Scott Klavan: In Defense of Statues
I was teaching a remote Drama/Acting class for older adults and we were reading the play You Can’t Take It With You, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1938 comedy about an eccentric New York city family fighting the conventionality and venality of that Depression time. After we finished, one of the students brusquely and negatively dismissed the play as “dated,” due to its depiction of the African-American help, Donald and Rheba; many others agreed; however, the disdainful portrayal of the repressed Wall Street executive, Mr. Kirby, reminiscent of today’s view of the “1%”, was deemed acceptable.
But I had a different response. At the end of the play, family patriarch Grandpa confronts Mr. Kirby with the knowledge that as a young man, the stern financier dreamed of being a trapeze artist and a saxophone player; Kirby still keeps a sax in his closet. “How many of us would be willing to settle when we’re young for what we eventually get?” Grandpa asks Kirby. “All those plans we make…what happens to them? It’s only a handful of the lucky ones that can look back and say that they even came close.”
Listening to that section read by amateur actors in a class, I had to turn my head out of the Zoom screen to hide my emotion. There was something in Grandpa’s speech that struck me on a level deeper than the outward clichés of some of the other scenes and characterizations, or Kirby’s resemblance to today’s Trumpish millionaires/billionaires. Its power was in its expression of a shared human experience: Everybody Dreams. That universality makes the play something worth preserving; it has something to offer, to anyone, at any time.
This notion of creative work being “dated” seems meaningful in evaluating today’s culture battles over the destruction of statues reflecting earlier values in America’s history. And it butts up against the very concept of Art and contemporary people’s understanding and appreciation of Art, or absence of that. Because the mostly young people climbing on statues and tearing them down do not see these creations as sculptures, don’t connect to any discipline or craft in the making of them, certainly don’t see any complexities of expression and meaning that anyone might take from this or any statue, only feel that these edifices don’t reflect what they believe, go against their own experience and what they feel is right today, and so: must be destroyed.
Obviously, it is understandable that many people, especially African-Americans, would feel anger and resentment over statues that represent the bigotry and persecution of slavery and the veneration of Southern Civil War figures who defended the practice. Considering that, and the outrage caused by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, the acts of destruction seem somewhat defensible. But I see the desecration of statues as something more than “collateral damage” of a righteous cause. What I find striking about the wanton tearing down of statues is the complete ignorance of the pieces as works of Art, of the value of Art in itself, that it might be something to respect, maybe something worth preserving. To go further, it is the detachment from Art as something that a person might learn from, something from which to feel solace, awe, humility, beauty, spirituality, love, and yes, even bitterness and hate. And further still, something that might cause you to withdraw from your self and ego and touch the shared invisible sensation surrounding Life on Earth, a timeless Universal Soul. That is what I see evinced in the destruction.
I don’t think the ignorance of the destructors is an inherent character fault or flaw, really. Ignorance is not stupidity. It is more that these young people have not truly experienced Art, have not been taught what Art is; or have only been indoctrinated in college with the view that Art is just an extension of racial, gender, or governmental politics, that it is only important so far as it reflects directly on the students’ daily lives, current events, the temporal side of existence as they experience it now. (And these attitudes have been influential for some time, as evidenced by the reaction of older adults in my drama class to You Can’t Take It With You.)
After all, a huge amount of communities throughout the country have completely cut arts education from elementary through high school.
In a February, 2019 article from nonprofit public policy organization Brookings Institution:
“Among adults, arts participation is related to behaviors that contribute to the health of civil society, such as increased civic engagement, greater social tolerance, and reductions in other-regarding behavior. Yet, while we recognize art’s transformative impacts, its place in K-12 education has become increasingly tenuous.”
“Though few would deny that the arts confer intrinsic benefits, advocating ‘art for art’s sake’ has been insufficient for preserving the arts in schools…Over the last few decades, the proportion of students receiving arts education has shrunk drastically.”
“…schools with higher percentages of minority students were more likely to experience decreases in time spent on arts education.”
Young students today are rarely given the chance to hear a symphony, see a play or a ballet, even read a novel; or yes, observe sculpture. Certainly, they are not exposed to work that was made outside the time of their own lives. They don’t get a chance to develop a personal relationship with, a liking for, historical creative work, to just enjoy the music, dance, the words, of other groups, from other times. If you are not taught that a work of Art is something to respect and protect, that it has collective/universal value, even a sacredness, then it is nothing to you. Knocking it down violates no taboos, rules, or beliefs. It is not wrong.
All artwork is dated the minute it is finished. But it doesn’t matter; it can still get to you. I write about theater for EIL, so I’ll start by using classical drama as example: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice portrays the Jewish moneylender Shylock as cheap, false, scheming, and vindictive. The part is written with severe, old-fashioned “foreign” Jewish intonations, and behavior, turning off some Jewish actors, some of whom, through the years, have refused to portray him. Yet, it’s likely Shakespeare was sincerely portraying the mannerisms of a Jewish man of the period (as Hart & Kaufman were writing 1930s African-Americans Donald and Rheba) and the play itself, written in the late 16th century, is still known for Shylock’s famous plea:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?”
The dynamic, compassionate universality of his speech overwhelms any time-restricted surface discomfort in the character. The Otherness of Shylock’s character is the point, and has spoken to people who see themselves as foreigners, all manner of stranger, for over four hundred years.
