Sculpture’s Phantoms in the Public Sphere

Antoine-Denis Chaudet, The Vendôme Column (a 19th-century stereo souvenir showing the column’s base after its demolition in 1871 by the Commune of Paris).

Contemporary debates over the nature of public art are often haunted by a romantic fascination with an imagined past of social cohesion founded in part on a population’s univocal approval of its patriotic monuments. The following statement by attorney Barbara Hoffman, counsel for the College Art Association, is typical of the position:

Before the modern period most public art commissions awarded by government in the United States could be labeled “public” in the sense that they served commemorative or functional purposes broadening the appeal of public policies and institutions. Art had a role in focusing, interpreting, and reinforcing accepted social, national, and civic values through comprehensible forms and symbols. The artist used the imagery, iconography, and formal structures that were part of the visual vocabulary of the society.1

Stanley Aronowitz calls this phantasmagoria a “mythic town square in the sky,” and its contemporary manifestations are found, on the right, in the manipulated social spaces of amusement parks, malls, and corporate atriums, as well as, on the left, the glorification of “community-based” art projects and historic restorations. Both versions are weighted down by the specters of a repressed history of conflict, class antagonisms, and civil unrest, while picturing themselves as a dreamscape, a “magic kingdom,” if you will, of authenticity and shared values. I propose that a re-examination of the history and context of public monuments reveals as much political discord as that surrounding Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc”.

Unlike the painter in a cloistered studio, the public artist is in contact with multiple classes, from the blue collar workers engaged by the artist in the production process to a white-collar cast of characters from CEOs to card-carrying “community-based” bureaucrats. Public art has always been compromised both by the private interests of its funders (state or corporate) and by its geographic site in a highly contested social terrain. If past public projects now seem pacific and universally accepted it is only because their initial conflicts have been eclipsed or repressed. Some are transformed into tourist sites which occlude their origins in social struggle in favor of beauty and “site sacralization.”2 Others are subjected to a selective forgetting of historical battles, a process that gradually renders the conflict of the work invisible. Some works of public art offer themselves as sites for active intervention in the current historical moment, allowing us to rethink the status of our own political myths. I will examine the first group listed above through the elevation of certain 19th-century sculptural and architectural monuments in Paris to “postcard” status, the second through three interconnected 19th-century commemorative sculptures in Chicago, and the third with a consideration of a public installation by contemporary artist Dennis Adams.

If, as Walter Benjamin claims, Paris was the capital of the 19th century, it was also the capital of modern tourism. The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Place Vendôme are just a few of the sights on the grand tour. Their image is fetishized, that is to say, suspended in time, frozen and decontextualized-transformed into aesthetic phenomena or tourist meccas. We have lost all sense of the debates which surrounded them, or of the populations they offended and the powers they sustained. In their icy glory they are now only the bearers of the sentimental significations of the travelers who pause before them, genuflecting to an empty tabernacle, all spirits having fled to the bourse.

The Place de la Concorde, for instance, is layered with multiple significance in the history of Paris. Arbitrarily, we might begin its tale with the guillotining of both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. By 1852, when Napoleon III became emperor, he complained that the people still held onto the ghosts of the French Revolution by using the site for mass demonstrations, and therefore demanded a change in its social significance. Its obelisk was removed and traffic was routed through the square in accordance with Baron Von Haussmann’s reorganization of the city, which displaced thousands of workers from the center of Paris. The emperor clearly understood the force of ideological space and its use in the symbolic economy of the state. Like his uncle, Napoleon I, he introduced a panoramic form to a “social” space filled with state monuments and public works as a visual metaphor of the French colonial empire.3 As one empire collapses, another is built out of its rubble, literal and metaphoric.

