Long Story Short: Of men and monuments
Illustration by JP Thimot
For God’s sake: Samuel Herbert’s monumental undertaking
Community activist Samuel Herbert believes that 10,000 signatures on a petition will lead to the removal and replacement of the Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr. sculpture in MLK Park.
This is not an attempt to change minds on the artistic merits of the eight-foot-tall big bronze head that has been an imposing presence in the park since 1983. Despite many people telling him they want to keep the current sculpture, Herbert believes God personally instructed him to "correct that wrong." And who’s going to argue with Yahweh? But Herbert is setting himself and others up for disappointment when reality inevitably comes crashing down. Here are some reasons:
1. Cost: After he gets the 10,000 signatures and presents them to various government representatives, Herbert says he will concentrate on fundraising, which he would prefer to leave to political leaders. Removing the current sculpture alone would come with a sizeable price tag, not to mention commissioning and installing a new work. Legal expenses aside (more on that later) public art is surprisingly costly. The MLK memorial in Washing DC, which Herbert has sighted as an ideal, cost $120 million. Politicians, government agencies, and foundations would unlikely to fund the removal of a sculpture by a distinguished artist. Where would the funds come from?
2. Bad optics: Herbert has said, "Our beef has never been with the sculptor, but the committee that approved this shameful image of a great American." Note to Herbert: when you call a work of art “shameful,” you do have a beef with the artist. But the activist should consider the idiom, “out of the frying pan into the fire.”
Renowned African-American artist John Woodrow Wilson—who passed away in 2015—created the existing sculpture, which he intended to represent an “everyman” that young black men can identify with. The National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston Massachusetts has a similar Wilson sculpture on its grounds. It’s so iconic in the community that the museum holds a Juneteenth celebration named after it; the Annual Big Head Community Festival. Wilson’s artwork is in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Princeton University Art Museum, and many other institutions. If Buffalo removed a major public work by such a prominent artist, it would constitute a national embarrassment. Petition or not, it’s unlikely government, cultural, and African-American leaders would support such a move.
3. A no-win proposition: Herbert has called the Wilson sculpture “a huge mistake.” In a WIVB TV news interview, he stated that he wants, "a statue that looks just like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. No abstract. No symbolism.” More than once he’s expressed a desire to commission a replacement by Chinese artist Lei Yikin, who created the stone statue of the civil rights leader for the Washington D.C. MLK memorial.
The problem here is that any artist, and any artwork, will have detractors. Artist Gilbert Young led an unsuccessful protest against the decision to hire Lei for the D.C. memorial. Why? Because the artist isn’t black. When it was completed, the D.C. MLK statue was variously criticized because: Lei had previously made a statue of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, the statue was carved from white stone, and MLK appeared overly “stern,” among other reasons. The social realist style of the work was panned as being reminiscent of statues that are now being torn down in former authoritarian countries. Lei’s sculpture was deemed a "failure," by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times. Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post stated, "The memorial could be vastly improved by simply removing the statue."
What makes Herbert think he can replace the current work with something that will be less controversial? Maybe he will be pleased, but another activist will surely be right behind him, gathering signatures.
4. Pie in the sky: One indication that Herbert does not fully comprehend the enormity of what he is proposing is his stated goal of having a new statue in place by 2020. Lei Yikin’s D.C. MLK statue took four years to complete, not counting the fundraising and approval process. All told, it took fifteen years of planning. Herbert is still at the petition stage.
5. Legal hurdles: One thing that would delay—and most likely derail—any attempt to remove the existing work, is the Visual Artists Rights Act, which protects artwork—including public works owned by cities—from being destroyed for as long as the copyright lasts. In this case that’s another sixty-seven years. Herbert hasn’t publicly talked about melting the Wilson statue down for raw material lately, but even removing it would likely violate the contract between the city and artist.
A more constructive idea
Herbert’s current plan is a nonstarter. But maybe there’s a viable alternative. MLK Park is a big, beautiful public space. It would be much cheaper, potentially attainable, and way less contentious to raise funds for a second artwork in another part of the park. You’re not likely to get Lei Yikin to do the work, and Buffalo wouldn’t want the controversy anyway. But there are African-American artists across the country who would like a crack at pleasing Herbert—and God—with a realistic depiction of MLK.
