Topic: Society

Statue Ethics: Of Harvard, Hooks and History
(8/5/2007)

Statues of historical figures serve many functions and accomplish many things. They are an art form, decorating our parks and public buildings. They bolster our collective memories, preserving a tangible record of great lives and achievements. They are landmarks, giving our public places unique personalities and color linked to local history. And they serve to establish values, as our statues define what our culture regards as heroic, important, and worthy of preservation.

Sometimes these goals are in conflict. The Harvard Yard's famous statue of John Harvard is a work of art (the sculptor was Daniel Chester French, who crafted the Lincoln Memorial) a landmark (visitors rub the seated statue's shoe for luck, and Harvard students traditionally use the statue as a late night urinal), and a memorial, but it is a fraudulent one. The plaque on the work credits John Harvard with founding the university, which he didn't, gets the year of the college's establishment wrong, and the statue itself was modeled on a friend of the sculptor's, not Harvard himself. French can't be faulted on this choice; nobody knows what the real John Harvard looked like.

Modern sculptor Jon Hair is well-versed in history, and certainly knew what Christopher Newport looked like. The 17th century privateer and sea captain who founded the Jamestown colony lost an arm in the course of his pre-New World exploits, and is usually portrayed with a hook. But when Christopher Newport University (in Newport News, Va.) commissioned Hair to create a statue of the man whose name it bears, someone in authority apparently thought that this pirate accessory on the monument would be unseemly, even embarrassing. So Captain Newport appears in bronze with both arms intact, a tribute, perhaps, to America's current obsession with false breasts, dyed hair and chemically induced muscles.

But is this cosmetic enhancement fair to the Captain and his memory? Many think not. A minor controversy has erupted, with Hair being accused of air-brushing history. The accusation is fair, though the target is not: when a University pays to have a statue made, the artist is not the ultimate arbiter of the design. Hair only gave the University the version of Christopher Newport it wanted. Thus it is appropriate that the most vigorous defense of statue has come not from Hair, but from those who hired him. In an interview, the president of Christopher Newport University, who clearly didn't want to be known as the head of an institution named after Captain Hook, argued that Harvard's so-called "Statue of the Three Lies" was precedent for giving back Newport his missing limb.

Wrong!

To begin with a principle from Ethics 101, one misrepresentation, even one perpetrated by the nation's oldest university, doesn't justify another. But Sculptor French, in truth, made every effort to make his John Harvard statue as accurate as possible in the absence of a portrait. The one clue he had about Harvard's appearance was that he suffered from tuberculosis, so the legs protruding from his statue's Pilgrim knickers are unusually thin, a symptom of the disease. Thus, rather than providing a precedent for make-over of Newport, French did the opposite: he made his statue less flattering in an effort to be consistent with what little was known about his subject. If Christopher Newport University wanted Hair to follow the Harvard precedent, it would have asked him to include Newport's well-documented disability. Instead, it chose to have him ignore it, thus reducing Newport to a generic hero and distorting both his memory and history.

Compare this approach to that of Marisol Escobar, the pop artist who was commissioned in 1961 to make a statue of Hawaii's famous Father Joseph Damien de Veuster to represent the new state in the Capitol Rotunda. Father Damien was a missionary who cared for the lepers on the island of Molokai, ultimately contracting leprosy himself. Marisol's statue, made of wood and wax, shocked onlookers with its portrait of Damien in the final stages of the disfiguring disease that killed him. This so horrified some officials that a second, more traditional statue was commissioned, a statue that, as one wag put it, could have just as easily been Bing Crosby as the Leper Priest. The statue's defenders argued that Marisol's depiction, unlike Damien as Bing, was exactly right, and celebrated his heroism and martyrdom far better than any conventional image. Time Magazine quoted one Protestant minister who argued: "Would we take statues of the mutilated body of Christ out of churches and destroy them just because they look so horrible?" Ultimately the Hawaiian legislature voted that airbrushing away Damien's physical afflictions robbed him of his identity and achievements. The Marisol version, said a Senate resolution, "will impress the viewer not only with the temperament, character and greatness of the man it represents, but also provide an unforgettable visual experience."

And the university that bears his name felt that it had to hide Captain Newport's hook.

But what if the community wants to "airbrush" a historical figure away entirely, removing statues and memorials to individuals whose deeds, once honored, are now reviled? Is that more ethically defensible than ignoring Father Damien's leprosy or letting Captain Newport grow a new limb, like a newt?

This is the question currently raging in Maryland, where activists want state officials to remove bronze images of Chief Justice Roger Taney from the State House in Annapolis and Frederick City Hall this year, the 150th anniversary of the infamous Dred Scott decision, which Taney authored. Their argument is that Taney, far from being a national figure worthy of public honor, was "a blight on the judiciary" and even "evil," because the decision for which he is best known was racist and exacerbated the tensions leading to the Civil War.

Such a verdict necessarily minimizes Taney's other significant accomplishments as one of the nation's longest-serving Chief Justices, accomplishments that included a major role in developing the young nation's legal system and landmark clarifications of maritime and contract law. Nor is it fair to judge the Dred Scott decision by the current cultural consensus. Ironically, many of the same individuals calling for Taney's purging from the public square criticize the current Supreme Court for recent rulings that are "inconsistent with majority public sentiment." If nothing else, the Dred Scott decision was definitely in line with majority public sentiment, and it is likely that Taney was factually correct when he wrote that the framers of the Constitution "regarded [blacks] as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." As for the claim that his opinion moved the nation closer to civil war, it is possible that a more enlightened opinion, recognizing blacks as citizens, would have provoked Southern secession immediately, before voters had a chance to elect a president equipped to deal with it.

The very existence of statues and busts from other eras teach important lessons about our changing values and the forces that shaped our nation. Tearing down statues and changing the names of buildings and street is a form of cultural lobotomy, re-writing history according to polls and political correctness. Who is more worthy of honor by future generations: Roger Taney, who declared that black Americans had no Constitutional rights but who freed his own slaves, or Thomas Jefferson, who kept his slaves while writing passionately about the evils of slavery? Robert E. Lee, a principled man and a hater of slavery whose decision to fight on the side of the South probably extended the war and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, or Woodrow Wilson, a visionary in international relations and the conceptual father of the Uniter Nations, who was an unapologetic racist and admirer of the Ku Klux Klan? Do we honor J. Edgar Hoover for his undisputed achievement in building the Federal Bureau of Investigation during a frightening period of lawlessness in the early Twentieth Century, or strip the F.B.I. headquarters in Washington of his name because of the civil rights and constitutional abuses he engineered late in his tenure as the agency's dictatorial director? Civil rights leader and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once declared that he had no reason to honor George Washington, because our first president was a slave-holder…though there would quite possibly be no United States at all without Washington's leadership and wisdom when the nation was in its infancy. That was Marshall's personal choice, but should one generation make similar judgements for future ones?

Historical interpretations and cultural values will continue to change and evolve forever. It is not hard to imagine a future where Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, declaring the right to an abortion as Constitutionally guaranteed, will be just as reviled as the Dred Scott decision, but that will not make the opinion "evil," or render Blackmun's long and distinguished service to the law and his country meaningless. The existence of statues and memorials don't demand that any of us individually honor or revere their subjects, but they do provide a lasting, often artistic, tangible record of the nation's leaders, public figures and innovators, as well as the American people's struggles, triumphs, controversies and tastes. We should add to that record at will, but edit it with care. Today's heroes may be tomorrow's outcasts and vice-versa; their bronze images should stay undisturbed, if only to remind us what we're arguing about.

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