June 30, 2004

Would we tell France to keep their Statue of Liberty?

So asks a letter writer to a newspaper in Jersey City, where there are second thoughts about a plan to install a 10-story tall sculpture on a pier across the river from the World Trade Center site. The sculpture is pictured, in model form, posing with its artist, the Russian Zurab Tsereteli, on the front page of today's NYT. It is a horrendous bronze twin-tower-shape with a large jagged hole through the center and a maudlin, shiny, metal teardrop hanging inside that hole. Like the Statue of Liberty, it is a gift.

I wrote yesterday about the problem of imposing public art on people, and this teardrop monstrosity is surely an imposition, purporting to represent the grief of the city in the form of one artist's egotistic self-expression/self-promotion. People in Manhattan will have to look at it forever. It's not an artwork that seeks to "challenge" viewers the way "Tilted Arc" and "Tumbling Woman" did. Challenging the viewer is a standard high-art goal, which can be a problem in the case of public art (my point yesterday). The horrid teardrop WTC sculpture has a different problem: it's ugly and idiotic. With NYC and the rest of the world now alerted about the monstrosity thanks to the NYT, I presume Jersey City will come to its senses and reject the gift. It will not garner support for the sort of people who defended "Tilted Arc" and "Tumbling Woman," people who favor the placement of challenging art in public places. High art fans are sure to hate this thing, and high art fans are quite likely to see and respond to the front-page NYT story.

But that letter writer raises an interesting point. If Americans had reacted to art they way they do now back in 1886 when France offered us the Statue of Liberty, would we have accepted it? We're so used to the colossus in the harbor that it takes some effort to imagine seeing it for the first time and thinking about whether it is a good idea to undertake the work of building the pedestal and maintaining the site and to force people to look at the thing forever. I think there would be plenty of ridicule: the arrogant sculptor with his self-aggrandizing, oversized hulk of metal, the sentimental and pedestrian attempt to portray an abstraction in the form of a woman holding up a light, the ridiculous spikes on the head, anything we don't like about France, etc. I think the opponents of the Statue of Liberty could easily win if it were in dispute today.

Nevertheless, I dearly hope Jersey City rejects the Russian artist's gift. It needs to shed the teardrop.

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