After statues of St. Junipero Serra, Francis Scott Key, and President Ulysses S. Grant were toppled in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a friend called the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) to learn the fate of the statues. A representative from SFAC informed her that the toppled statues were being kept in a secure location, and some other statues around the city had been removed by the commission itself before they could meet a similar fate at the hands of the roving iconoclasts. Removing and restoring statues requires money, and faced with reduced funding as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, SFAC could not say for certain what would be done with them next. The rep did mention, however, that it’s likely that in the future statues put up by the commission will be predominantly abstract and non-representational—and, therefore, non-controversial..
This final note struck a certain chord in me. Have you ever noticed that corporate offices rarely display art that isn’t abstract? Anything with form has meaning, and so could court controversy. If this is the precedent we are willing to accept, we shouldn’t risk statues of anyone or anything, because nothing finite could adequately represent the totality of values and virtues of the ever-splintering moral tribes and factions that compose modern America. My friends who have spent years of their lives painstakingly learning how to render stunning images in oils or in clay have done so despite the pretensions of the so-called “art world,” which still tediously confuses repurposed trash and even bodily fluids with the fresh and “avant-garde.” But the decadent “art world” is eating our world. Paralyzed with fear of impure symbolism, we are exalting the talentless, the spineless, the shapeless, the meaningless.
Every hero is the villain of another story, and a period of nihilism and disillusionment is inherent in the evolution of every naïve idealist. There comes a time when the worship of his or her heroic idols is shattered by a direct confrontation with their faults, their wrongdoings, their sins against the ideal. With no one to aspire to, we turn to ourselves; but believing that we can achieve apotheosis is the folly of the naïve and narcissistic. Any extended, honest assessment of our thoughts and actions will acknowledge that we, too, are fallible. What then?
One of the most defining characteristics of our species is that we are observational learners, primed for mimesis and always, however subconsciously, looking for models for how to act, how to live, how to perform our role in society. Faced with the reality of human limitations we have two options. The first is to make the perfect the enemy of the good—to accept defeat and the despair that comes with it, the spiritual death of those who cease to aspire and therefore, to hope. The second is to realize that there are none among us who could be considered perfect by every person in every place in every time—and that rather than using this as an excuse not even to try to achieve greatness, or even goodness, it should be all the more reason to believe that you, too, have the capacity to contribute more to this world than you have taken from it.
“All those who are struggling for freedom today are ultimately fighting for beauty,” wrote Camus in a 1948 essay called “Helen’s Exile.”
Of course, it is not a question of defending beauty for itself. Beauty cannot do without man, and we shall not give our era its nobility and serenity unless we follow it in its misfortune. Never again shall we be hermits. But it is no less true that man cannot do without beauty, and this is what our era pretends to want to disregard. It steels itself to attain the absolute and authority; it wants to transfigure the world before having exhausted it, to set it to rights before having understood it.
Beauty inspires love, and through glimpses of the transcendent it makes us at home in this world, so often filled with the very cruelty and tragedy those who desecrate it claim to oppose. It is a heartbreaking time for those who cherish community and philanthropy: our atomized and anguished time cries out for beautiful public spaces, but we are undeserving of such indiscriminate generosity. Behind well-secured walls and doors, those like me with passion and means will continue to collect, cultivate, and create beauty. But I can see a time come, too, when even our homes won’t be safe from the ravages of envy-driven violence, when anything cherished privately will be destroyed in the name of public equality.
It is a juvenile and selfish delusion to take the ugliness and suffering in the world around you, amplify it, and call it art—or activism. True artists understand they are engaging in a form of alchemy, a holy practice for the benefit of all who bear witness to their work. By capturing the meaningful moments of human life—even the greatest sorrows and tragedies—we are reminded that our lives can be lived with dignity, and suffering can be redeemed. For this reason, I continue to draw, copy paintings, and memorize poetry: in this way I intend to remain free, and no mob can ever take that from me.