The battle of the statues in Wyman Park

A post in the ongoing series Poetry in the Arts.

Wyman Park is in Baltimore, just in front of the Baltimore Museum of Art and near the Homewood Campus of the Johns Hopkins University. It has two statues, not far from each other.

The first statue has an inscription on its base saying that it represents Stonewall Jackson saying farewell to Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville. Another inscription explains that the statue was donated by a private individual.

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One inscription at the top of the base reports Jackson as saying, “So great is my confidence in General Lee that I would follow him anywhere.” The other inscription quotes Lee as saying, “Straight as the needle to the pole Jackson advanced to the execution of my purpose.”

The competing statue on the other side of the park has inscriptions indicating that it honors the soldiers of the Union and that it was erected by the government of the State of Maryland.

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I don’t know anything about the history of these statues, except what seems obvious: around 1950 one side put up a statue and the other side felt called upon to retaliate. (Update: I’ve now found a Time Magazine Web page that explains the history of the Lee/Jackson statue.)

My own private biases are that I’m a Northerner — born and bred in Buffalo, NY — and that, in the War of Northern Aggression, my political sympathies are 100% in favor of the Union.

Nonetheless, my objectivity is important to me: it’s the cornerstone of any ability I have to see or create art. So, I feel compelled to declare that IMHO, the battle of the statues is a resounding and complete victory for the Confederacy.

The point is much like the one in my earlier posting, on Manet — except that one compared poetry to lack thereof, while this one compares art to lack thereof.

I think that neither of these statues is great art, but that the Union statue isn’t even art at all — while the Confederate one is pretty nice: Joan and I enjoy picnicking at its base and making witty remarks pretending we’re glad we’re for the South and not for the Philistines.

Why am I so harsh about the Northern statue?

It would seem, at first, a good thing that this statue represents the individual soldiers who actually fought the war rather than the generals who ran it.

But, even this isn’t really an accurate perception: soldiers could hug the ground and take cover and they had rifles to shoot back at the enemy — whereas generals had to ride around atop their horses and dress and act conspicuously so that their soldiers could see them and follow. The enemy could see them too. As the Gettysburg movie depicts, generals — including Reynolds and Hancock for the North and Armistead, Garnett, and Kemper for the South were killed or injured at a fairly high rate.

My real complaint, though, is that the Northern soldier isn’t doing anything but standing there being representative. It’s a principle of statue-making — as well as of screenwriting — that it’s action that reveals character. So he doesn’t have any.

The Union statue doesn’t depict an actual soldier; it represents a generalized soldier. What is its method for doing this? By having the soldier flanked by more-or-less angels, or goddesses, or somebody or other pretty darned inspiring and officially representing the powers above, whosoever they might be.

That’s it. The Union cause has been reduced to a soldier whose individual humanity has been reduced to a few simple abstract concepts: glory, patriotism, sacrifice — all the usual crap that gets boys killed.

Works of art are not about abstract concepts, they’re about images. Save the abstract concepts for political oratory. If you want to send a message, call Western Union.

Please note carefully that I am not saying that art must be representational, figurative. It might be — or it might not. I’m saying that art, even “Abstract Art,” involves images, or “pictures” if you will — rather than abstract ideas.

The Confederate statue depicts a story: it shows what two individual men did and said on a particular occasion. There’s no attempt to say that they’re right, much less endorsed by the gods. With those particular men, it’s enough that they are who they are.

Some works of art use the fact that the audience has a previous context, and others don’t need this at all. In this case, everyone knows who Lee and Jackson were. In fact, back in the days of universal education, many people would have known that Jackson died at Chancellorsville, making the story that much more poignant.

The Southern statue admittedly is slightly spoiled by one jingoistic touch. It’s part of the base, not of the statue: a further inscription that reads, “They were great generals and Christian soldiers and they made war like gentleman.”

And, to be historically honest, the real Jackson probably was built less like Clint Eastwood than he seems to be here.

Other than this, though, all the Southern sympathizers have to do is show us Lee and Jackson as they were and ask us to remember their quality — especially in comparison to the men they fought against — McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker — and we get a thousand thoughts about it.

What do these posts have to do with screenwriting, or with writing, or with creating art generally?

What am I trying to say in the earlier Manet post and in this one?

This post says that art is about images, not about concepts.

The Manet post said that if you want to get poetry then what you have to do is move the images in your screenplay disconcertingly out of the places where people expect to find them, rather than reinforcing the ideas they came in with. This will cause people to notice you, the artist, in addition to noticing the story you’re trying to tell — just like when Toto pulled aside the curtain and revealed to the audience that the great and powerful Wizard of Oz is only and old man manipulating dials and machinery. Don’t worry: despite persistent Hollywood dogma, this is not only definitely not wrong, it’s positively OK and advantageous. Bring your images into close proximity to each other — and in such positions and unexpected configurations as are likely to cause them to react chemically and explode.

In a movie, don’t waste your time and your patrimony by trivially blowing up your characters: blow up the screen instead.

Don’t make your audience comfortable and happy: make them acutely, nervously aware that the new stadium-style seating exposes them, makes them vulnerable to shrapnel when the screen explodes.

Follow Manet’s example: “Blow up their shit.”

I realize that, so far, this might seem more encouraging than practical. I’ll try in subsequent postings to develop these ideas in a more concrete, specific way.


Summary

I admire an art work — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem — that has structure and shows its story. But I love art that has “poetry.”

This series of posts suggests three criteria for poetry:

  • A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
  • A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
  • A poem conveys emotion.

Table of Contents for this series: Poetry in the Arts


poetry
“Do you know my poetry”
— Johnny Depp as William Blake, in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

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