The bane of totalitarians are the free-spirited artists and writers because, at their best, their work offers a powerful reflection of the strength, protest, aggression, fear, love, hate, passion, comfort and the general pain and hardships of the people.
Great art has the power to make people uncomfortable about their lives and their countries and their leaders. Artists push boundaries of “offensive” through their imagery and content about everything from sexuality and the human body to slavery.
In recent years, right wing efforts to banish progressive ideas and promote racist, anti-Semitic viewpoints, have included book bannings, an ongoing crusade against the LGBTQ+ community and school curriculum and a whole array of topics considered not in praise of the white American ideal.
In Florida, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through legislation that bans public schools from teaching subject matter that would cause “discomfort,” including discussion of racism and its continuing effects on the nation.
Banning art that causes “discomfort” by reflecting the pain of slavery and racism would be a natural extension of the right wing anger. The concerns about “discomfort” only apply to the conservative Republicans as it seems acceptable to cause “discomfort” to progressives. For example, Republicans have fought to maintain public statues of Confederate leaders while progressives have sought to remove public statues of historic figures who advocated slavery or held racist views.
Most recently, the right wing nerve has been touched by three statues, two in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s efforts to preserve a woman’s right to choose abortion and the other a homage to the battle for human rights waged by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The statue honoring Ginsberg has been situated in the Flatiron district, atop the 126-year-old courthouse of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court at 27 Madison Ave. Named “NOW,” the sculpture is by Shahzia Sikander, 53, a Pakistani-American, Muslim woman. Sikander has been presented with a dozen awards and scholarships from a Core Fellowship at the Glassel School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to the 2022 Fukuoka Prize Arts and Culture Prize.
“NOW” portrays an eight-foot tall golden female figure emerging from a pink lotus. It has braids shaped as horns and is adorned with Justice Ginsburg’s signature judicial lace apron. Sikander has said the sculpture is an urgent form of “resistance” to the growing assault against women’s reproductive rights by a Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade.
“NOW” is the first female to be represented on one of the courthouse’s 10 plinths, which has been formerly reserved for male icons of law throughout the ages, heralding such giants as Justinian, Manu, Louis IX And Zoroaster.
The representation of Ginsburg is the first figure of a female judge or justice outside or inside the courthouse. One woman, Betty Betty Weinberg Ellerin, the first woman to be appointed presiding justice of the Appellate Division, is named on the courtroom’s ornate stained-glass ceiling dome. Another jurist named on the dome is Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney, who wrote the defiled, Dred Scott decision, which ruled that African Americans were not and could not be citizens. Evidently, the historic “discomfort” caused by Taney is not sufficient to warrant removal of his name.
An 18-foot tall, companion sculpture called “Witness,” stands in nearby Madison Square Park. The sculpture wears a hoop skirt, similar in shape to the stained-glass dome of the courthouse, that Sikander said symbolizes the need to “break the legal glass ceiling.”
The statues have been met with predictable ire from right wing figures. Stephen Miller, the former advisor to ex-president trump who crafted the former administration’s assortment of cruel laws regarding immigrants coming to the U.S. from Mexico, called the works “a visual desecration of the landscape.”
Literary agent John Hawkins tweeted, “I wasn’t a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, but even she deserves better than that ugly, satanic-looking eyesore.”
Another tweet was by @1ofWesternkind, self-described as a “white well being advocate helping put an end to #antiwhitism.” @1ofWesternkind said the statue is “blatantly demonic. No arms, weird gnarly twigs instead. Braids that resemble goat horns. A weird Mayan or Egyptian looking decorative piece over the breast. Is made of gold. Celebrates abortion. We’re in an all-out spiritual war, not hyperbole, this is just a stark reminder.”
Connor Boyack, founder of the Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank located in Lehi, Utah, tweeted “This ranks up there for one of the stupidest things ever.”
McKaylaRose, a far right, African American conservative political commentator and trump supporter, tweeted “That statue looks demonic, like it’s a female version of moloch…. WTF is going on in this country?? Where are the Christians?”
Jarrett Stepman, a columnist for The Daily Signal, the publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote about the removal of historical monuments in his book, “The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past.” Stepman said that the new statues and works of art are a part of “the great awokening” of public spaces.
“This slippery slope of statue toppling was a natural progression for those who believe that American and Western civilization are built on nothing but malignancy,” Stepman wrote. “Unfortunately, this sort of mob justice is unlikely to bring us to a kind of post-racial utopia, a heaven on earth. More likely it will bring us straight to perdition, where free government disintegrates and we become a nation of men and mobs, not the law.”
Stepman wrote that “politicians have seemingly been eager to meet the demands of this movement, and the whims of the mob, by jumping ahead and removing statues and the names of historical figures, often with little legal justification.”
In this time of growing right wing opposition to educating students on the impact of racism in society, another statue generating considerable consternation is artist Hank Willis Thomas’s “The Embrace,” a monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
The statue, unveiled last month in the Boston Common, represents the bonds, the warmth and the strength between the Kings. It portrays the embracing arms of Dr. and Mrs. King, from a photograph taken when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The $10 million bronze statue was commissioned and funded by Embrace Boston, a non-profit organization based in Boston. Before marriage, the Kings met in Boston and King spoke at the common to thousands of people during the civil rights movement.
The current atmosphere of anti-art reflects the long held bugaboo of totalitarians. Most infamously, attacking art was the purpose of the Militant League for German Culture, a nationalistic, anti-Semitic political society formed in 1928 by Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. Renamed the National Socialist Culture Community in 1934, its goal was to discredit artistic “enemies,” who did not reflect the Aryan, anti-Semtic, anti-communist aims and objectives of the Nazi Party. The number of members, who were organized in local chapters, rose from around 300 in 25 chapters in April 1929 to about 38,000 in 450 chapters by October 1933.
Among the “enemies” and “degenerate artists” noted by the National Socialist Culture Community were renowned artists like Thomas Mann, a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate; the playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht; Paul Klee, an artist whose style was influenced by movements in art that included expressionism, cubism, and surrealism; Wassily Kandinsky, an artist generally credited as one of the pioneers of abstraction in western art; and Kurt Schwitters, an artist who worked in several genres and media, including dadaism, constructivism, surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design and typography; and many others.
Works by modernist composers Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith were banned at state-subsidized concert programs, and books by Erich Maria Remarque, author of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and works by the great Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein; screenwriter and actor, Vsevolod Pudovkin; and film director, Georg Wilhelm Pabst were banned outright.
In 1937, the Nazis confiscated thousands of modern artworks from German museums and displayed many in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich.
The Nazis were a dramatic example of censoring art but throughout history works of art have been altered, silenced and even erased due to unacceptable content, whether the motivations for censorship were religious, social or political.
In 1565, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “The Last Judgement,” was deemed unholy and immoral by many Catholics, including Pope Daniele de Volterra. The scene depicts unclothed human souls who rise or fall to their otherworldly fates.
In 1865, Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” featured a red-headed nude that was deemed “vulgar” due to her erotic gaze and realistic representation.
In 1866, Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” was a close-up portrait of a vulva. The piece didn’t show publicly until 1995, while Facebook censored the work in 2011.
More recently, in 1989, Robert Mapplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment” included sexually explicit images including a man urinating into another man’s mouth and another of a fist being inserted into a man’s anus. The exhibit, slated to show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was cancelled before it began. The late, racist Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., called the exhibit “morally repugnant materials of a sexual nature.”