn't be altered. It's history for better or worse. I have a lot of memories I'd rather not have, but if I alter them am I not in denial about something (or worse)? ...In the case of the fireman monument, the art hasn't been made yet - nothing is being altered, a photograph has been identified as source material. ... The final product is what's important. If we are trying to pay homage to specific persons and then we of course do need to be faithful to the ethnicity, appearance and names of those specific persons. As a symbol of American unity, however, those specifics are unimportant. I might prefer a monument saluting American unity with Blacks, Whites and Latinos, rather than paying tribute to specific persons. That IS increasingly the makeup of the States. Actually, why not make it Blacks, Whites, Latinos, AND Asians AND American Indians AND Indians AND Middle Easterners AND? ... I think they've got a good concept, but it's incomplete. ... While some public monument of our minorities is a good idea, a step towards accepting our diversity and hopefully away from prejudice, what does one about "whites, blacks & Hispanics," specifically, say about the minorities we would NOT be representing? ... Ashcroft is disrespecting history, art history, and the fact that that bare-breasted statue stands for all of us. Who is he to decide for me that the forces that forged that breast need to be counteracted? ... Is he any different than the kids spray-painting the New York and DC subways? Except that he's using my money to do it? ... There's a reason why we separated "church" and state and why it's worked a long long time and it wasn't because people like having their values determined for them. He has no right to shape history to his liking or into his likeness. ... It really angers me that a public figure is not only taking advantage of his office, but setting the bad example of manipulating art history to his own ends in the face of a public that is already widely malnourished and apathetic of the arts.
-Shawna Vacca, student
If alterations to the statues be permitted then a false accounting of history is given, so, if there is not equal representation on the force and the photo/statues reflect that, so be it. Maybe later generations will be able to reflect back to this time and know they truly made a difference, if they in fact did! As to Ashcroft working at covering up the female statues because their breasts are showing, and at the cost of $$$$$$$$$$, he needs to grow up! And, if we let him get away with this expense, in light of the outstanding expenses this administration is putting upon us to date, then we deserve what ever comes next!
-Marlene Short, Alumna and Continuing Ed. student
Ya sure I am up for changing and lying, oh ya then we will have communism hmmmmmmmmmmmm.
-Christian Foster, student