I love tearing down monuments. I didn’t used to be this way. I used to think that monuments were cool because they were snapshots of history. I would look at a monument and think, “At some point in time, people thought it was worthwhile, maybe even important, to memorialize whatever this monument memorializes.”
In fact, I used to make that argument about the Confederate monument in Forest Park. It was a memorial to what we once were — a divided city in a border state. One foot in the Confederacy, the other in the Union. Decent people on both sides. It would be a mistake to tear it down.
But people more sensitive than me thought otherwise. The Confederacy represented some bad ideas, slavery at the top of the list. Therefore, the monument must go.
So they began chopping it down. At first, I was taken aback. We are denying our heritage just because our heritage is flawed. Then I got my mind right. There is something empowering about tearing things down. We are here now, and we rule!
Perhaps the Arch will be next. Gateway to the West. Exactly what did we do when we got to the West? We killed Native Americans and took their land. We slaughtered buffalo. Ought we memorialize these acts?
Sadly, there is a problem. The Arch is a national monument. We would need permission from the feds to tear it down. Maybe if we elected Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who used to be a Native American, we could get permission. But right now we are out of luck. I cannot imagine the current administration worrying about some Native Americans or some buffalo.
So what can we tear down? If not a monument, is there something else?
An idea came to me when I was in Seattle recently. I was walking along the waterfront when I came across the Olympic Sculpture Park. Down on a lower level, I saw some slabs of rusting metal. Excuse me. I saw some slabs of metal with a patina of rust.
I immediately recognized the work of Richard Serra.
I like old-fashioned sculptures. Greek stuff. Venus de Milo comes to mind. The Romans were good, too. Statues and busts of the emperors are detailed and lifelike. In fact, that’s what makes those old sculptures so good. They’re like three-dimensional photographs of people who lived more than 2,000 years ago.
Much modern sculpture hails from that school. Like Harry Weber’s sculpture of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the dog Seaman that stands south of the Eads Bridge along the river.
Serra’s work has a more ancient pedigree. It comes from prehistory, from the days before tools, from the days when a caveman stood a piece of rock upright. And we are not talking about Stonehenge or other ancient works that have something to do with the stars or the sun. Just a piece of rock upright.
Average people do not appreciate Serra sculptures.
Which is why, I suppose, art sophisticates do. What’s the point of being a sophisticate if your taste is shared by the masses?
We have a Serra sculpture in St. Louis. Eight slabs of rusted steel sit on an otherwise vacant block behind the Civil Courts building. The sculpture has been unpopular since it was installed in 1982. Serra called it Twain, and I’m quite sure the real Twain — the writer from Hannibal, Mo. — would have had a great time with the whole thing.
There is a strong Emperor-has-no-clothes aspect to this. Why is it art?
By my standards, it isn’t. My standards for sculpture are simple and have nothing to do with understanding. If I could do it, it’s not art. For instance, I do not understand the Picasso sculpture in Chicago, but I could not do it. So it’s art. But if I had a crane, I could put eight slabs of steel onto a vacant lot.
Many years ago, some whimsical vandals put circles on the slabs, and turned them into dominoes. More often, people have just defaced the slabs. But oddly enough, there has never been a concerted effort to get rid of Twain.
Maybe we lack the self-confidence to take action. We don’t want to look like bumpkins.
The people of Manhattan were more self-assured when Serra tried to foist off as art a 120-foot-long, 12-foot-high slab of steel. He called it Tilted Arc. Thousands signed petitions that the slab be removed. The people eventually won. They got rid of the slab of steel in 1989.
We ought to do something like that. It wouldn’t be as divisive as tearing down a monument to the Confederate dead. In fact, it would be a coming together of average people of all political persuasions.
It would not be easy.
Emily Rauh Pulitzer was largely responsible for bringing Twain to St. Louis. She is wealthy and has no heirs. She has many friends in the arts. I suspect they will oppose us.
On the other hand, where’s the fun in tearing something down if somebody doesn’t oppose you?