New Orleans isn’t the only city to struggle with politically complicated statues

New York City feels physically and ideologically distant from New Orleans, where workers wore masks and helmets to take down Confederate statues in the middle of the night this week. Opposition was that strong to the removal of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, among others.

Confederate memorials aren’t too common in NYC. But the city has removed at least one historical statue after political protest in the modern era. The monument, called Civic Virtue, had been the subject of arguments about art, public land and politics for almost a century.

New York’s controversial statue

The 20-foot-plus behemoth designed by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies depicts a strident Adonis-like figure towering over two allegorical serpentine figures of vice. The sculpture was commissioned in 1909 in the middle of the Progressive Era, meant to symbolize a government ridding itself of Tammany Hall corruption and striding boldly into the future.

One problem, however, was that the “allegorical” figures have female forms — and by the time the statue actually rose in public, the women’s suffrage movement was celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment. Groups like the League of Women Voters were not happy to see their gender symbolizing all that was unvirtuous in city life.

There were also more personal reasons for women to question the statue, says Michele Bogart, a Stony Brook University professor and former vice president of the city’s Art Commission. MacMonnies was one of America’s most prominent sculptors — today his work rests proudly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. But there was reason to think he may have had personal opinions about the nature of male-female relationships that could have filtered into his work. At the time Civic Virtue was designed, MacMonnies was juggling a wife and mistress.

Thus began a history of men and women reacting strongly to the statue. Sometimes, the reaction was instinctual — Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was said to be repulsed by its naked expanse in City Hall Park. He wanted it out, and succeeded by 1941. But not everyone hated it: When La Guardia abandoned it, Queens asked for the statue for political, rather than gendered, reasons. Queens Borough Hall was not far removed from a sewer scandal, and the new borough president saw fit to put a little piety outside his window.

But the allegorical depiction of women nipping at a man’s feet didn’t sit well with Claire Shulman, the borough’s first female borough president, who tried to remove the statue in the late ’80s. Bogart, the art historian, became involved with opposition to trashing the statue at that time, defending its historical importance and the necessity of seeing the work in the context of its creation.

Calls to remove the statue continued — including from a certain Rep. Anthony Weiner, who revved up attention about the statue’s evils at the same time as he was getting headlines for standing up for Planned Parenthood in the House and excoriating a Republican war on women. In 2011, he called for the hunk of deteriorating marble to be sold on Craigslist. This was also, of course, a time when he was conducting the less-than virtuous practice of sexting while in office that would later lay him low.

In 2012, the statue was removed from city land, after Richard Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, asked for the unloved art.

“If they’re going to cart it away, I want it,” Moylan says he told city officials. “You shouldn’t be destroying art.”

There is rationale for the statue to be in Green-Wood, where it remains on what Moylan calls a sort of “long-term loan” from the city. (Keri Butler, deputy director of the city’s Public Design Commission, says the statue was ultimately moved for preservation purposes). The cemetery is the resting place for the family of the artist, for example, and the donor who provided for its creation.

It has a new plaque and has been restored and preserved. School groups and visitors are brought by the monument on tours of the cemetery to hear about its travels and controversies.

How do we deal with history?

Passions about the statue were never quite as high as those now in New Orleans, where the current push to remove the monuments began after the murder of nine African-American church goers in South Carolina by Dylann Roof, who celebrated the Confederate flag. Previous attempts to get rid of the statues are less remembered. But Civic Virtue’s century-long saga shows that such arguments aren’t new, or confined to the most obviously polarizing of subjects and places. And the monument’s history provides an example of controversial public art being moved, loved, hated, shunted aside, and recontextualized many times before what some might call our Snowflake Era.

In some ways, Civic Virtue’s fate was a good compromise for both sides: what appeared to a certain set to be an ugly and questionably meaningful statue is off public grounds, but still retained in a museum-like display for education and posterity.

That’s important to defenders like Bogart. “History is upsetting,” she says, “but you don’t sweep it under the rug.”