Fw: NYTimes.com Article: A Tantrum Over Art in Memphis
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Sat Dec 29 07:45:40 MST 2001
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A Tantrum Over Art in Memphis
December 29, 2001
By ADAM NOSSITER
MEMPHIS, Dec. 22 - The cold war may be over, but Marx and
Engels have nevertheless managed to create a small
political furor in this old river city.
At first, few noticed their five famous words - "Workers of
the world, unite!" - inscribed among dozens of other
quotations outside the gleaming new $70 million Memphis
Central Library, which opened in November.
But then this phrase from the Communist Manifesto caught
the eye of two county commissioners and a city councilman,
and in these days of heightened patriotism a smoldering
debate was ignited on a popular radio talk show, in the
letters and opinion column of The Commercial Appeal of
Memphis and in the three politicians' own correspondence
and phone calls.
What is appropriate public art? For the Shelby County
commissioners Tommy Hart and Marilyn Loeffel, the Memphis
city councilman Brent Taylor and hundreds of their
supporters (the three say there has been a deluge of phone
calls, e-mail messages and letters), it is definitely
nothing that smacks of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
"Over 100,000 Americans were killed in two wars trying to
rid the world of Communism," Mr. Taylor said. "We just
don't feel a public place is appropriate to inscribe the
motto of our enemy of 70 years."
For the directors of the library and the UrbanArt
Commission, the semipublic agency that commissioned the
sidewalk art in which the revolutionaries' words make an
appearance, these patriotic stirrings miss the point. They
point out that Marx and Engels take their turn on the
library pavement alongside as varied a bunch as anyone
could think of: the Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, a Japanese
crane, a W. C. Handy ode to Beale Street and dozens of
other words, images and symbols that would not have fit
into the ideology of the two Germans.
"When you see it in the context of the history of mankind,
it is not ideological," said Carissa Hussong, executive
director of the arts commission, which is supported by
public and private financing.
Nobody anticipated the fuss over the quotation, Ms. Hussong
said. "It's the history of information: it's trying to
present visually what the library is about," she said. The
artists - Brad and Diana Goldberg of Dallas and Garrison
Roots of Boulder, Col. - were chosen after a national
search, and their project was thoroughly reviewed by the
library staff and the new building's architect. There was
no particular focus on individual quotations.
"I was thinking about the piece in its entirety," the
library director, Judith Drescher, said. "I was thinking
about it as a long, big string of quotes." She added that
the artists "wanted people to be curious, to think, to find
out more when they weren't sure." The artists themselves
have agreed not to comment, Mr. Roots said.
His project is just one of 49 public artworks that the
UrbanArts Commission has helped to finance and to oversee
in Memphis. It is part of an ambitious $4.5 million urban
beautification program that includes an old railroad
trestle decorated with images of buildings, murals in
schools and shade structures along the banks of the
Mississippi River. These projects have been welcomed. But
now, the three politicians angry over Marx and Engels have
vowed much tighter scrutiny of any future public financing.
Mr. Taylor and Ms. Loeffel quickly dropped their first
proposal, that the offending quote be sandblasted off. They
suggested instead that the library commission another work
that would "commemorate the wreckage of Communism," as Mr.
Taylor put it. But the arts commission rejected that idea.
"At this point I think there won't be any further action
taken on it," Ms. Hussong said, leaving the three
politicians ever more irritated.
Ms. Loeffel, a self-described conservative Christian whose
district stretches from gritty center-city blocks to her
own immaculate suburban neighborhood, said: "We can't let
this die. They've thumbed their noses at us."
The three politicians say their constituents are even more
exercised than they are, and in letters and phone calls
have suggested everything from taking hammer and chisel to
the work to organizing a large public demonstration.
Letters to the editor of The Commercial Appeal are evenly
divided. So far no elected official has come to the work's
defense. Mike Fleming, host of a show on the radio station
WREC-AM, devoted five separate programs to the issue. The
most outspoken voices, he said, have been against the
One outspoken voice is Bill Wood's. "The bottom line is
this: At a time when we're at war, when our enemies are
emboldened because they think we don't know what we
believe, what we do is, we say we don't believe anything,"
said Mr. Wood of Memphis, who calls himself a conservative
activist. He said he got in touch with Mr. Taylor, the city
councilman, with his objections.
To the three politicians, the crazy- quilt juxtaposition is
not the point. "The lettering is big, bold and in your
face," said Ms. Loeffel, who is well known in the city for
her crusades against rock lyrics and pornography and who is
up for re-election next year. "This motto is where you
can't miss it. They say it's just a big eclectic
hodgepodge. But to put something that offensive in the most
prominent place means they are certainly espousing
But what that something might be is difficult to say.
Approaching the sprawling quasi-sculpture from the new
library's vast parking lot, only a series of dark granite
columns are visible, standing and lying, spread out across
the building's front.
Coming closer, the columns punctuate three scrolls of
embedded granite, which are jammed with quotations, images,
formulas, numbers - in English, German, Greek, Latin,
Spanish, French and Italian - from Shakespeare to Salman
Rushdie to Lao Tzu to Isaac Newton, from Leonardo da
Vinci's depiction of the human form to the image of a
Neolithic burial in Holland to a snapshot of Picasso's
On a recent afternoon, no one expressed a desire to get rid
of any quotations.
"They're not going to gut it up just because of that, are
they?" asked Robert Dean, a library patron surveying the
work. "They're crazy. If they did, it would take Dr. Seuss
off, too. Heck, Communism is part of history."
Phyllis Schmidt, at the library with her son David, 15,
said "America is a mish-mash of different ideologies." And
a sad-eyed man in a scuffed plaid shirt sidled up, saying,
"I don't see anything wrong with it." Remembering the date
of his own recent layoff from National Car Rental, the man,
Dennis McKinnie said, "A lot of the workers have been laid
Defenders of the work like Ms. Hussong and Ms. Drescher say
they see an abstract symbolic compendium of human
knowledge, a monument to inquisitiveness. Opponents like
Mr. Taylor, Mr. Hart and Ms. Loeffel say they see a reviled
To some, the opponents' views are redolent of an older
Memphis, its white population formed largely by farmers
from the rural Mississippi hinterland. In this Memphis, the
official censor in the 1950's, Lloyd Binford, kept the
citizens from seeing movies with too much female flesh and
too much interracial mixing. In the 1970's a crusading
federal prosecutor gained national notoriety with a
successful crusade against pornography.
Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian at Columbia University and
president of the New-York Historical Society, grew up in
Memphis and has written pungently of Mr. Binford and the
city's 1950's provincialism. Asked about the current
uproar, he said: "I'm hoping that Memphis is putting that
more narrow view of the world in its own past. Politicians
jousting about an imaginary enemy is not very productive."
Jocelyn Wurzburg, a longtime civil rights activist and
lawyer, echoed this view. "It hurts my heart, as a
"When people do things like this, it makes us look like
we're not intelligent people," she added.
But Ms. Loeffel said, "This is not going to disappear."
Speaking about how to block money for the library and the
arts commission and prevent future projects like this one,
she added: "I've had a lot of people say, `I've got a
jackhammer.' This is not going to go away."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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