Most of us rush by the statues in our local park or courthouse square without so much as a glance. New York arts writer Dianne Durante, though, has spent countless hours gazing at and photographing the public sculptures and monuments that she says inspire, provoke, and amuse her.
Durante has given walking tours of Manhattan’s statuary. She runs a Web site on the subject, and has written two books about outdoor monuments. The second, Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide was recently published by New York University Press. Durante spoke with WFIU’s Adam Schwartz from her home in Brooklyn, New York.
Highlights From The Interview
Durante’s Web site devoted to public statuary is called “Forgotten Delights.” She describes what, in her view, has been forgotten:
“I’ve think we’ve forgotten that art can hit you so hard that you forget to breathe. In New York City we started having abstract sculptures in the sixties or so that were mostly to sort of decorate the outside of those big, glass office buildings. But they really don’t speak to you. I feel very strongly that art is a form of communication. That the artist is saying, ‘This is important. Pay attention to this.’ Except that the vocabulary of abstract art is not something that anybody gets. If you read three different descriptions of abstract work, they will tell you three different things.”
Sculptures That Inspire
Outdoor monuments can inspire us, Durante says. “I think that art is a combination of a fuel supply and a compass. If you find a piece that really appeals to you, it can remind you of what you want to be, or where you want to go. And at the same time, it gives you the energy to get there, because you can see that it’s something that can be achieved”
“It does not necessarily have to be [a sculpture of] a person who’s doing exactly whatever it is that you want to do yourself. If you’re a computer programmer, you don’t need to be inspired by a statue of a computer programmer. You can be inspired by someone who was an innovative genius, like Thomas Edison. Or perhaps – if it’s what you need to keep you going – if there’s a very famous person who was known just for carrying on through think and thin, a sculpture or painting of that person could have the same effect.”
The Value Of Representation
Durante favors representational sculpture over abstract works. She’s not thrilled about the proposed World Trade Center memorial, Reflecting Absence, which will be square, acre-wide pools with waterfalls. “I think that a memorial ought to be a reminder of the people that we are commemorating, memorializing,” she explains.
“The best memorials remind us what was remarkable about the people that they’re commemorating. Think of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.. Lincoln was famous for being president, he was famous for certain debates, but what he was really famous for was grappling with the really thorny ideas, the thorny issues that came up in the Civil War. The statue that we all remember of him sitting in silence, trying to deal. It conveys what people feel is the important aspect of Lincoln.”
That’s where Reflecting Absence will go wrong, Durante believes. “A pool, even two pools, and a lot of trees, just don’t do that. The only memorial aspect of the Reflecting Absence design is the fact that it will have the names of the victims scattered around. The problem with specific names is that a proper name is associated with a certain person. If you don’t know that person, it means nothing. If you come visit this place from Thailand, all it will say is, ‘a lot of people died here.’ It won’t give you any conception of what we thought of those people. What was important about those people. I think that a proper memorial should focus on that.”
Durante believes in the value of specifics and individuals. “I don’t think it should focus on death and destruction, I think it should focus on what we want to remember about them. This is a monument that people are going to be seeing for centuries, probably, and I don’t think that’s the message that we want to be commemorating for all that time.”
Her Favorite Monument
“There’s a statue in City Hall Park, downtown, of Nathan Hale, which is an amazing sculpture. It shows Nathan Hale just before he was about to be executed. The posture of it, the expression on his face, the way his hands are gesturing, show that he’s still defiant. That they haven’t broken his spirit. And that he thinks that what he’s doing is worth dying for.”
It is a fitting sculpture for Dianne Durante. “He had no question that what he was doing was important. And for me it gives me a reminder that things may get very, very difficult, but there are certain things that are worth fighting for.”
Dianne Durante is the author of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide, and The Producers: A Selection of Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture. Visit her blog about the monuments and statues of New York: Forgotten Delights.