The old switcheroo
Local developers have enjoyed their perceived roles as heroes of Buffalo’s renaissance. In response, they have developed a variety of tactics for leveraging this status to circumvent zoning codes and community disapproval.
For instance, there’s realty speculation in which some developers overpay for property. Prime real-estate is pried from the hands of long-time owners through huge monetary inducements. Then the developers go before the planning board and argue that they need five-story buildings where the Green Code calls for three, to make the development profitable. Often, they get versions of what they want (not always though, i.e. Ciminelli’s stalled Arbor + Reverie project, for example). It works much of the time though, driving prices and rents up along the way.
Another tactic is to allow historically significant buildings to deteriorate through neglect, after which they are condemned and torn down. Then larger, more profitable, buildings are built where once stood a bit of history.
Architects have often submitted proposals several stories higher than Buffalo’s Green Code allows. After the expected public protests, the company is instructed by the Planning Board to talk to the community and make changes. They hold a meeting or two and “listen,” then come back with a design that’s only two stories too tall. Variances are granted for this “compromise”—which is what the builders had in mind all along.
And so it goes.
A while back, Ellicott Development and Sinatra & Company Real Estate unveiled a design proposal for twenty-two town homes on West Utica Street, as part of the planned redevelopment of the old Children’s Hospital site, known as Elmwood Crossing. One Facebook commenter described that early design as “looking like a 20th century movie lot stage set.” Maybe so, but the varying building heights, colors, materials, and edifice designs had a degree of retro-urban charm that fit in with the rest of Elmwood.
On October 18, the team presented a new design at a community meeting. Well, not a meeting in the sense that the community had any input. It was more of an easel art show of designs that the public was invited to gawk at. The town homes caught people’s eyes because they had undergone something of a dramatic transformation. If it were April 1, you might have assumed it was a joke.
The uniform gray structures of the new design might be called “late sterile homogeneity.” Le Corbusier meets Monopoly. Urban utopian banality. Symmetrical and uniform, each identical flat-fronted, pointy-top facade is distinguishable from the next only by subtle variations of drab gray siding. Each are all connected by recessed passageways. Call them the Utica Projects. There is absolutely nothing visually appealing about the design.
Here’s the question:
What’s the developer’s game here? Present something terrible, then “compromise” up to something mediocre? Or are they trying to make blandness chic? Hard to say.
Some neighbors and Green Code sentinels have been unhappy with the overall lack of a public process for Elmwood Crossing thus far. Published plans for the eight-acre proposal lack green space, and a huge new retail development is slated for West Utica at a time when Elmwood retail is struggling. People want to hear more about the affordable housing that’s supposed to be included in the hundreds of rental units. Sinatra and Ellicott development are seeking “custom” zoning for city approvals to avoid the Green Code altogether. What will that involve, and will the public have a voice?
There’s a public meeting scheduled for Thursday, November 8, at 6:00 p.m. sponsored in part by the Facebook group Residents of the Elmwood Village. Hopefully, questions will be answered there.
It will be interesting to see what happens next.
I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to women, people of color, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBT community. You see, I’m a straight, white, able, male (SWAM).
I didn’t ask to be born this way; it just happened. The gravity of my situation was brought to my attention in a recent Facebook exchange.
How it started:
A fellow SWAM used the word “mansplaining” in a post about TED talks, and I responded that I view that particular portmanteau word to be sexist. In her article, Why We Need to Stop Using the Word "Mansplaining," feminist author Jessica Bates asks, “Why have we created a derogatory, gender-based insult specifically for men?” This was essentially what I was asking my friend, and after a couple exchanges, we agreed that condescension was a better non-gender-specific noun. That should have been the end of it.
Despite having joined NOW when Betty Friedan was president, I came to understand that I am not entitled to voice an opinion on this subject—because I am a SWAM. Even if I played my Hillary Clinton “woman card;” it doesn’t matter. I must remain voiceless. This was all “splained” to me in a posted response by a mutual Facebook friend.
