A decades-old statue in front of Queens Borough Hall is the site of controversy after Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Queens and Brooklyn) declared it sexist and said he would sell it to the highest bidder on craigslist at a press conference Thursday.
“Civic Virtue,” by Frederick MacMonnies depicts a nearly nude man perched atop two mermaids. The muscular fellow holds a sword in a victorious gesture.
The sculpture was first installed at City Hall, but former Mayor LaGuardia, taking a dislike to staring at its backside, banished it to Queens in 1941 where it has since been hated and loved and hated.
“It’s ugly and offensive; now we want it out of Queens. This is not about art,” Weiner said, as public debate surrounding the statue ensued.
Queens resident Richard Iritano said he was furious that the congressman was seeking to remove the Italian marble statue rather than repair it. Weiner is just seeking the spotlight, Iritano said, explaining that the “women” depicted in the statue were in fact mythical creatures know as sirens, not meant to be viewed as human at all. Iritano said the statue was “priceless” and “meant to be treasured.” Another fan of “Civic Virtue,” Glenn Urbanas, lamented what he called the diminishing appreciation for public art. “We have nothing else like this in Queens,” Urbanas said regarding the statue.
Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) seconded Weiner’s demand to sell the 20-foot sculpture, suggesting the proceeds be used to fund domestic violence initiatives. “That would be civic virtue,” she said.
According to Weiner, changes in public sensibilities require the statue to be removed. “I think it is perfectly appropriate to say what might have been appropriate then, is not appropriate today,” said Weiner.
Director of the Queens Museum Tom Finkelpearl, called the statue “sexist” and “an insult to Queens,” but added that he would certainly consider housing it at the museum as both a work of art and a teaching tool. He said the statue could be used to discuss the women’s suffrage movement, as it was commissioned before women gained the right to vote, but completed after.
An expert in public art, Finkelpearl suggested that rather than remove the statue, which he assured Weiner has no right to do anyway, he would prefer to commission an artist to depict what “Civic Virtue” might look like today. The new statue could stand next to the old one, he suggested.
“The remedy for bad speech is more speech, not less speech,” said Finkelpearl, citing a Supreme Court decision made Wednesday protecting objectionable speech in public places.
Finkelpearl said he has received letters from all over the country regarding the museum’s position on the statue. “One of the problems with the public discourse about art is the inability to see nuance,” he said, adding that he enjoyed the robust debate the statue has promoted.
As objectionable as it may be to some, the sculpture has engendered questions regarding freedom of expression, the meaning of public art and role of government in its upkeep. “There is precedent for it falling into such disrepair that it is disposed of,” said Weiner. The statue is covered with corrosion due to acid rain. “If an artist gifted this today it would probably end up in a closet,” Ferreras said.
“I like it when politicians have opinions about art. I think it’s fun. It’s great,” said Finkelpearl.
An inquiry made by this writer from a private email address regarding the purchase of the statue was not answered.