In The Children’s Hour (1934), by Lillian Hellman, two female teachers are accused of lesbianism by a vengeful student. The women’s reputations are ruined and, near the end, one of them, Martha, who has denied any attraction to her colleague Karen, says to her despondently: “There’ll never be any place for us to go. We’re bad people. We’ll sit. We’ll be sitting the rest of our lives wondering what’s happened to us. You think this scene is strange? Well, get used to it; we’ll be here for a long time.” When Karen wonders at her hopelessness, Martha says: “I don’t love you…I’ve loved you like a friend, the way thousands of women feel about other women.” But Martha turns around only a few lines later and announces, (with italics from the published text): “I’ve loved you the way they said…There’s a big difference between us now, Karen. I feel all dirty and—I can’t stay with you any more, darling.” When Karen disbelieves her friend’s feelings, claiming “…we’ll forget it by tomorrow—” Martha interrupts: “Tomorrow? That’s a funny word. Karen, we would have to invent a new language, as children do, without words like tomorrow.” Martha leaves the stage to commit suicide.
The Children’s Hour is rarely produced these days, probably because it portrays gay people as feeling shame at their own erotic feelings and a 1920s-30s world of intolerance that, of course, can’t be recognizable in our day, since the Supreme Court approved gay marriage. But the confusion and self-hatred about her needs that Martha carries to the grave ring true for all lovers, all people experiencing the torments of intimacy in any time-frame and society. Theaters might find a resonance with audiences if they hadn’t excised this beautifully written play from their repertoires.
A walk through the Met in New York, or Art Institute of Chicago, reveals portraits of public or private personages, friends, strangers, patrons, by Rembrandt, Goya, Sargent, Gilbert Stuart, Vermeer, who are either forgotten, unidentified, or if investigated, would be sure to have held beliefs far from keeping with our own vaunted inclusiveness and sensitivity to others. Yet the eyes, postures, expression, dress, attitudes of these painted people speak to us across the centuries about human nature, pride, lust, loneliness, alienation, ambition, friendship, a myriad of feelings we still embrace, struggle with, and reject. These flat figures on a canvas in a frame have something that touches, reaches out to us, are alive. The painters’ craft, imagination, and human understanding erases any barriers of time.
I was acting in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s, and on a day off from the show, saw at Freer Gallery of Art “Mount Fuji,” a woodblock of a child sitting in a branch of a tree looking out over the huge mountain. The magic of that image, its hauntingly mystical, yet comforting solitude, the contrast/communion between the small child and giant mountain, caused me to buy a lithograph of it; it’s still on my bookshelf. I didn’t even remember who painted it, but last week, looked on the back: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). I have nothing superficially in common with this Japanese artist, who I learned was renowned for his long series of views of Mount Fuji. But there was something about the artist’s work that affected me thousands of miles apart, 140 years after his death.
Music of other eras certainly doesn’t “relate” to today in style, tone, pace, melody, arrangement, even in the instruments used to create sound. But listening to Beethoven, Tchaikovsky—take your pick from the greats—Americans Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, et al, can transport us without words out of our prosaic literal lands of thought and experience. Nietzsche wrote: “God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble…”
Poetry and fiction have this power no matter where and when it was written, and by whom. Anyway, all of this is obvious to those who respect art and make engagement with it a practice. But the number of those adherents are dwindling. The sight of people gutting art guilt-free has caused some outrage, but not much, really. Not enough. Here in New York City, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History has been threatened and now, will be removed by city officials before it is assaulted. The piece, by sculptor James Earle Fraser, up since 1940, features Roosevelt stalwartly on horseback flanked by a Native American and African-American standing beside him. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statement is quoted in the New York Times: “The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior….The City supports the Museum’s request.” While the statue is problematic, it’s virtually impossible to find a discussion of its artistry and craftsmanship, or whether the work’s portrayal of heroism and dignity—of all three men—has merit by itself, divorced from the earlier period’s social hierarchy. The unveiled threat of violence from the protesters, the blatant extortion—it was splattered with red paint in 2017—speaks loudest, drowning out everything else.
The destruction of statues of the Confederacy has given way to actual or threatened destruction of tributes to other, more complicated American men of history, who often have hugely laudable achievements to their names, including Jefferson and Washington, because they were slaveowners, and Lincoln, because his attitudes reflected a 19th century, rather than a 21st sensibility about race. It seems the need to erase symbols of prejudice is deteriorating quickly into a general narcissistic push for power and influence, diluting any specific honorable complaint or protest.
(On a practical level, there is the question of what to do with the statues if they are taken down, rather than toppled by protest groups. This is a longer discussion for another day, but a Smithsonian Magazine article in May, 2018, quotes Don Carleton, the executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin, about the transfer to the center of a statue of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy. “They are pieces of art; destroying that is like burning books. They need to be preserved and they belong in museums.”)
Like all people, everything human, this essay is imperfect. Of course, some statues suck, are cheap, bad art; of course, some if not most Confederate leaders were not worth the concrete, bronze, and plaster it took to do the sculpting. Of course, no one cries when a statue of Saddam Hussein is torn down in Iraq. But there is a principle involved here that should not be trampled on. If a new social justice movement is uninformed and insensitive, egoistic, and domineering, exemplified by its failure to see the value of Art, then where is the improvement, the forward progress, what is the future of it worth? After all, many 20th century authoritarian regimes, including Communist China and Soviet Russia, came in on the wings of populist openness and liberation and soon shut down freedoms, doing away with artists first and foremost. Are we just following the path of these revolutions, from one form of oppression to another?
I wonder if any of these young people, crawling with gleeful rage to fasten a hook atop a statue, had ever listened to a symphony, attended a play, walked past a painting, and been uncontrollably moved, taken by that something. If they had been touched like that, allowed themselves to go beyond themselves into a deeper vision of life, I wonder if they wouldn’t have stopped, put aside the rope, and climbed down. Grandpa in You Can’t Take It With You calls out the money man Kirby about his priorities: “…before they clean out that closet, Mr. Kirby, I think I’d get in a few good hours on that saxophone.”
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.