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Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

Manhattan glimpsed from Greenwood Cemetery

The trees are changing color, Halloween is fast approaching, and the day was beautiful—which means today was the perfect time for the annual autumn trip to Greenwood Cemetery, the immense Victorian graveyard at the center of Brooklyn.  As always, I was enthralled by the towering specimen trees, 19th century mausoleums, and the rolling moraine landscape, but, also I was decidedly shocked to find the cemetery was different!  There was a new addition, and for once, it did not require a pile of fresh dug earth, a crowd of mourners, and a diminution of the human family.

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

The triumph of Civic Virtue (Frederick William MacMonnies, 1922, Marble) In Greenwood Cemetery in 2013

Instead of a new grave, there was a huge beautiful bright white marble allegorical statue of a nude man standing on top of two writhing mermaids!  What happened to bring this twenty foot Greco-Roman hand-carved titan to the quiet midst of my favorite necropolis?  Well, I looked up the story (i.e. read the extensive plaque), and discovered that the statue was moved because women obtained the right to vote in the United State. Fans of the constitution will note that the nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920, two years before “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” was finished by the Piccirilli Brothers (Ferrucio, Attilio, Furio, Horatio, Masanielo and Getulio).  What happened?

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in1923)

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (In front of City Hall in 1923)

As it turns out, “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is probably the most controversial work of art in New York City’s history (certainly it is the most scandalous to be bought with public money). The statue’s bizarre history involves the way power shifts in a democracy, the changing meaning of symbols, and the greatest constant in art—the artist’s eternal inability to cope with deadlines.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the allegorical work was designed by Frederick MacMonnies to stand in front of City Hall in Manhattan and to represent American politics.  The handsome and robust figure of Civic Virtue stands triumphantly astride two snaky sea goddesses who represent the two great public temptresses of vice and corruption.  However, since the actual marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers, were very busy (and artistic creation does not always obey the schedule of small-minded foot-tapping bureaucrats) the statue took a very long time to finish and was delivered years late.

The

The Triumph of Civic Virtue (in Kew Gardens beside Queens Borough Park in 2002)

The statue was finally completed and installed in front of City Hall in 1922, but by then its era had already passed.  Newly empowered women voters hated it for depicting women as semi-human beings who are subordinate, naked, and prostrate at the foot of an armed man (an allegory which seemed all too familiar to them).  Not only was it decried as sexist:  the classical Greco-Roman aesthetic was at odds with the modern new styles of the roaring twenties. Additionally the manly (but diminutive and lumpy) mayor, Figueroa de Laguardia, did not like looking up at the statue’s muscular backside as he (the mayor) stared out over his city from his office.  Together the mayor and the suffragettes exiled the statue to Kew Gardens Park beside Queens Borough Hall where it languished at the center of a fountain for long decades.  However even that was not enough to placate the artwork’s detractors who still demanded that it be moved far away from the center of political power in Queens.  The great women’s rights crusader Anthony Weiner even suggested that it be sold online on Craigslist!  Finally Greenwood cemetery stepped in with a protected public (but not very accessible) space for the statue and with funds for a renovation.  The “Triumph of Civic Virtue” was surreptitiously moved to the cemetery in December of 2012.

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or maybe corruption)

A side view of the statue shows the nude allegorical figure of vice (or possibly corruption)

I can’t help but feel like the suffragettes might have had a point.  Why isn’t civic virtue a lovely & mighty lady like Justice, Temperance, or even Columbia herself.  The statue is magnificently carved and executed, but it also looks like a dark fantasy of mermaid abuse.  Yet its weird history says more than it does about who we are (and who we were). Queens’ loss is Brooklyn’s gain, and I am happy the statue found a pretty home where my fellow statue lovers and I can regard it up close. “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” is both great, troubling, and hilarious , however, considering the statue’s provenance—from city hall, to a tertiary borough, to an empty cemetery–perhaps it can also be considered empowering.

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

Virtue is removed from Queens (December, 2012)

Journey of the Magi (Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461, fresco)

One of the metaphors commonly used to describe the entirety of humankind is the image of a parade. We hear it all the time and hardly think about it: the parade of nations, the march of progress, the triumph of man….I think it is a good image to hold in one’s head when thinking about people taken as a collective entity (and despite our pretensions of self-sufficiency, these days we are very much a super organism like a clonal colony or a hive of army ants).

Here’s how I picture it.

Imagine a new frontier (be it a virgin land, outer space, a scientific breakthrough, a manufacturing notion…anything).  Out there today are theoreticians and dreamers who are trying to envision a way to use new resources and new ideas.  Then suddenly someone has an epiphany based on a half-heard sentence, or a daydream, or a happy column of numbers and the true parade commences.  First come the explorers—robotic probes, Ponce de Leon, bathyspheres, runners-of-the-woods, and lonely obsessive men in labcoats.  Next are the early adapters: hipsters, the curious, the desperate, and the visionaries.  The progress begins to swell as politicians, business leaders, and media stars proceed past. Upon the backs and shoulders of the multitude, the great and the mighty are carried like juggernauts as ticker tape falls down around them and they preen on top of gilded palanquins.  Soldiers and legionnaires ride by frowning in their glittering armor.  The middle class pass by in sensible cars and comfortable shoes holding the hands of children with happy smiling faces.

Next come rank upon rank of the underemployed and the working poor. They are struggling to get along beneath the yellow checks cashed signs and the shadow of the workhouse. Finally at the back of the parade are the old and the sick.  The diseased and the lost are laboring to keep up.  The wounded conscript is lying in the muck barely crawling forward as the parade leaves him further and further behind.  A senile nonagenarian sits down in a rocking chair and never gets up.

And behind us all there is the detritus of our once great endeavors.  The landscape is strewn with rubbish and cast-offs.  A great winding pathway is built of garbage from gum wrappers to whale bone corsets to smashed bronze cannons to gnawed mammoth bones.  Along the empty road there are old cities waning away to irrelevance and there are cities entirely lost—burned, abandoned, or buried in the sand–going back to ancient Eridu itself.  And there is an endless trail of corpses slowly returning to the mud.

Ultimately the trail leads back to the dry highlands of eastern Africa, but where the parade is going is anyone’s guess.  Picture it in your head dear reader.  Smile and wave while the golden light shines on you and the horns play impossibly beautiful music tinged with sadness…

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