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Public art, politics, and the banishing of Civic Virtue

Frederick MacMonnies (sculptor), Thomas Hastings (architect), Piccirilli Brothers (carvers), Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness, 1922, marble, more than 17 feet high (originally City Hall Park, Manhattan, then Queens Borough Hall, now Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn but without fountain basins) Speakers: Dr. Michele Bogart and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're standing in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn looking at an enormous marble sculpture called Civic Virtue. This nude young man holding a sword over his shoulder and then this complex sculptural group below, but this is only a fragment of what this sculpture originally included. - [Michele] This was an enormous work of art that was commissioned by the mayor of the city of New York in 1909. And it represents civic virtue. The female figures below represent vice. And so, civic virtue is triumphing over civic vice. - [Steven] So we're not talking about real people. These are personifications. These are ideas that are being articulated through human form. - [Michele] And that was an approach that was very common in art history going way back to the Renaissance. - [Steven] This seems to be very much a part of the Beaux-Arts style that looked back to the Baroque, that looked back to the Renaissance, that looked back to ancient Greece and Rome and tried to bring that into the modern world. - [Michele] MacMonnies, the sculptor trained in France and use this allegorical personification of abstract ideas that was quite commonplace. The problem was by the time he finished the approach was no longer so commonplace. - [Steven] So by the time this was to the open to the public modern art had happened, Cubism existed. People were thinking about art in very different ways. - [Michele] Except that the response to this monument had little to do with modern art. The response to this monument had to do with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919 which gave women the right to vote. - [Steven] And there in lied one of the significant problems that this sculpture encountered. - [Michele] Women who had been politically active argued that the figure of the man was stomping on the women's necks. - [Steven] And when we look closely, we see that is not the case. So that was a kind of political hyperbole. - [Michele] In 1922 those who had worked hard on behalf of women's suffrage argued that ideally a man should be shown side by side with women and not striding atop of them. And the Commissioner of Parks in New York City, Robert Moses, felt that the work was not just outdated, but ugly. So when City Hall Park was due for reconstruction in 1938 during the Depression, Moses used that as the opportunity to move the sculpture. And it ended up in Queens next to the Queens Borough Hall, which was the center of Queens government. - [Steven] But here we are in Brooklyn looking at it and we're not even looking at the fountain as a whole. We're only looking at the sculptural group that would have been at the top. - [Michele] The work in Queens went pretty much unnoticed until the early 1980s. And at that point, a high-level Queens official decided that she found the work offensive for some of the same reasons that her forebears in 1922 had. That began a series of public relations efforts to get the work moved again. Meanwhile, the statue was allowed to decay. - [Steven] It's marble, and it's exposed to all of the industrial pollution of the 20th Century, which is the natural enemy of marble, the results of which we can see in the pitted surface of the sculpture before us. - [Michele] The statue's location in Queens was right next to a major highway. There is acid rain and there is auto pollution. So by the 1980s, the work was starting to turn black. - [Steven] All of the fine details have been lost. The sculpture has in some ways melted, as so much marble sculpture has. - [Michele] This monument belongs to the City of New York, which accepted the monument as part of its permanent collection. By charter mandate, the city is responsible for taking care of the monument, and that became a problem. If the constituency and the neighborhood don't care and don't call for conservation, the politicians who would have had to shell out a lot of money were less motivated to do that. So the situation cascaded. - [Steven] So the sculpture is still part of the city's collection, but the sculptural group is on long-term loan to Greenwood Cemetery who has taken on its maintenance. - [Michele] Greenwood Cemetery has in effect become and embraced the role of steward of some of the city outdoor sculptures. - [Steven] Originally the artist had intended this subject, Civic Virtue to be a heroic representation of good government over corruption. And so the sculpture is a product of the progressive era. It's part of the City Beautiful Movement. - [Michele] This progressive era was a moment where there was a lot of concern about cleaning up city government and the City Beautiful Movement was an effort to on the one hand, make cities look better, which meant make them look more like Paris, Rome, Vienna and London with their wide streets and their clipped trees and their use of sculpture as accents. It was also meant to represent well-functioning government. - [Steven] Politics in New York in the first decades of the 20th Century are completely intertwined with the politics of immigration and art was seen as a way of educating, of ennobling the citizens of the city. - [Michele] Becoming an American meant dispensing to some degree with the culture and outlook of the countries from which those people came. And those people very much wanted to do that in many cases. - [Steven] And so the sculpture is different. It's no longer atop it's basins. Water is not splashing around it. It's no longer in lower Manhattan. Instead here we are in a quiet if wind swept glade in Greenwood Cemetery. - [Michele] This is a great example of what public private partnerships can bring about, the protection and conservation of a fascinating work of historic art. (jazzy piano music)