Monuments in an Age without Heroes

By Glazer, Nathan | The Public Interest, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview
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Monuments in an Age without Heroes

Glazer, Nathan, The Public Interest

It was not much noted, or indeed noted at all, that the Million Man March in Washington last November took place in front of what was described in the 1937 Works Progress Administration (WPA) guide to Washington as the "the largest and most costly piece of statuary in Washington." This is the Grant Memorial, the major monument in Washington to the Civil War. It is 252 feet long.

Bronze groups of Union Cavalry and Artillery in action at either end of the long granite base are set off by couchant bronze lions around the central pedestal. On the pedestal is an equestrian bronze of General Grant, the second largest equestrian statue in the world, topped only 5 inches by the colossal effigy of Victor Emanuel in Rome.... The monument was unveiled in 1922, on the centenary of Grant's birth.

I am quoting from the guidebook of 19937, only 15 years after the monument was unveiled.

The difference between 1922 and 1937 in how we approached the problems of monuments may be only 15 years by the calendar, it is more like a century when we consider the two moments from the point of view of artistic tendencies and public and elite responses to them. Considering monuments, 1922 was still in the nineteenth century, 1937 already on the threshold of modernity. It was possibly already too late for the mass of realistic sculpture that makes up the Grant Memorial when it was completed in 1922. Modernism in art and architecture, in all its forms, was already in the ascendant in Europe. These attitudes were spreading to the United States in the 1930s. The distaste for the kind of monument represented by the Grant Memorial could already be read between the lines of the 1937 WPA guidebook. The WPA itself, which produced the huge guidebook to Washington, has given its name to the last burst of figurative sculpture and painting in the United States, and to the last period in which public buildings accepted decoration and figurative art as an organic, legitimate, integrated part of their total impact. But the human figure was already on its way out, as we can see in the decoration of public buildings being constructed during the depression. Human figures were already stripped down and flattened, a last way station on the road to their almost complete exclusion from the repertoire of major modern sculptors.

These last echoes of figurative art, the art that was once an unchallenged norm for public commemoration, were influenced by Art Deco, which was a purely artistic and decorative tendency but they were equally influenced by the political movements Of the time. In the United States, in WPA murals and the bas-reliefs decorating public buildings, we represented men and women engaged in useful pursuits; in Russia, they celebrated heroic proletarians@ in Nazi Germany, it was muscular and healthy youth representing a national revival. The buildings such figures graced were erected by very different political regimes, but, whether they were built by the New Deal, Italian Fascism, Soviet Russia, or German National Socialism, there was, embarrassingly, a strong family resemblance among them. Muscled figures, male and female, marched across the front of public buildings with stripped-down columns or pilasters in the capitals of very different regimes.

The traditions represented by the Grant Memorial were not completely exhausted when it was built. It was still possible to do better within these traditions, to build monuments that still speak to us, as the Grant Memorial does not. To read the criticism of the time from the perspective of our own, when almost all figural and classical art is placed in the same passe and outmoded bag, and when memorials and monuments generally consist of blank stone or rusted metal about which not much can be said - though critics are hardly silent - is an odd experience. Looking backwards from our own age, we are surprised to see how much the critics of the age of figural art could read into the representations of the time, dismissing some, exalting others.

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