What Should We Do with New York City's Monuments?
In the wake of impassioned debate—and some action—over the place of Confederate monuments across the US, it's time to rethink NYC's commemorative statuary.
Rob Pruitt, The Andy Monument, Union Square, New York. Commissioned by Public Art Fund. Photo: Matthew Kraus/Flickr
Recently, we’ve come to radically reevaluate the monuments that dot the American landscape. Civil War generals, slave-owning founding fathers, and not-so-clandestine klansmen have all come under fire. Cities, like Baltimore, have taken dramatic steps to remove offending figures; others have installed new plaques condemning the racism and violence of those memorialized. Some towns have attempted to right the wrong by supplementing sculptures—typically of dead white men—with new heroes: women, people of color, first nations leaders, and others from historically marginalized groups. In the debate over the removal and relocation of monuments, the idea that monuments ought to exist has generally gone uncontested. We haven’t put a great deal of thought into how we could honor heroes differently, or asked how we might memorialize without the sentimentality and overblown aesthetics of the typical monument.
When it was revealed that not one of the 23 statues in Central Park depicted a woman, the Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy, the organization that helps to fund and manage the city’s "crown jewel" green space, set about to rectify the lapse, with journalists and a dogged advocacy group pushing them on. Recently, they launched a request for proposals (RFP) for artists interested in creating a monument to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (the suffragist duo was selected as a subject for the first female sculpture in the park with the aim of installing before August 26, 2020, the centennial of the amendment granting women the right to vote). While the inclusion of the new monument marks a welcome departure from the way things have been done, the built form will likely be more of the same. The Parks RFP makes it clear that the monument will need to follow the template set by existing statues.
The monuments that anchor New York City’s public plazas and parks are mostly products of 19th-century nationalism and state-forming. Disparate populations needed to be brought together under the banner of the republic, and traumas, like the Civil War (which killed nearly 3% of the population), needed to be memorialized. Between the Civil War and World War I hundreds of civic sculptures were placed in urban spaces, especially along the new avenues, parks, and squares that were built to accommodate the city’s swelling population. Carved equestrians and formidable busts commemorating military heroism were the prime forms of city beautification, as were statues honoring figures important to new immigrant citizen groups—one of the reasons we have so many Columbus statues is because Italian American groups collected funds to commemorate the Genovese explorer. In ensuing years, these monuments have gone from bronze to green, collected bird poop, and been largely forgotten by the vast majority of New Yorkers.
Today, when we think of beautifying the city we imagine public sculpture (often of the “plop art” variety), murals, and the “placemaking” initiatives that bring in seating and parklets. New public works are often tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the monument genre, like the ten-foot sparkly Andy Warhol that the Public Art Fund brought to Union Square or Tony Matelli’s hyperreal Sleepwalker sculpture installed on the High Line (loathed by critics, loved by Instagram). The expectations around public art and statuary have also changed. After numerous controversies, beginning with the removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in 1989 and continuing to a recent clamor in Queens, commissioning agencies have opted for temporary works that make the most out of restricted budgets and assuage citizen fears that they will have to “look at that thing forever.”
Some events, because of their scale and location, call out for memorialization. The attack on the World Trade Center was as clear cut of a case as there could be. The site required a commemorative space that could accommodate mourning and reflection. Plans for a memorial began well before the land was fully cleared. The current un-use of the towers’ footprint—deliberately leaving a prime piece of real estate out of the market—is as much of a statement as the falling water of Michael Arad’s reflective pools. It borrows from the language of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, an intervention in the landscape that dispenses with ceremonial pomp to acknowledge the war’s moral ambiguities (the V-shaped sunken wall was derided as “nihilistic” when it opened in 1982 but nonetheless became a pilgrimage site for veterans). However, times have changed: memorials today must now operate in both physical space and the digital realm.
New York City, chock-full of hashtag-ready sights and marquee public spaces, is a major hub for sending images out. The 9/11 memorial is, unexpectedly, one of the most popular places to take selfies in the city. For those who journey to this site of remembrance, digital portraiture is a way to bring closure to their pilgrimage: I came, I saw, I mourned, I posted. Optimally, the design of memorials could provide even more to bring loss to light and honor exemplary citizens. The future monuments of New York—whomever or whatever they commemorate—will have to acknowledge the changing way we interact with the city in their scale and form.