Walking in my neighborhood a few years ago, I saw a tiny art installation. The piece was called “Stepping into His Shoes” and featured President Obama rising into Abraham Lincoln’s shoes. I loved it. What a great use of a 19th century fixture — a fire department call box — for a 21st century message. Again, my neighborhood came through with quirkiness and public art.
Then a few days ago, I saw something disturbing. Obama was gone, forcibly removed from the art installation. I immediately thought, “Why do people deface art?” That thought was followed by an important memory. I recalled my reaction to what I called embellishments to — not defacement of — the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue in my hometown.
For over a century, that statue, unveiled in 1890, towered on its pristine white marble base over Richmond’s Monument Avenue. When George Floyd was murdered, I was supportive as graffiti grew on the pedestal in response. For me, the addition of those thoughts not only contextualized the statue, but they also took away any power it may once have held.
So, when the public art removal/change/embellishment aligns with my world view, it’s okay, but when it doesn’t, it’s defacement. Wow. I need to think about this.
The Lee statue was offensive to me because it celebrated the leadership of someone who chose to denigrate and subjugate my people.
I celebrated the Obama-Lincoln statue because it recognized the leadership of someone I admired. Obama was removed by someone who I suspect felt as much distaste for Obama as I felt for Lee.
Now what? Who becomes the arbiter of public art? What is built? What stays? What goes?
The same people as always. Those in power.
My understanding is that public art, art paid for with tax dollars, is typically approved by a panel of reviewers chosen by an appointed, or perhaps, elected official. Some group that is supposed to be representative of the sensibilities of the community makes the decision.
In the late 1800s, in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, there was significant support for the erection of the Lee statue. His nephew was then Virginia’s governor and many wanted to celebrate Lee, the South, and Southern sentiments. It is reported that 100,000 people attended the unveiling of this 60-foot-tall statue.
I guess the lesson here is to ensure that the people in power in your community, share your values. Those values will be reflected in big issues, like how they vote on policies with deep and long-lasting impact and in the somewhat lesser decisions, like who is celebrated in public art.
And, when your values are not shared by those in power, it’s vital to remember your own power – the power to vote out those office holders and the power to organize a public outcry against what doesn’t align with your values and those of others in your community. That’s what happened in Richmond. The Lee statue was removed amid major public support, nationally and locally, for racial justice in public policy and in public art.
Now, here’s the kicker. Unlike what I thought, “Stepping into his Shoes” is not public art, at least not as I described public art above.
A little research revealed that while some call box art in DC was approved by the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities, a public agency, that was not the case with the art piece in my neighborhood. No public dollars were used to create it nor was public input sought. No? No, but it’s located on a public street — East Capitol — in a structure owned by the District — the vintage call box. Does that make it a form of public art?
I now know that “Stepping into His Shoes” is another example of protest art, not public art as I had thought. When I saw the Obama-Lincoln statue originally, I only recognized their coupling as philosophical kindred. The art was saying much more, but I didn’t see that initially.
So, when a protestor removed Obama from the small art installation, I noticed. That person’s act caused me to look more closely. Not just kindred spirits, the statue had also been an artistic plea by a group called Fearless Girls 2020 to replace “Emancipation,” a statue of Lincoln located a few blocks away with a statue of Obama.
Did the removal of Obama deface the art, enrich it, or both? You decide.
“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.” — James Baldwin