In this issue, we explore changes to New York City's sculpture landscape over time—changes that can help us better-understand the story.
Memory is not a film: a frame-by-frame recording of how things were—that's not how the brain works. But you do serve as unconscious director and cinematographer of your personal memories, presenting stories that have suffered interpretation, revision, deterioration, restoration, and, okay, even colorization. We tend to fill in gaps, we confirm narratives, we block and amplify scenes. And, of course, we can update our perspective based on new information, added context, and updated understanding. A memory may be found in the brain's recesses, but it is a product, not a faithful recording.
Collective memory is similarly a product. That's not to say that history is a fiendish manipulation. But it is worth noting that humans are equipped with certain devices, such as the golden age myth ("people were better back then") and the face-saving narrative ("our boys fought valiantly"), that can shape the story. How we remember is also a function of available information and, as we see too clearly in 2021, the effects of messaging bubbles and echo chambers.
Sometimes the story, at a point in time, is set in a material more durable than brain tissue. By memorializing in sculpture, we put that point-in-time perspective on display. Is it then a historical record? Well, yes and no. The creation and installation of a sculpture can certainly say something about those who meant to convey a message. But, as a message, the sculpture is subject to scrutiny even before it is set in stone, let alone over time.
In memorializing a life, a movement, an accomplishment, the sacrifice of war, or an ideology, a work of sculpture and the story it puts on display, reflects thinking at the time of installation, and, likely, the agenda of some who had power at the time.
The ongoing should-this-sculpture-be-here discussion has encompassed an array of objects all over the world, from Confederate monuments in the United States to the Parthenon's Elgin Marbles in London to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The fates of controversial works are various as well (forgotten, assigned new meaning, placed in context, worn as badges of honor, destroyed). The dynamic that leads to a sculpture's creation often continues on as a dynamic. As an inscribed memory, even one set in stone or cast in metal, a sculpture is a product of changing factors. Its significance will change.
For Winter 2021, we'll visit a catalog of sculpture change, all in New York City.