Public art precipitates controversy

Guest Writer

For thousands of years, citizens have been fighting about statues and public art.

The ideals of truth, beauty and creativity can be quickly quashed by power and politics.

In 1504, Leonardo da Vinci tried to hide a rival Michelangelo statue of David in a quiet corner of the Piazza della Signoria.

Locally in Sarasota, a fierce controversy has erupted over the statue of Unconditional Surrender.

Some public sculptures act as reverent reminders of our history and progress. Much public sculpture is nausiatingly nationalistic and banal.

Unconditional Surrender certainly falls in between.

It is a celebration of the 1944 U.S. victory over Japan. An 88-year-old U.S. Navy Veteran Jack Curran donated half a million dollars to commission it. The statue, based on a photograph, has been enthusiastically embraced by local veterans groups as an hommage to V-J Day, short for Victory over Japan Day, that signified the end of World War II, a war that had left more than a million American soldiers killed or wounded.

Most public sculptures are primarily concerned with mythologizing the past. Cleopatra’s Needle, an obelisk dating back to 1450 BC, was dedicated to honoring Pharaoh Thutmose III achievements and military victories for over 30 years.

The natural tendency for government-funded public arts is to want to honor local history. Almost every city or town has statues of mayors, generals, and presidents that celebrate past glories — but never the mistakes.

One of the biggest examples is Mount Rushmore, which features Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Winners write history and put up statues. It was erected on land stolen from Lakota Tribe during the Great Soux War of 1876.

In 1970, Native American activists took over the park in protest and renamed it Crazy Horse Mountain, in honor of the native leader who defeated General George Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana.

In 2019, Unconditional Surrender was vandalised with #MeToo red paint graffiti as a symbol of sexual assault.

But interviews with the kissing couple revealed that Petty Officer George Mendonsa happed to be on a date with his future wife in Time Square when he saw another woman, 21 year old Greta Zimmer, in a white nurse uniform, and exuberantly rushed over and hugged and kissed her.

Greta said, “it wasn’t much of a kiss.”

It was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back to war and that he felt very grateful to the nurses who took care of the wounded, she continued.

For years, the dominant public art on Wall Street was the large Charging Bull. In 2017, it was challenged by a four-foot bronze statue, Fearless Girl, standing with hands on hips that was installed facing Charging Bull in defiance, at the bottom on Broadway.

Fearless Girl appeared with great fanfare as the statue was a powerful symbol for rising female empowerment in the business world.

Charging Bull’s artist did not appreciate the juxtaposition and claimed it distorted his message of the bull symbolizing a roaring economy.

Some derided the statue as fake corporate feminism and others decried the idea of using a very young girl to represent the accomplishments of grown women.

After protests, Fearless Girl was moved to a new location in front of the Stock Exchange.

In 2009, the Unconditional Surrender statue, sometimes referred to as “The Kiss“, was attacked by the chairwoman of the Public Arts Committee who said, “it doesn’t even qualify as kitsch.  Its like a giant cartoon image drafted by a computer, emulating a famous photograph. It’s not the creation of an artist. It’s an artist copying a famous image.“

Unconditional Surrender has a theme-park quality to it, straddling the line between amusement park attraction and midbrow art. But this is Florida, where theme parks are welcome.

Storytelling is a big part of public art. It can be argued that this piece of public art increases the interest in both art and history to a generation that would have otherwise forgotten the sacrifices of World War II.

When the statue was erected, downtown Saratoga was considered blighted, dull and in need of a makeover. That was when the city’s fathers decided to embark on a public arts program, and this helped trigger the start of a cultural renaissance, reviving the arts in Sarasota which now has 84 pieces in public spaces.

If people pay for public art then they should have some say in the form it takes.

Currently, the city commission is considering moving Unconditional Surrender from its prominent place on the bayfront, to a less prominent location. But polls show that most residents favor keeping it in place. It is a playful tourist attraction and encourages public displays of affection.

  It has become a symbol for the whole city.

Whatever happens, if it is displaced we would want its replacement to be as provocative as Unconditional Surrender has been.

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