Monday, April 5, 2010

I'm all in favor of art, but...

It hardly qualifies as news that public art is often controversial. The Eiffel Tower was regarded as an eyesore by many, and a petition signed by the likes of Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas (fils) and Émile Zola protested its construction. The untitled Picasso sculpture in Chicago may be a landmark now, but it met with considerable controversy when it was first unveiled: according to a Time magazine article written the week after the unveiling in 1967, the Chicago Tribune initially described it as “Picasso’s predatory grasshopper” before later reversing course, and one alderman actually introduced legislation to replace it with a statue of Cubs’ first baseman Ernie Banks. I remember the furor among many of my classmates when my alma mater installed X-Delta on the lawn in front of the library, just as previous generations had objected to the display of the Orozco murals, one panel of which is shown here, in the reserve room of that selfsame library. (I must say, that was a pretty creepy place in which to try to study!) And on and on. Virtually every city, every college or university, has experienced pretty much the same phenomenon somewhere along the line.

So I suppose no one should be surprised that Dakar, Senegal now has a controversial sculpture, the African Renaissance Monument, which was unveiled this weekend. But this brouhaha seems a little different in that the statue is being criticized from a wide variety of angles. “It’s ugly” and “it’s a waste of money” arguments are nothing new. But this piece is being described as obscene and even sacrilegious. These latter terms are common enough with respect to private pieces (remember the brouhaha over Piss Christ?), but they’re relatively rare in reference to public art.

That said, this enormous sculpture—slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty—has come under fire for a wide range of perceived grievances. The pet project of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the statue depicts an African family looking westward across the Atlantic Ocean towards the New World. Built in part to commemorate Senegal’s 50th anniversary as an independent state, the enormous monument has run afoul of Christians (when Wade compared it to Jesus) and of Islamic Imams, who issued a fatwa against it, proclaiming it “ungodly” and “a mockery of Islam.” Given that about 90% of the country’s population is Muslim and most of the remainder is Christian, that’s a problem.

Artists and Africanist intellectuals object to the aesthetics, more evocative of Soviet era propaganda statuary than of anything vaguely African. Gender activists complain that the woman is objectified and portrayed as subservient to the man, contrary to West African tradition. There are complaints that the woman is insufficiently clothed, and that the child is naked. Wade’s political opponents describe the massive monument as an example of the president’s misplaced priorities, self-aggrandizement, and greed. In the words of Ndey Tabara Seck, a widow who lives less than a kilometer away, “What income? The president said he would personally take 35% of the revenue generated from the statue because it was his idea. He assigned his daughter to manage the statue. Now he is talking about income for Senegal. Maybe he was talking about income for himself and his family but not for poor people like us who live in this area. No matter how many tourists visit this thing, it will never make a difference to our lives here.”

And that, of course, is the biggest objection. Perhaps this view of the monument during the construction process gives a more accurate view of the total reality. There’s the impressive-looking monument taking shape in the background. But in the foreground? Debris, unfinished homes, destitution. The project, depending on the source one uses, cost $27-28 million. That’s a lot of money in my neighborhood, but let’s look at it in terms of the Senegalese economy, which may be in better shape than it once was, but can hardly be described as robust. Senegalese GDP, needless to say, is considerably smaller than that of the USA (comparative graph here). For an American venture to cost the national economy as much as Mr. Wade’s narcissistic little enterprise in terms of percentage of GDP, it would have to cost over $30 billion, or enough to fund the entire National Endowment for the Arts at current levels for 177 years. That, my friends, is a lot of cash.

To make matters worse, Wade hired North Koreans rather than Senegalese workers to complete the project, despite a national unemployment rate of 48%. No, that’s not a typo. The grand unveiling attracted such notables as Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe and the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson, who sure does like to get his name in the paper.

Clearly, the Senegalese people are hurting, and many are livid about this latest extravagance. But we Americans have a right to be a little grumpy, too. After all, we recently forked over what one website describes as a $540 million “grant from U.S. taxpayers for good governance” to the Wade regime. Is it worth $2 to me personally to create, if not a path to prosperity, then at least an escape from squalor, for the people of Senegal? Of course. But it would be nice to be reassured that our collective largess was in fact being used for the interior infrastructure projects described in the agreement rather than to line the pockets of a venal President and his apparently even more acquisitive son. While I would love to be proved wrong, I’m afraid I’m not optimistic.

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