Our book today is The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D. C., a tall, jam-packed 1974 compendium, a “comprehensive historical guide” to all the public works of sculpture on display in the nation’s capital, by James Goode, who was at the time the curator of the Smithsonian Institute’s famous “Castle.” Every time I take the book down off the shelf and use it to go strolling around the streets and parks of the only Southern city I’ve ever loved and the only one I’ve ever called home, I pause at different pages and study different sculptures and group settings and think back to the boiling hot days and gorgeous nights when I saw them directly, in the company of friends.
Speaking about those sculptures to a group of tourists, one of those friends once waxed eloquently about how the capital was home to “great works of bronze and brass” – to which his imperious daughter quipped, “great works of bronze, certainly, and great asses.” She was thinking of the professional class of politicians who form the city’s indigenous population, and the association is understandable, since so many of that public artwork commemorates politicians, time-servers, and hacks of all kinds. Which is fairly predictable, given the nature of how public sculpture happens in DC in the first place:
There are four tedious steps necessary before a public sculpture may be erected in the Nation’s Capital today. If a group of citizens desires to erect a monument they must petition a member of Congress to sponsor a bill granting permission to build the memorial on federal property, generally in a park. If Congress approves, the organization then commissions a sculptor to design the work. This design must then be approved by the United States Fine Arts Commission. Next, the organization must raise the funds necessary for the execution of the sculptor’s design. The National Park Service is responsible for landscaping and maintaining the site after the sculpture has been erected.
Even so, flipping through Goode’s book, looking at one grainy black-and-white photo after another of fictional characters, animals, foreigners, backwoodsmen, orators, adventurers, presidents, Indian chiefs, and dozens of others, two things become obvious. First, a great many really moving and effective pieces of artwork are overshadowed by far more renowned works, like the Adams Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery, or the mighty Lincoln Memorial, which even the dispassionate Goode calls simply awe-inspiring. And second, ye gods, do outdoor sculptures get tagged with bird poop. It’s not just that they’re vulnerable to rust or erosion or other kinds of wear-and-tear: it’s that back in the 1970s, the aforementioned National Park Service had a honking big blind spot when it came to bird poop – or else a recession-strapped operating budget. Goode is actually well aware of the fact that he’s not exactly filming artwork in pristine condition:
The problems in the creation of these statues are more than matched by their decay under the constant attacks of rain, air pollution, and temperature fluctuation. Thus, polluted air containing harmful oxides produced by the burning of fossil fuels and motor vehicle exhausts eats away inscriptions and carved designs and can change a hard, sound, outdoor sculpture into a crumbling, flaking mass within forty years. Recent chemical research has made it possible to arrest the decay of outdoor sculpture. A chemical can be sprayed on stone sculpture to seal the pores of the surface and to preserve the original color, texture, and appearance of the surface. The high expense of this new treatment unfortunately prohibits its widespread use at this time.
It’s overwhelmingly noticeable on almost every page of the book. Turn to the great 1920 bronze statue by Ettore Ximenes of Dante, the one standing in Meridian Park – Dante’s not only covered in his doctoral robes … he’s also covered in bird poop. Look at those great heroes of the American Independence story, the Comte d’Estaing and the Comte de Grasse, from the Lafayette monument by Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquière and Marius Jean Antonin Mercié in Lafayette Park – they’re glancing at each other, and you just know what they’re talking about: merde.
It doesn’t matter what the subject is – buffalos, bears, dinosaurs, Daniel Webster, even an anteater, they’re all coated in bird poop, to egregious, tourist-disappointing extents that probably wouldn’t happen today. This time around, thumbing my way through Goode’s book, I was reminded again of my time living in DC – but I was also reminded of all those you-are-there photos of the New York City subway in the 1970s, covered in filth and graffiti.
I’ll keep my eye out in publisher catalogs for 21st-century update to Goode.
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