A Tale of Two Artworks
HOW’S THE CULTURE WAR GOING? Well, I have the perfect seat for it — on a favorite bench in the middle of Freimann Square in downtown Fort Wayne.
There, on the southwest corner of the square, is Gen. Anthony Wayne, hero of Fallen Timbers, his horse with one front leg raised signifying that the rider had been wounded in battle. The statue, the work of George Gainer in 1917, had to be moved in 1973 from its preferred location, which became a park named for the city’s first black councilman.
Score one for the progressives.
On the other end of the square is “Helmholtz,” an example of Soviet-era “girder art” (steel rubble being the most readily available artistic material in post-war Leningrad). The statue, although only dedicated in 1986, is referred to as “iconic” by the one side in the local culture war, a group of literati associated with the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
The other side, though, was fond of relating Helmholtz to a car wreck (a criticism with an ironic twist that will be explained in a moment). At its dedication, the editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel had this to say: “Those responsible for bringing the likes of Helmholtz to Fort Wayne would be surprised and hurt if they were told that a great number of their neighbors consider them arrogant, self-satisfied members of a pretentious elite afflicting this community with a particularly meaningless form of radical chic.”
The war was on.
The action began in the early morning hours of Father’s Day 2013. The director of facilities for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art took the first call from police; there had been an accident; Helmholtz had been attacked, perhaps fatally, by a Chevrolet Silverado. The 6,000-pound pickup and its driver were relatively uninjured but the 20,000-pound Helmholtz was flattened. Here is the tearful account of the museum vice president:
“After a night of presumed revelry, we know that he (the Helmholtz attacker) eventually turned south on Barr Street, crossing Main Street at a speed which left him no time to realize Barr Street terminates almost immediately. His pickup swiftly hurtled over the curb, skidded across the park, and pummeled straight into Helmholtz’s left foot. The truck’s power lifted the leg and the momentum of the vehicle twisted Helmholtz until he could no longer stand.”
Score one for the traditionalists.
But Helmholtz, it turns out, was extravagantly insured. And the museum staff was determined to get the community’s joking behind them and restore the work to what they imagined was its glory (although set a few hundred feet farther back from the street). Estimates were that it would take a year and $20,000 to repair. Well worth it, the museum crowed, Helmholtz forever!
So, victory for the progressives, and know that it extends far beyond Freimann Square. This is only a small battle in what the French art critic Pascal Bruckner calls a global “conquest of art.” What looks like art is not art, he writes in a recent City Journal, and what doesn’t look like art is art. The ruling class will tell us which is which.
“Some hold that we can no longer revere classics in painting, sculpture, literature and music, since the creators worked in a racist, patriarchal and colonial era,” Bruckner warns. “It is time to clean the Augean stable, they say, to have done with any reference to High Culture.”
Sitting on my bench I look across at the general, sword in hand, astride his faithful steed “Impetuosity” and ponder his fate in the culture war. He won the battle that opened the West to settlement. In the process, though, his men killed three dozen or so Native Americans (“savages” he called them) and he is said to have pinched a few “serving wenches.”
His days on Freimann Square are numbered. — tcl