Art and Controversy: Natural Bedfellows


We look to art to fulfill different functions: to entertain, commemorate and enlighten. However, given that we are all unique, it’s no wonder that we don’t always agree on how successfully a work of art fulfills one or more of these functions. In fact that’s just as it should be.  Albert Camus sums up the issue best when he wrote, “If all the world were clear, art would not exist.”

So, rather than being a stranger to controversy, art is more often a welcomed partner. On February 25, news outlets reported such a “controversy.” The offending work in this instance is a statue circa 1922 entitled “Triumph of Civic Virtue.” Having graced Manhattan’s City Hall Park (until then Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia grew tired of being “mooned” by the statue on a daily basis) it was banished to Kew Gardens in Queens in 1941.

At the core of the controversy is the depiction of “virtue” as a muscled man with a sword, while “vice” and “corruption” are portrayed as mermaids on top of which he triumphantly stands.  As it turns out, civic displeasure over the depiction has been raging since the statue was first unveiled.

So, is the statue “sexist”? Is it time for it to be retired or should it be appreciated in a historical context? Should all art be reevaluated according to the mores of succeeding ages?

There is an old expression that notes, “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” Thoughts need to become concrete so that we can react to them. Art does this for us. Thanks to artists, we are provided a wealth of ideas to which we can react. It is in the reacting that we find our own voice, and our own truth. If art ever loses its ability to stir up controversy it will be because humankind has ceased to aspire to new heights.

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by William Repicci

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