Jim Crow Sculpture

“100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

Julian Carr, speaking at the dedication of the Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University of North Carolina, UNC (Chapel Hill), 1913

“Get him the hell out of here, will you, please?…Get him out of here. Throw him out!…so obnoxious and so loud…maybe he should have been roughed up.”

Donald Trump to a Black Lives Matter protester November, 2015

 

What role does art play in political revolution? How can public art collectively shape our civic identity? These ideas are at the forefront of leftist direct political action in the wake of Charlottesville. Before antifa activists engaged fascists in the streets of that small Virginian city, white supremacist led a (tiki) torch lit march on the campus of the University of Virginia to support the continued presence of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in a park in nearby Charlottesville. Since those protests and the murder of a young activists and the wounding of nineteen more at the hands of a fascist, Jim Crow monuments have begun to come down across the eastern and southern United States. Four public sculptures were removed in Baltimore, Maryland, a statue was removed without the permission of the authorities in Durham, North Carolina. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has called upon Confederate references to be removed from State College campuses. Nancy Pelosi has called for all Confederate statues to be removed from the Capitol building. Even in New York City the M.T.A. is investigating which tile art could possibly reference the Confederacy and is tasked with removing that subway art.

What has galvanized this issue, of course, is the overt support President Trump has shown for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and his fawning nostalgia for the kitschy symbols of white racists Confederate ‘culture’. At heart of removing the Jim Crow sculpture, however, is the radical gesture of destroying art as a tool for collectively reordering civic memory. Setting aside the dearth of artistic merits of these statues, (most of which were mass produced in Northern workshops) the statues still exist as art objects properly understood. Schlocky mediocrities that they are, these statues exist as repositories of value and meaning for the communities that commissioned, fashioned and maintain them. To destroy, or desecrate, or remove these statues is to not simply alter their physical location or appearance. Instead this act of removal seeks to destroy, to desecrate and to erase the ideology that these statues represents. These statues are not  simply Confederate Monuments but are a visual manifestation of the ideology that created them, Jim Crow. Similar to the Nazi kitsch muscle man sculpture or the tacky lavishness of Trump Tower, these Jim Crow sculptures seek to assert power over groups perceived as weak and expendable. To look at art, to look at these Jim Crow statues, is not a passive visual experience. Instead, the viewer of any work of art is an active participant in the meaning and memory that each work of art seeks to render. To look at art is to participate in politics and to destroy art is a political act. Nazism and Jim Crow and Trumpism are despicable ideologies and their adherents, and monuments, should be removed by any means necessary.

 

41_rep
Memorial to Civil War Soldiers of the University, UNC (Chapel Hill), 1913
die-partei-1945.jpg!Large
Arno Breker, Die Partei, 1945
Donald-Melania-Trump-Manhattan-Penthouse_1-768x511
Donald and Melanie Trump’s fifth Avenue penthouse apartment, New York City

A Reintroduction

 

Six years ago I started the blog Thoughts That Cure Radically. The format of the blog was straightforward. Every week I would visit art exhibitions in New York City and write a review of about a page or a page and a half about the show. The exhibitions could be in either galleries or museums and could be any medium but I habitually gravitated towards painting. In the three years I wrote the blog I wrote about one hundred and forty reviews and also a scattering of catalogue essays, interviews and book reviews. For a number of reasons, however, I stopped writing for Thoughts, some being working as a teacher and also the birth of our two daughters.

While the demands of a full time job plus fatherhood weren’t the sole reason to stop writing and painting, they gave me a ready-made excuse to stop something that had become a struggle. The richness I felt for my family was not matched in my creative life. Painting, and writing about painting, had once been the cornerstone of my identity. Yet by the time I stopped they had become to me a parlor game or fodder for a marketing campaign with myself as the product.

Instead of working through these feelings I stopped painting and writing altogether. I stopped looking at art, talking with artists or thinking about art. I no longer thought of my life as a creative project. Instead, I was a father, husband, teacher and friend, someone who was trying to make a life for themselves without needing to create an extra layer of artistic production to justify myself. In the time away from art I developed new interests and passions. I developed an interest in urban farming, composting, food justice and environmental activism. I became in a small way involved with the Bernie Sanders campaign, trying to get residents in my Queens community motivated to vote.

Being responsible for my family, however, extends my responsibility to the wider world. To care for a child is to care for food justice, is to care for the environment, is to care for politics. And to care for the world is to need creativity and also, I discovered, to need art. Currently we are living through a profound series of crises; political crises, environmental crises, economic crises and cultural crises. These crises demand commitment and courage and people who engage the world with passion and focus in their ultimate hope of a better society. My belief is that art is not “out there” solely in the art world, politics is not “out there” solely in Washington, but located right here in my community and every day life. Instead of being a consumable product, art can be political by being an engine for change in today’s world.

My art practice, and the purpose of this new Thoughts That Cure Radically, is to engage in these issues, issues of creativity and justice and purpose in today’s world, with honesty and passion. The purpose of my writings is to discover how art and political change can happen by me in my community. I hope in these forthcoming writings about art, culture, the environment and politics that I can discover what I believe and discover what matters to me. My hope is that any discovery I make for myself will help you discover something about yourself; that my work can be in any way large or small a gift to you the reader.

 

471px-Dürer_Melancholia_I

Melencolia I
Engraving by Albrecht Dürer, 1514