A couple of years ago, Pittsburgh’s Art Commission decided to remove “Stephen Foster,” a bronze memorial statue. Created in 1900 by Giuseppe Moretti, it was located in a prominent location near the Carnegie Museum.
A successful memorial needs to be a convincing artwork that is politically acceptable. Satisfying both of those demands is not easy, especially when styles of sculpture change.
“Stephen Foster” sets a barefoot Black man, “Uncle Ned,” the subject of Foster’s 1848 song “Old Uncle Ned,” at the feet of the seated, well-dressed composer. I thought about that failed public work recently, when John Lewis passed. Reading his majestic statement in The New York Times, I wondered what visual memorial could be given to him:
In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
I do not think that a lifelike bronze sculpture could effectively memorialize him.
For all of their intense leftist passions, which I share, art world artists who show political work in the galleries are mostly are preaching to the choir. Nothing wrong with that, but then success in the art gallery world doesn’t mean that an artist’s work is able to speak to the larger public. Making effective public artworks is a difficult transition. Richard Serra is more successful in the blue chip art market than Maya Lin, but his “Tilted Arc” (1981), a public work that was eventually carted away from its location in New York City’s Foley Federal Plaza by popular demand, fell far short of the well-deserved success of her Vietnam War Memorial (1982), which, I admit, owes much to his style of minimalism.
In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials by Spencer Bailey (Phaidon, 2020) is a well-illustrated and extremely timely presentation of more than 60 contemporary memorials from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Chile, Israel, South Korea, and Mexico. There is one from China, dedicated to earthquake victims, but none from the former Soviet Union or the entire continent of Africa, which marks a serious deficit.
In Memory Of presents not only the famous 9/11 memorials in this country and Holocaust memorials here and in Germany, but also such lesser-known works as “Rosie the Riveter” Memorial (2000), in Richmond, California, by Cheryl Barton and Susan Schwartzenberg; Isamu Noguchi’s marvelous, highly eccentric memorial to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, designed in the 1930s but only constructed in 1984; and “Solidarity Memorial: Father Hurtado Museum” (2010) in Santiago, Chile, by Undurraga Devés Arquitectos, a memorial for a social-activist priest, who recently has been pronounced a saint.
Traditional American monuments often memorialized individuals, as in “Stephen Foster,” with sculpted likenesses. Now, however, minimalism has become the major internationally accepted basis for the contemporary memorial, a surprising fate for a relatively esoteric art world style.
But as Spencer Bailey notes, because most of the memorials in his book are abstract, their references to individuals may get lost. Some include images or sculpted components, but none of them present anything resembling traditional war memorials. Also not included are works like the controversial “RAF Bomber Command Memorial” in London, (2012). a bronze sculpture of seven crewmen, that commemorates strategic bombing. Apart from the “National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen” (2017), which Bailey describes as “a reflection of both the nation’s palpable might and profound loss,” none of these memorials celebrate military triumphs.
An artwork in a museum may retain its interest, even if the worldview it presents no longer commands assent. We admire paintings by Caravaggio and the sculpture of Bernini, though their baroque religious culture is now distant. But public monuments need to speak to the present, projecting our shared values. Or, at least, not reject our morality. Were Moretti a great sculptor, then his “Stephen Foster” might have been preserved in the Carnegie Museum. But as it is, because its political values are repellent, and its aesthetic value modest, it had to go. I had, I confess, never noticed “Stephen Foster” until I read the protests. But once I looked at it, the problems were obvious. And so maybe inspiring well-documented controversy was the most useful political role that it had.
It’s hard to imagine what a memorial to Stalin’s victims, if it were constructed in Moscow, might look like, or a statue in Lhasa dedicated to the suffering of Tibetans under the Chinese invasion. Monuments are built only when the political struggle they memorialize has been definitively won. But I doubt that the NRA would attempt to picket the “Gun Violence Memorial Project” (2018), which is in Montgomery, Alabama, and that even the most reactionary politicians don’t object to the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, memorializing the victims of the 1995 truck bombing. And I expect that the Steilneset Memorial (2011) in Norway, dedicated to the women and men murdered because they were believed to be witches, won’t attract protestors.
Richard Serra’s “Carnegie” (1985) stands on a street just around the corner from the former location of “Stephen Foster, right at the entrance to the Carnegie Museum. It sits on museum property and has never inspired the kind of local controversy that “Tilted Arc” did.
The title pays tribute to museum, which commissioned the work; the museum, in turn, is named after its founder, the local industrialist Andrew Carnegie. It seems odd that Serra’s sculpture shares its name with the anti-labor Carnegie, given the sculptor’s leftist sympathies. Even though it was fabricated on a grand scale and placed outside in the public sphere, rather than inside the museum, it is not technically a public work. Were it moved across the street to public land, would it inspire a different response?
Although many of the recent monuments presented in In Memory Of are by name architects, it would be a mistake to judge them purely aesthetically. A great sculpture may not make for convincing public art, and a successful public monument may not be a major artwork. The heavy steel plates that Serra uses in “Carnegie” are intended to reference the steel industries of Pittsburgh. But by 1985, when he made the piece, the local steel mills were rapidly disappearing. Whatever the reason, this splendid sculpture doesn’t inspire the communal feelings that Bailey associates with memorials.
Memorials and artworks are essentially different artistic genres. Bailey lists five themes of memorials: Hope, Strength, Grief, Loss, and Fear. This list delineates why there are so many memorials to the Holocaust and slavery. By memorializing terrifying events, these monuments give vent to our grief and fears, and inspire the strength needed to go on. And it suggests why “Stephen Foster” cannot now effectively function as a memorial; it fails to promote hope or strength, and certainly doesn’t speak of grief or loss. Rather than inspiring admiration for Foster, it provokes indignation over American racism, and fails as a public work.
Here it is instructive to note an editorial titled “Let Columbus Stand” in the September 27, 2020, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This Republican-run newspaper argues for the preservation of a local memorial to Christopher Columbus — a reminder that progress on this front is far from assured. Public works, much more than the rarified realm of museum art, retain political resonance whatever their quality. Looked at in a certain way, they are philosophically interesting because they can be so aggressively irritating.
Bailey gives a good account of many recently constructed memorials, but he doesn’t say anything about the origins of their style. Not does he offer a critical discussion of how they function. Just as styles of museum art have changed dramatically over the past 100 years, so have monuments. In Christian cultures, sacred monuments often made reference to belief in an afterlife. But most of these minimalist structures, built for a multicultural society, appear essentially secular. How do we then memorialize a contemporary hero? Returning to the words of John Lewis:
I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.
What public art can match Lewis’ ideals? I hope that soon some gifted artist will answer that challenge.
In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials (2020) by Spencer Bailey is published by Phaidon.
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