Have you ever been staggered by public art? In 2020, I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to cover an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s work. I spent a couple of days in the city of Richmond visiting other art spaces and walking along Monument Avenue, which at the time featured four bronze statues representing J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. I was genuinely surprised at how high off the ground they stood on their marble plinths and astride their horses, how aesthetically venerated these tributes to Confederate defectors were, like conquerors who could never be subdued (though they were vanquished just a few months later in the foment following George Floyd’s murder). Encountering these while walking along the avenue just twice during my visit, I understood what people mean when they say that they feel tyrannized and preyed on by these inanimate objects. Though they don’t move, they move us, the viewers.
In many cases, public art that depicts a contested version of the hero elicits a deep emotional and spiritual response from the public. As Nick Mirzoeff writes in his recent book White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness, about the proliferation of confederate monuments throughout the United States: “The monuments acted as media infrastructure by conveying a message.” This is to say that these artworks operate like an active radio tower, constantly transmitting shared meanings to anyone equipped to receive the broadcast. Many of us are tuned into the frequency of the paradigmatic values and beliefs that these artworks relay. In the case of Shahzia Sikander’s intervention in public space with her work “NOW” (2023), atop the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, and “Witness” (2023), at the adjacent Madison Square Park, the meanings the pieces convey have much to do with conceptions of the heroic embedded in US popular culture.
The mostly positive reviews of Sikander’s three-part installation, Havah … to breathe, air, life, cite three main factors that make the yellow bronze female figures powerful. One factor that constitutes “a form of resistance,” as Sikander told Dan Bilefsky for the New York Times, is the placement of “NOW” in “a space that has historically been dominated by patriarchal representation.” Among the nine luminary figures lining the rooftop, including Confucius, Solon, Justinian, Zoroaster, and Moses, Sikander’s is the only woman. The artist seeks to normalize the idea of recognizing and celebrating historically significant women in the same places as, and with a similar reverence that is shown to, men.
However, the artwork is only a temporary installation, and while most of the male figures represent people who actually existed, Sikander’s heroine is not a particular individual, though she does visually allude to former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by including an elaborate collar and a pleated jabot similar to Ginsburg’s.
Second, the figure’s mythological appearance has been interpreted as a facet of its potency. Instead of arms and legs, she possesses convoluted tendrils that might be branches or roots. As Rhea Nayyar writes in her article for Hyperallergic, “The figure assumes a fluid, autonomous energy rooted in natural and mystical power.” In the New York Times, art historian Claire Bishop cites the need for “more radiant female energy on the façade of every courthouse,” and she hopes that “she can help channel us back to reinstating Roe v. Wade.”
The limitation of this kind of sentiment is that it often does not go hand in hand with the kind of long-range planning and methodical organization necessary to create a federal statute that would comprehensively legalize and protect women’s reproductive freedom. The enemies of this freedom, groups such as the Federalist Society that want to curtail women’s health care choices, limit their autonomy, and revert women to subservient social positions, are disciplined and systematic in their efforts. It’s unlikely that the spiritual zeal conjured by this or any artwork can compensate for what is practically accomplished by those groups that exercise their strength in the arenas of law and social policy.
A third aspect of the work’s efficacy consists in Sikander’s figures occupying visual and architectural positions of dominance. “NOW” soars over viewers from the perch of the courthouse rooftop; “Witness,” attached to an armature in the shape of a skirt, floats above the viewer at 18 feet high. Nayyar quotes a visitor to Madison Square Park, Sarah Sultan: “We as women cover our bodies and shrink ourselves down to a size that people would find acceptable. But she is literally towering over all of us.” Sikander is attempting to literalize the subtle homology between visual dominance and heroism.
However, Bharti Lalwani, an artist and writer who created the Litrahb Perfumery blog, and who tends to focus on contemporary art of Southeast Asia, finds this symbolic heroism empty. In her post “Your Tokens Can Eat Dirt” she asks: “Where women safely accessing health care is deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court, whose anxieties does the passive female statue glittering atop the courthouse soothe?” She goes on to state that “These static artworks … neither interrogate the concept of justice nor critique the State and its active role in the evisceration of fundamental human rights, let alone the rights of women.” Furthermore, these pieces amount to “spiritually impoverished tokens.”
