Statues crowd the statehouse grounds
I was forever going on about statues, probably because statues don't write complaining letters to editors. This column complained specifically about the public art works that decorate the central bits of Springfield and Chicago. If you want, you can read similar pieces about statues and statue-making here and here.
The state's big labor unions, I read, want to put up a statue on the statehouse lawn in Springfield. The proposed Illinois Workers' Memorial would stand eight and a half feet tall and consist of three human figures representing what the approving resolution described as "workers affected by workplace deaths and injuries." I would have thought that Illinois workers killed or injured on the job deserved a memorial too, and not just the survivors stung by their loss, but the workers will have to wait in line.
There has been a spate of proposals for new statuary on the capitol complex grounds recently. A statue commemorating Illinois police officers killed in the line of duty was announced in January. The state AFL-CIo and the Chicago Federation of Labor want their new statue to be installed on the north lawn of the statehouse, where future governors would be shamed by it every day as they limo into work.
The problem is that there are already so many pieces of public art littering the grounds that officials of the Secretary of State's office who are responsible for maintenance are resisting. The proposed $136 million capitol complex rehabilitation plan calls for the creation of what is being called a "statue row" along what used to be Spring Street between the statehouse and the Stratton Building.
The idea makes sense. The capitol's interior already is as crammed with bric-a-brac as a Victorian parlor, and it would be impossible to install more lieutenant governors and failed Presidential candidates on the lawns outside it without the place looking like Oak Ridge cemetery.
It is not a new idea. In turn-of-the-century Chicago, sculptor Lorado Taft proposed a really mammoth statue row—100 statues that would line the mile-long Midway plaisance, an open air Hall of Fame commemorating the world's great leaders. Taft's roster included the likes of Aristophanes and Spinoza, which may be why it never was built; one critic complained that Taft had spent too much time hanging around the University of Chicago.
A few weeks ago I read a wonderful story out of Eastern Europe. City officials in Hungary or Lithuania or someplace were faced with a glut of Lenin statues. Rather than be destroyed, this official proposed, they should be reinstalled at one site. Imagine the scene—a park with hundreds of Lenins, row after row of Lenins, that together would reveal the vainglory, indeed the absurdity of the Communists' cult. Nothing so grand or so instructive is likely to result on Springfield's statue row. We have a politics based on personality in Illinois, but not a politics of personality. And while we have had a hero or two, we never build statues to them.
This newest generation of commemorative works is interesting in fact because it is so determinedly anti-heroic. Until 30 years ago, the subjects of statehouse statues were individuals who, if not real heroes, were at least dominant personalities. Their memorialization reflects not only their status but the 19th century notion that history gets made by (and can be understood in terms of) individuals. The newest proposals in contrast recall unnamed Illinoisans, the anonymous and unsung among us who labor without media consultants or even expense accounts. Such group memorials used to be reserved for soldiers.
Actually, these new statues may be seen as war memorials of a sort. John Szaton's coal miner may look the picture of health but in fact he was meant to represent the more than 9,000 Illinois miners who died in the 82 years previous to the statue's dedication in 1964. The planned monuments to police and workers similarly commemorate Illinoisans hurt or killed while trying to make a living.
Public art is a form of rhetoric of course, and it is easy to envision a statehouse statue row becoming our equivalent of Hyde Park corner, a place where any faction with a grievance and a couple of hundred grand can mount a permanent argument on its behalf. (It is only a matter of time, for instance, before AFSCME commissions a memorial to the valiant carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers in the Revenue Department.) If one agrees that the State of Illinois has certain responsibilities to protect its citizens by regulation and other means, these statues may be taken collectively as a monument to its failure, which is something everything government headquarters ought to have. Perhaps their message will prod the General Assembly into passing tougher worker protection laws; nothing else has.
To be persuasive as rhetoric, populist art needs to be persuasive as art. The Pierre Menard statue—the rich white man condescendingly offering his hand to an Indian seated at his feet—is offensive as policy but as a specimen of modeling and casting it is gorgeous. Its detailed rendering of costume makes the proposed police memorial look crude, even cartoonish.
Taft grumbled that sculptors of his day produced nothing more than bronze clothing dummies, but in his day sculptors could at least render a pair trousers in bronze. By comparison, our newest statues (going back to Carl Tolpo's Dirksen from 1976) are clumsy in execution, stilted in composition, and sentimental in conception.
The loss is not that these new statues are not great art. The loss is that, being bad art, they can't do justice to their subjects. They lack the power to move, to excite, to involve the way the best of the older capitol art can. St. Gaudens is considered to have done the finest Lincolns, but Andrew O'Connor's version on the east lawn is nearly as good. I have seen it draped with the banners of a dozen causes during rallies over the years, and never once was its dignity impaired by such shenanigans. There's the ultimate test of public art in the capitol complex—whether it can stand in those surroundings and not be reduced to the ridiculous.
Doubtless young sculptors are no longer taught to render the world representationally, or the technical know-how to do good bronze casting. (A recent cleaning reportedly revealed that the 14-year old Dirksen had aged more than the 104-year-old Menard.) The bigger problem may be that today's commemorative works are so often bought on the cheap. The worker's memorial is expected to cost $200,000, and even at those prices you can't get better than a college art professor to sculpt it—people who are art professors because they aren't good enough to make a living at sculpture. Worse, such designs must please a large and undiscriminating collection of donors; public subscription usually buys lowest-common-denominator taste. ■