Until recently, it was a safe bet that people rarely noticed the statues around them. They stood, scattered all over the city’s parks and public spaces: statues of people like Floyd B. Olson, Charles Lindbergh, Leif Erikson, or Nathan Hale in St. Paul; or Mary Tyler Moore, Kirby Puckett, “Hiawatha,” and Hubert Humphrey over in Minneapolis. Especially these days, with most noses buried in smartphones, they’ve been the often-unseen background of everyday life.
But things change quickly. Over the last few months, the role of statues in public life has become central to debates about structural injustice and how we understand history. Seeing statues be publicly challenged and even removed in places like Richmond, Virginia, or the Minnesota Capitol, it’s time to look again at the figurative monuments that surround us in the public spaces of our cities.
“I really don’t think about statues that much,” said Colleen Sheehy, when I asked the other day. “They’ve really become a less important part of contemporary public art.”
Sheehy is the executive director of Public Art Saint Paul, a nonprofit that has been dedicated to improving and maintaining art in the city’s public realm. For Sheehy, statues are an old-fashioned idea of public art that does not reflect how she thinks about its role these days.
“They’re upholding a longstanding tradition going back to ancient times of depicting people, most often historical leaders, and reifying official and authoritative perspectives on history,” she explained. “Public art has really moved away from that. It’s not that treating a figurative sculpture never happens, but it’s not at the forefront of what public art is today.”
Large statues of people are, indeed, a very old idea. They date back millennia — the oldest life-size statue dates to 9,000 BC in modern-day Turkey — but, as Sheehy describes, literal pillars of the community have mostly served the purposes of symbolizing power. For example, in a New York Times op-ed earlier this summer, art historian Erin L. Thompson defined a statue as “a bid for immortality, a way of solidifying an idea and making it present to other people.”
My least favorite statue?
For some reason, maybe it was childhood memories from once being lost at Camp Snoopy, it wasn’t the historical statues that bothered me. Instead, I’ve always thought my least favorite St. Paul statues were the diminutive “Peanuts” characters scattered around the fringes of Rice Park. For years, I’ve literally looked down at them as a clumsy attempt at placemaking, artificial vitality in a city that could use actual street life instead.
But somehow Sheehy changed my mind. She likes them, and her biggest criticism of the “Peanuts” kids is that were made in a factory.
“You rarely see children depicted in public space,” Sheehy explained. “They’re iconic figures that people know around the world, and it is sort a democratic gesture to have these children from the ‘Peanuts’ comic strip, who are very philosophical, and you’re just at their level. It creates a different kind of atmosphere in downtown that’s friendly, that incorporates humor.”
Perhaps the best part of the “Peanuts” statues, their democratic playfulness, is anathema to the history of Western monumental culture. Statues are typically placed on a high dais, out of reach and imposing, and surrounded by stony inscriptions like “He Discovered America.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and one of Sheehy’s favorite St. Paul statues is more down-to-earth.
A great example of this is the F. Scott Fitzgerald statue sculpted by local artist Michael Price.
“I love that it’s at ground level,” said Sheehy, referring to the sculpture of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Rice Park. “[Price] really captures Fitzgerald as a regular person. I like that he is looking over the panoply of life and activity in Rice Park, and you can almost imagine that he might be thinking of writing a short story about it ….”
The question of who’s depicted
The other issue, of course, is who is depicted by our figurative monuments. For example, other than the former Twins greats around Target Field, it’s all but impossible to find a person of color or nonfictional Indigenous person in a statue. According to Sheehy, statues and monuments have an important quality, and the way that they symbolize social values can be both “inspiring” and “incredibly oppressive.” The ambiguity is certainly a feeling that holds true for many of the Twin Cities’ Black public artists.
“I never had a great concern about statues because I never saw me in them,” said Ta-Coumba Aiken, a visual artist based in St. Paul. “What I mean by that is, I did not see my African-American self in them, so I refuse to look at them. I refuse to believe they were greater than me or my people, so I did not study them.”
Aiken is a long-time public artist who, along with his collaborators, Seitu Jones and Soyini Vinelle Guyton, created one of the best local anti-statues in recent memory. Their work, “Shadows at the Crossroads,” an installation in the Walker Sculpture Garden, creates a shadow in the sidewalks of the art garden, and tells stories of black Minnesotans in panels in the ground. Unlike the domination of the classic pillared monument, the work is interactive. For example, people visiting the garden can stand in the footsteps of the statue, and connect with the histories told on the ground.
“It is an unconventional yet contemporary approach to how a memorial is bestowed and defined,” said Christopher Harrison, a Minneapolis artist, who cited “Shadows at the Crossroads” as his favorite statue-adjacent public artwork. For Harrison, the grounded approach makes the Walker piece particularly poignant, and runs counter to a history of symbolism that has long neglected the lives of people of color and other marginalized communities.
“I see statues and other monuments as encased historical records, archival institutions within the communal space,” Harrison explained. “How statues speak to truth from antiquity to present and future time for me determines their power and validity, their potency lying in how accurately they represent the character of the subject and the life that they portray.”
Perhaps it’s the notion of permanence that is really the difference between a classical statue and contemporary public art likely to challenge, rather than reify, power structures. How can we assume that any statue erected in 2020 will still be relevant in a century?
It’s hard even to imagine the iconic Mary Tyler Moore statue on Nicollet Mall being a permanent fixture. After all, at some point nobody will remember the TV show — a show, by the way, shot in Los Angeles and whose ties to Minnesota were paper-thin fiction.
Instead of statues, after the George Floyd killing, artists like Harrison spent the last few weeks and months creating temporary murals. And, for a while, Harrison’s work sat on Nicollet Mall, depicting timely messages. With downtown often deserted these days, I imagine that there were times when their only audience was Mary Tyler Moore.