Lalwani comments that “The status quo remains unchanged,” and defines art that, in her view, has the potential to effect profound change. “Great art holds its ground firmly and unambiguously in opposition to structurally racist institutions of power.” I’m not sure what this art looks like. Could it look like Cameron Rowland’s conceptual installations that point to the state’s dehumanization of its prison population? Does it resemble Nick Cave’s collections of racist memorabilia, or the quietly devastating work of Simone Leigh’s figures, who won’t even deign to reciprocate the viewer’s gaze?
It must be said that no work of art interrogates anyone or anything. This linguistic tic is endemic to the art scene and unproductively cliché. The action of questioning in a focused, rigorous, probing, and relentless manner is something that humans do, not inanimate objects. Moreover, I’m unaware of any art object or historical movement that has changed the status quo. The art scene often confuses art’s soft power with the power to wield public sentiment and direct public action, a power that becomes most apparent in mass social movements.
Lalwani is correct in recognizing that there is such a thing as tokenistic public art that is symbolically lavish but airily vague. Think of artist Kristen Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” (2017) sculpture, initially installed to confront Arturo Di Modica’s “Charging Bull” (1989) on Wall Street in Manhattan in celebration of International Woman’s Day. “Fearless Girl,” which measures only slightly over four feet, counterposes the 11-foot-tall figure of a wild and burly bronze beast. It was originally received by much of the general public as a portrayal of courage and indefatigable will. But as the arts journalist Jillian Steinhauer reported in Hyperallergic:
Could there possibly be anything more patronizing than two massive, male-dominated capitalist companies installing a branded statue of the most conceivably nonthreatening version of womankind in supposed honor of a day devoted to women’s equality that was founded by the Socialist Party? No, alas, I think there could not.
Though some critical voices called out this “fake corporate feminism,” the general public still clearly exhibits a widespread desire for public symbols rooted in relentless positive affirmation. The crucial question is: Since all these objects exist primarily in the realm of visual metaphor, of inspirational signs, how do we judge the supposed authenticity of one object in comparison to the next?
One way is by gauging the sum of public opinion incited by the work. In the case of “NOW” — to answer the question posed by Lalwani regarding whose anxieties are soothed — Bilefsky reports that Justice Dianne T. Renwick, the first Black female justice at the Appellate Division, finds that the piece “gave her a feeling of contentment and pride.”
Yet when we use public sentiment as the barometer of an artwork’s worth and significance, artists who receive criticism often retreat to the unassailable redoubt of their intention or claim that the public is just missing the point. This is what has occurred with the installation of “The Embrace” by Hank Willis Thomas.
“The Embrace” is a 20-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicting arms locked in a cuddle. The pose is based on a famous 1964 photograph of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King that was taken when MLK found out he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. It has excited a panoply of responses ranging from passionate support to derisive dismissal, and even contempt. Depending on the angle of view, particularly for those (like me) who have only seen it in reproductions that allow limited vantages, one of the raised arms can resemble a penis or the act of oral sex. Alternatively, from another angle, according to Pariss Athena, the work “looks like a hug forming a heart.” The choice to be more abstract than figurative has also garnered anger. Karen Attiah claims that “For such a large statue, dismembering MLK and Coretta Scott King is … a choice. A deliberate one. Boston’s ‘Embrace’ statue perfectly represents how White America loves to butcher MLK.”
In order to combat these pessimistic views, advocates for the work have written long screeds defending it, and the artist has had conversations with news outlets that mean to inform audiences about what they are failing to notice.
Dart Adams, a journalist and researcher who lives in Boston, defends the work in the article “The Real, Essential Backstory of ‘the Embrace,’” asserting that “many of those commenting from outside of Boston had no idea what they were talking about.” Rather than appreciating that Boston was making a good faith effort to honor King in a city perceived to be bigoted and intolerant, he says, “It turns out that people were too blinded by their own biases about Boston to see it.”
Thomas more subtly points to what most viewers likely do not know about the work in Time magazine. He says, in an interview with Janell Ross: “I think most of us are not familiar with how intimacy played a role in social justice and civil rights.” Thus, he gently suggests to readers that they may simply not know enough, given their limited point of view on the work. He continues, “I would encourage others to reserve judgment until they experience it, just as I must reserve judgment on their responses.”