Paris the Beautiful is orchestrated and produced from a centralized government seeking its own legitimation and hegemony. The problem is that governments change and public art must lend itself to a certain “flexibility” of political transformation. Nowhere is this clearer than with the towering column of the Place Vendôme. Based on Trajan’s Column in Rome, the 1810 sculpture by Chaudet commemorated the military exploits of Napoleon I’s 1805 victory over the Russian and Austrian armies at the battle of Austerlitz. The bronze column was cast from captured canons and spiraled the narrative of the battle up the sculpture which was crowned with a statue of Napoleon in a Roman toga. In his own lifetime, the emperor tried to erase parts of the bas-reliefs, as he was hoping to marry a Russian grand duchess, but his own officers refused to allow it. After his abdication in 1814, the restored Bourbon monarchy removed his statue and replaced it with their flag, decorated with the fleur-de-lis. Napoleon returned and removed the flag, but after Waterloo, as if to finalize his defeat, the Bourbons ordered Chaudet’s original sculpture melted down. Still later, with the July Monarchy of Louis-Phillipe, there was a competition for a statue of Napoleon in military gear. It, in its turn, was replaced by the emperor’s nephew, Napoleon III, in a replica of the original toga clad sculpture by Chaudet. Hoping to identify himself with the grandeur of his uncle, the nephew also held a review of his imperial troops before the statue each year.4

Few would remember anything about the column if it were not for one of the first acts of the newly formed government of the Commune of Paris after the Franco-Prussian War:

Considering that the imperial column at the Place Vendôme is a monument to barbarism, a symbol of brute force and glory, an affirmation of militarism, a negation of international law, a permanent insult to the vanquished by the victors, a perpetual assault on one of the great principles of the French Republic, Fraternity, it is thereby decreed: Article One: The Column at the Place Vendome will be abolished.5

Gustave Courbet was charged with organizing the destruction of the piece, an act for which he was later exiled. The Commune represented a new non-hierarchical urban public sphere where broadsheets held equal ground with Parnassian poetry, where women fought on the barricades and held political power, and where rents were abolished. After the Commune’s defeat the column was restored, with Chaudet’s figure of Napoleon I as a symbol of Europe’s new Roman Empire, by right-wing French Republicans, who believed the sculpture was France.

Like a great white ship, Sacre-Coeur sails over the Moulin Rouge, blinding us to the history that it disguises, washing away the blood of thousands of Parisians executed in 1871 by the government on the site before the basilica was built in this traditionally working-class neighborhood. The veneration of the Sacred Heart was the favored representation of Christ by conservatives seeking the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy in reparation for the “excesses” of the 1789 Revolution. Socialists and anarchists still spit on Sacre-Coeur’s stone steps on their way to the adjoining Père Lachaise Cemetery, where on May 27, 1871, the Versaillais executed the last of the Paris Communards. To expiate the memory of the Commune, right-wing religious fanatics built the church to symbolically restore the hierarchical social relations of the middle-class state, an effort that we also see in the paintings of many of the Impressionists. This church has lost its patina of political conflict and is now only a great white exotic elephant looming over the City of Lights.6

The vast majority of public sculpture was produced in the 19th century, and much of it in the United States. We now know how icons are used to create a sense of national identity in territories undergoing major demographic, political, and economic change. National identity is a carefully constructed fiction abetted by the false memories visualized by artists from Rodgers to Rockwell. M. Christine Boyer puts it succinctly:

America was a country that based its memory on associative pictures, finding its sense of “history” through conventional comparisons, in images drawn from history books, from city views, from mythical stories. Americans in the nineteenth century craved a history: a mythology to counter its vastness and visual symbols to crystalize its individual states into the form a sovereign nation should take.7

That national identity, however, was never as seamless as we now like to pretend. A vast network of alternative newspapers, clubs, and libraries, for instance, served the various ethnic groups who immigrated into the country as cheap labor in a brutal industrial economy.

