Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Newport Statue Revisited: Where Responsibility Lies

Sometimes in its eagerness to explore an ethical issue, the Scoreboard is careless with the details of the underlying event, and relies too heavily on published accounts. This was the case in its recent discussion of the ethical issues surrounding the controversial statue of Christopher Newport. The statue depicts the swashbuckler as a two-fisted champion, though Newport had in fact lost an arm by the time he did what made him famous: founding the Jamestown settlement in the New World. Since there are currently five statues discussed on the site, the Scoreboard should clarify some realities of artistic endeavors that it ignored in the original article.

The Scoreboard’s essay laid the blame for this “airbrushing of history” at the statue’s sculptor’s feet, essentially following the lead of critics and media reports. This was unfair and careless. There are several ways statues and monuments get before the public. Some are designed and made completely according to an artist’s desires, and later sold to a city or institution for display. Sometimes various designs are submitted to a committee as part of a competition, with an artist’s concept chosen, funded, and executed with varying degrees of artistic input from those who made the decision. Then there are statues that are commissioned, with the artist being hired to create an image to certain specifications.

A minimum amount of research would have revealed that this last was the circumstance of the Christopher Newport statue. Jon Hair was hired to create a statue showing Captain Newport with arms. He could have also been hired to make a statue of Newport with a nose like a banana or dressed like Donald Duck; the point is, he was hired to do a job, and did it to his client’s satisfaction. He bears no responsibility—none—for the fact that the statue is misleading. That responsibility lies squarely with the institution that commissioned him. Captain Newport looks the way it wants him to, and Jon Hair is simply their agent with a chisel.

The Scoreboard has explored this issue before. Actors are not responsible for the political or social views in the lines they speak, nor the ethical implications of the roles they play. Barry Manilow, who wrote some of the catchiest McDonald’s jingles, should not be blamed for transfats. When artists are hired for their artistic skills but must use someone else’s content, the content is not their concern. They can, of course, turn down the job, and that may be an admirable choice; it is not usually an ethical obligation. There are exceptions: yes, perhaps German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl should be held morally culpable for using her artistic skills to make Adolf Hitler look like a god in her commissioned propaganda film “Triumph of the Will,” though she debated this charge passionately until the end of her life. But giving two arms to the statue of a one-armed sea captain because the client likes it that way is a long, long way from bolstering the Third Reich.

The Scoreboard stands by its analysis of the Newport controversy, but apologizes for attaching any blame to Jon Hair. I have corrected the article, and if he ever has an urge to make a statue of me, I will not complain if he decides to leave off my head. It wasn’t in evidence when I was writing about him.

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