“Um, no” was the young woman’s opening remark, which, as condescending sentences go, pretty much holds the record for brevity. The friend went on to enlighten me with a screed of freshman-level women-studies rhetoric, while cunningly adopting a patronizing tone identical to the male behavior that prompted the conversation. Meghan Daum calls this a “lady lecture,” but I wouldn’t, since I avoid derogatory gender-based terms.
The historical backdrop
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mansplaining is “to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.” I first heard the pithy term on an episode of Parks and Recreation, and I laughed out loud. As a sitcom joke, it was a clever and funny way to describe a type of boorish behavior men often exhibit.
Later I learned that the word was inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Men Explain Things to Me, in which a guy explained the author’s own book to her, despite not having read it. The word caught on, quickly becoming a cliché and a convenient ad hominem device for silencing debate. Solnit herself later expressed doubts about the word: “It seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn't and don't hear things they should."
I am rebuked
“You do not get a say in what kind of language non-men need or don't need to talk about the oppression they experience from men,” splained my friend. Non-men? It makes sense. Women, genderqueer, bigender, trigender, pangender, and various other-gendered people are free to mock, berate, or shame SWAMs, but due to a “structural inequality” paradox, SWAMs are permanently barred from participation in victimhood culture. I get it. I may vote liberal, call myself a feminist, devote Saturday mornings protecting women’s rights, and spend hours defending Serena Williams on social media, but deep down I’m still the knuckle-dragging anthropoid my DNA preordained me to become.
Due to SWAM-privilege, I’m also not entitled to express opinions on derogatory language employed at my expense by non-whites, LGBT, or disabled people. Being white/abled herself, my friend explained that she respects “their experience” and acknowledges that she benefits from privileges which make it impossible for her to “truly know their experience.” Of course, I agree, but somehow, I can’t help wishing that I was entitled to the same respect. Well, wish on, I guess; that’s the structural inequality bed SWAMs made, and now we have to lie in it.
“Non-men can certainly discuss [the topic of mansplaining] amongst ourselves,” my friend added, “but your opinion is not needed.” Seeing that my SWAM attributes (owning a penis, having pale skin, etc.) exclude me from public discourse on such topics, I thought maybe the words of non-men feminists might serve to speak on my behalf. I posted a couple links (among many possible).
Intermezzo: what some feminists say
Lesley Kinzel describes “mansplaining” as inherently biased, essentialist, dismissive, and a double standard. In a Washington Post article, Cathy Young writes that it is just one of a number of terms using "man" as a derogatory prefix, and that this convention is part of a "current cycle of misandry." A Los Angeles Times article by Meghan Daum states, "To suggest that men are more qualified for the designation than women is not only sexist but almost as tone deaf as categorizing everything that a man says as mansplaining.” Liz Cookman, writing for The Guardian, says that the term "reeks of gender essentialism — the idea that specific physical, social or cultural traits are native to a particular gender." In an article in Psychology Today, Aura McClintock Ph.D. writes, “But mansplaining is also problematic in the gender-stereotypic assumptions it makes about men. Misandry doesn’t promote equality, nor does it undermine misogyny.”
A lecture ensues
Referencing women writers, it turns out, is also inappropriate for a SWAM according to my friend. I was instructed to stop “sharing articles by women whose opinions happen to support yours.” I was trying to imagine why I would share articles by women whose opinions do not happen to support mine, which would seem to be an unwise debate tactic. But of course; as a SWAM, I’m not entitled to debate. I was beginning to understand this circular logic.
My didactic non-male feminist mentor urged me to “read a variety of pieces that hold opinions other than [my] current one,” and I wondered if she actually believes that I’m oblivious to other views, or was this just a final push to round all the patronization bases before sliding home? Yes, that’s it; she was showing me what mansplaining feels like!
Then she slid home. Having spoken what she determined would be the last word on the subject she informed me that she was done with the conversation and ordered me not to tag her again. Structural inequality not being what it used to be, I acquiesced.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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