In Chicago the largest single group was made up of working-class Germans who brought with them their own cultural apparatus of community bands, choral and poetry societies, free universities, and lithographers and sculptors, as well as their anarchist and socialist politics.8 In opposition to the public school system’s insistence on teaching only in English and only “American” (WASP) history, German cultural societies collected funds to raise a statue of the German writer Friedrich Schiller in Lincoln Park near Stockton and Webster. They hoped to instill pride in German children for their heritage, which was ignored by the dominant culture. The statue was modeled after one in Marburg, Germany, and was designed by a Chicago-based, German-American sculptor named Ernst Bildhauer Rau. What appears to us now as a rather romantic celebration of nationalist pride was controversial at the time, and became part of the sculptural tradition of the Haymarket Riot on the evening of May 4, 1886. Workers were protesting the police shooting of strikers who had been demanding an eight-hour workday the day before at the McCormick Reaper Plant. The Illinois state’s attorney (who claimed the Schiller statue was a meeting site for German-American revolutionaries planning to take over the city and bomb the homes of the rich) told the police to ignore the law-to arrest people first and get warrants later. One hundred and seventy-six policemen descended on a dwindling crowd of 200. Four demonstrators and seven police died either from a bomb thrown into the crowd or police bullets. Freedom of speech and assembly were suspended in Chicago, with only the pretense of due process for the “Haymarket Eight,” arrested and tried for the explosion, the first dynamite bomb used in America. Throughout the world, labor protested the convictions of the eight demonstrators (four of whom were executed).

Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, 1889. Illinois Labor History Society, Chicago.

Thousands of workers walked in the funeral procession out Milwaukee Avenue to pick up the bodies and deliver them to the railroad station to ride to German Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. So well-known was the grave site that many famous anarchists and labor organizers asked to be buried with the “Martyrs,” like Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Lucy Parsons, Big Bill Haywood, and Helen Gurley Flynn. Built on the burial grounds of the Potawatomi Indians, for many years this was the only cemetery in Chicago that practiced no racial, political, or ethnic discrimination. The Haymarket Martyr’s Monument hovers over this historical ground, a work that is far better known in Europe than in the United States. Sculptor Albert Weinert used a line from the Marseillaise as the theme of his work. The song was sung during the funeral procession by workers in honor of the hanged men, as well as those who died in the Paris Commune and the ideals of the French Revolution. The work portrays Justice as the figure of a woman placing a laurel wreath on the head of a fallen worker, while marching into the future with her sword drawn. Recently placed on the National Historic Register, the sculpture was attacked by bronze robbers and will be repaired by the Iron Workers Union this spring.

Though the Haymarket, at Randolph and Desplaines, is not marked today, the space is still haunted by the statue of a police officer that is now in “protective custody” at the city’s Central Police Headquarters. Although both the governor and the mayor criticized the police for marching against the workers, the conservative Chicago Tribune began a fundraising campaign to glorify them. The sculptor, John Gelert, used an Irish cop as a model with his arm raised high. The clay maquette was criticized by the city fathers, who wanted a more Protestant, Anglo-Saxon look. Dedicated on Memorial Day, 1889, it was defaced in 1968 in reaction to police violence toward anti-war demonstrators, and blown up on October 6, 1970. It was restored, and the mayor spent $67,440 a year for round-the-clock security for the statue. In 1972 it was removed to the police station at State and 11th Streets, “for its own protection.” The city’s anarchists vow to destroy it again if it reappears in public space.

These three 19th-century realist or allegorical statues speak to each other of the silenced conflicts and history which mapped the social space of the city for generations and which is now rendered invisible by the city’s transformation in Late Capital.9

Dennis Adams, The Algerian Folie, 1992. Mixed-media installation.