To enhance this point, Thomas talks broadly about his intentions: “It was not just about Martin Luther King, which the original commission was about. It was about his partnership with his wife, that picture where you could see the weight of his body was on her shoulders.” Dart Adams supports this view, saying “Hank Willis Thomas’s intention behind the creation of The Embrace was to highlight Black Love and the concept of Black joy in close proximity to the Boston Common’s numerous monuments to war heroes and military leaders.” The artist’s mother, Deborah Willis, a highly respected artist, curator, and historian, herself said, “Hank wanted to acknowledge her story after seeing the couple embracing in the photograph …. As artists we communicate in ways that many people take time to understand, and Hank is creating a space for joy.”
Unfortunately, those who make these arguments neglect the fact that the artist’s intention does not really matter, and has not mattered for a long time, particularly since we entered the age of mechanical reproduction. Every artwork, in addition to existing corporeally in the world, becomes a discursive object once it is seen by others. This work might be appreciated by millions who have never been in its presence, and artists cannot control the discourse around it, though many still try. It is all but useless to attempt to tell people what they are supposed to feel. Indeed, feeling joy is a bit like falling asleep. I can’t make myself do so. What I can do is produce the conditions in which sleep is most likely to happen and then wait for sleep to arrive. Willis can certainly produce the conditions by which others might feel joy, but whether “The Embrace” does this is a real question.
It has become a kind of shibboleth of the art scene lately for artists, and particularly Black artists, to claim to make work from a place of love or joy, or to make it about love and joy. Quite a few contemporary makers proclaim their intention to make work that is generated by, about, or seeking Black love, but this is merely a performative gesture. How do we determine how much of this emotion is actually available through interaction with the artwork and how much is attributed to it by outside parties?
One way is to assess how resonant the work is with our lived lives, or how performative it seems to be. This is a key part of the narrative of how this piece came about that has been largely ignored. Look at the original photo. The motion that MLK makes in embracing his wife is a gesture for the cameras in front of them. His arms are around her shoulders, but he stands facing away from her, not torso to torso, as is typical of an embrace. What makes a proper hug intimate is that bodies are close, personal, even confidential. Shared between two or more people, it intentionally leaves the rest of the world outside. The work suffers in part because it is founded on a performative gesture that is essentially made for an audience.
More, given the prolonged process of selecting and designing this work, it’s almost inconceivable that no one noticed that from certain angles the piece would not convey what the artist says he intended. The process entailed a national call for proposals that netted 126 submissions and five finalists, and it took six years to complete. This is speculative, but it may be the case that in dealing with a prominent artist handling a $10 million commission those involved who might have flagged potential problems silenced themselves rather than being regarded as “negative.”
But in the final analysis, a root obstacle to public acceptance of “The Embrace” does lie with its audience, and a core unwillingness to see our heroes as fully human, including their sexual natures. While, presumably, MLK loved his wife, it is fairly well documented that he had a robust sexual appetite that didn’t respect the boundaries of his marriage. Our sexual natures require delicate handling, particularly in public venues, and particularly in the United States, which is remarkably prurient and puritanical at the same time. But MLK was a full human being, and we should recognize his humanity and acknowledge it — yes, even publicly. In a similar vein, we largely refuse to acknowledge the problems of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s politics: that she paternalistically dismissed the concerns of Black athletes protesting a state that has consistently devalued their lives, and had a muddled record of recognizing the sovereignty of Native Americans’ rights. We make heroes of carved rock or solid bronze in order to solidify their status, but in doing so we make them represent something we will never be: ideal, faultless.
Public art often reflects our values, but also demonstrates the limits of our civic imagination. Our culture is too bound to the idea of the static, unchanging hero, too unwilling to regard these figures as fully human, too fearful of being confused instead of affirmed. We talk of love far too easily and don’t talk enough about the daily work required to nurture it and cultivate it in our lives. The question has been posed by abolitionists: What if we made no public monuments to people? What if our celebrations were instead of particular actions of general benefit to all of humankind, such as the first controlled nuclear fusion reaction, which produced more energy than the amount used to instigate it? What if we venerated the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which proclaimed that as human beings we have a certain obligation to recognize and respect another’s humanity regardless of their ostensible differences from us? Our desire to revere each other seems intuitive and ancient, but it is hindered by our limited capacity to actually see each other. What if instead of talking about people, or even events, we instead made our monuments to ideas?
Editor’s Note, 5/31/2023, 1:50pm EDT: A previous version of this article misidentified the material of Shahzia Sikander’s bronze sculpture “NOW” (2023). This error has been removed.