I use the term “pre-unethical conditions” to describe situations which have a record of leading directly to ethical conflicts and misconduct. “Ethics Chess,” another Ethics Alarms term mandates that a participant think multiple moves ahead, and thus anticipate, plan for, and with luck and skill, even avoid the ethical perils ahead. The task of honoring a famous or accomplished public figure with a monument or memorial structure for the ages once was simple and straightforward: you put up a statue after a respected and credentialed artist designed it. Of course, if you picked a hack to do the job and got something like this…
..there would be trouble, but usually the standards for statues were reasonable and the public easy to satisfy. That was fortunate, because any committee decision involving art of any kind is bound to be contentious; as the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste. I’ve had to oversee the organizational acceptance of a new logo more than once, and it is impossible. When the board meeting reaches the point where members are scribbling their own crude designs on pads, you know you’re doomed. Public art is much, much worse, because it’s more visible, there are people who make their livings criticizing whatever the final result may be, and it’s expensive. Good luck.
And even luck won’t save you now. As society has given stakeholders in these matters near veto power through the option of being “offended,” the memorial process almost inevitably becomes an ethics train wreck. Now if you are doing your honoring in a privately owned setting, you have more flexibility. For example, a new luxury hotel dedicated to female empowerment has opened in Washington, DC. [I am not making any of this up.] It is called Hotel Zena, evoking the TV warrior princess played by Lucy Lawless, and houses over 60 artworks that celebrate women’s rights. Among them: a giant portrait of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, constructed from 20,000 colored tampons.
Classy! The hotel also has a reception desk made out of high heels, which is far too reminiscent of the giant shoe pile in the Holocaust Museum for me, but I have a problem with out-of-control lateral thinking. The point is that when the inevitable Ginsburg memorial is planned, I don’t think a tampon statue will make the cut.
We are seeing the modern process unfolding in San Francisco, which decided to build a monument honoring the poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. There soon will be a wave of public art honoring women and “people of color,” because the vast, vast majority of statues and other monuments honor white men, who, as we are being told, were all racists. This is a fair warning of what is to come.
Artist Lava Thomas was the choice of the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2019 to design the monument to Angelou, whom I would bet will be regarded as a minor artist at best once the fog of bias clears, leading future residents of the city to wonder, “Why her?” Thomas submitted her design, but City Supervisor Catherine Stefani rejected it. It doesn’t matter why; she’s not an artist, and once an artist’s work is being dissected by amateurs, hope is lost.
For the record, the design featured a nine-foot-tall bronze book with Angelou’s portrait on one side and her words on the other. And no tampons! Stefani seems to have wanted a statue; this is how the now-iconic Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. played out, with the original design only making it to construction after a desperate compromise that included adding the statutes of members of the armed services nearby. (Almost nobody pays attention to them, being overwhelmed by the scene at the black wall with all the names of the dead.) Stefani requested that the commission restart the selection process.
Thomas, however, felt deceived, insulted, and betrayed. She had spent the last year seeking guidance from the commission, which offered none. When she tried to address the controversy in a public hearing with the commission last month, she was prevented from airing her concerns.
Now the scrapped Angelou monument is being held up as a symbol of politicians, especially white politicians, standing in the way of a more diverse future. Thomas’s supporters are demanding that the city’s arts commission enact “reforms.” “Lava’s monument is a challenge to conventional representations of Black women,” said Angela Hennessy, an artist and co-founder of the collective See Black Womxn “It’s quite subversive in a poetic way. That monument would be in production right now in the context of all these other colonial monuments being reconsidered and removed.”
So now the commission is groveling. Its president, Roberto Ordeñana, apologized to Thomas this week, saying,
“I want to remind us all that when there are systems failures, the individuals and communities that end up experiencing the most harm as a result of said failures are those of us who experience oppression and marginalization. Due to our failures, we have caused significant harm to an incredibly talented Black woman artist, and we have caused deep pain to members of the Black artist community.”
Boy, he hasn’t been paying attention. Apologies don’t work! Thomas and her supporters are now demanding the resignations of the art commission’s visual arts committee chair and Supervisor Stefani, and the suspension of the new call for proposals. Meanwhile a new timeline for the project, is up in the air.
Oh, why bother? In a few generations a mob will be finding some reason to tear down whatever it is they put up anyway.