A Park for Fallen Statues?

Two recent news stories suggest that America needs a rest home for statuary, a la Budapest's Memento Park.

The Paterno statue left behind a ghostly halo when it was removed from its perch near Penn State's Beaver Stadium on Sunday. (Reuters)

Penn State's removal of a statue commemorating its late coach Joe Paterno is only the latest chapter in the sometimes bizarre history of campus monuments. Even saints have not been exempt. "An idealized bronze image of W. Earl Dodge, an academic, athletic, and religious paragon of the Princeton Class of 1879 who died young, was so reviled by worldly 1920s undergraduates (who dubbed it "The Christian Student"), that after it was torn down twice, Princeton ultimately loaned it to the Daniel Chester French museum and restored it in 1987, not to its original place of honor but to a gymnasium lobby.

The move coincides with a New York Times article about another controversial work of art, Frederic MacMonnies' Civic Virtue, which may be moved to a cemetery. The elderly sculptor was baffled and hurt by protests against his work when it was unveiled in 1922. In vain he protested that the image of a male triumphing over figures of evil portrayed as female was simply a convention. And it was -- in the fading Beaux Arts tradition in which he had been trained. A new generation had forgotten a visual language, much as many post-World War One Princeton students were impatient with Victorian muscular Christianity. In the early 21st century the monument looks less sexist than campy, but it's easy to see from a high-resolution image that -- contrary to the Times article -- the young man is not stepping on anybody. (I visited the statue a few years ago. It's easy to make the mistake if  you've been primed to see trampling.) It was not the sculptor's first iconographic misunderstanding; another work (now in the Metropolitan Museum) had been banned for its pagan nudity in Boston in the 1890s.

Green-Wood Cemetery, where the statue may be restored, is a national treasure and a fitting home. But the move would imply that the statue has died, just as its earlier exile in Queens was a mark of scorn by the Manhattan establishment. The two stories together suggest America needs a counterpart of Budapest's Memento Park, a rest home for Marxist-Leninist statuary. The purpose should be neither to mock nor to glorify them but to help visitors reflect on art and political life in an open-air setting. And artists could be invited to reply to MacMonnies by inverting his conventions, with a female protagonist and images of male politicians underfoot.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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