The work of Dennis Adams disrupts the image flow of the contemporary city, often with urban archi-sculptures using photographs from historical sources on the verge of passing from recognition to the unfamiliarity of Benjamin’s dustbin. They challenge the easy narrative of the current moment, reminding the viewer that history is layered with conflicts which still infect the present. One example is Adams’s “Algerian Folie”, a work created for the Centre Georges Pompidou’s controversial “Magiciens de la Terre,” a 1992 exhibition that invited viewers back to the heart of French colonialism, with its restored Vendôme Column: artists of the Euro-American colonies competed on equal footing with Western artists. Adams reminded Parisians that other art had also been brought “home” from their waning empire. He appropriated one of the flatbed truck trailers from the construction of Bernard Tschumi’s grid of architectural “follies” in the Parc de la Villette (the park surrounded one of the sites of the exhibition, an old market terminal). For “Algerian Folie”, Adams installed on the trailer (which was painted the same color red as Tschumi’s structures) two back-illuminated images that bear witness to another folie français. The images were appropriated from a series of archival photographs taken in 1962 as the French were abandoning Algeria under force. They depict busts of France’s eight military governors, deposed and lying askew in the sand, waiting for transport back to the motherland, where they will only signify defeat and, therefore, receive no honor.

Like most artists, Adams has had commissions which were cancelled in midstream for reasons of controversy. One, in particular, The East Pavilion, for Expo 1992 in Seville, clearly reveals our need for reassuring “dream-times” on a large social scale, like those of World Fairs. International expositions have traditionally promoted utopian hopes in advanced technology, as well as securing the myth of the West’s moral and racial superiority over its territories. They offer what Susan Buck-Morss calls a “techno-aesthetics” which anesthetizes us from the very real and shocking changes in our world which fragment and confuse us.10 It creates a false sense of a community beyond the exigencies of history and its ideology, therefore, must erase that which threatens to disrupt its totality. Anything which might recall the Cold War politics which dominated recent exhibitions’ displays of power had to be exorcised from the 1992 fair’s “new world order,” which included a Spain without Franco.

For his project, Adams used an inverted dome mounted on pylons to refer to the futurist architecture we are familiar with from more recent exhibitions. The pavilion project represents a vanquished territory, a “missing” country, or as Adams puts it, a memorial to the “failed public imagery of the recent past.” Far from the transparency and legibility of the traditional fair site, Adams’ pavilion would have been repellent. One would have had to crouch to enter it and would be initially confronted by one’s own reflection in the center of the mirrored dome. Without a commanding point of view, the visitor would have turned to exit toward the outer pylons which offered transparent images of toppled statues of Lenin and others, visual metaphors for the collapse of Communism in the East.

Dennis Adams, model for unrealized work, The East Pavilion, 1992.

Everyone now wishes to erase the memory of the past, in favor of new myths that claim a history without complication or conflict. It is precisely at the point when public sculpture creates a phantasmagoria without contention that there is the greatest danger for the possibility of a democracy not of consumption but of public discourse. And the phantoms should not rest easy in their bowers or their public squares or corporate malls, for history has not quit them yet.

Maureen P. Sherlock is a writer and lecturer in Critical Theory.

Engraving from a drawing by Daniel Vierge, Le Monde illustré, 1871. James H. Rubin, Courbet (London: Phaidon, 1997, p. 27).

Destruction of the Vendôme Column 

Above [the crowd]…the column soars. The red flag flies from the railing at the top, gently flapping against Caesar’s face. Three cables hang from the summit, linked to the capstan that will later revolve and pull the monument towards it…We try to catch what those nearest to us are saying. There are few recriminations; the dominant mood seems to be one of anxiety about the crash…Of the column itself, of Napoleon, the Great Army, Austerlitz, not a word. The shops are closed. Strips of paper have been pasted across the windows to protect them against the shock…They give the column a tug-Crack! The capstan breaks and the cables slacken. Murmurs of disappointment…The men on the pedestal are driving wedges into the incision at the base of the column. The monster refuses to budge. To entertain the crowd the bands play the Marseillaise…The bands suddenly stop playing. An officer has climbed to the top. He takes down the red flag and replaces it with a tricolour…The officer has disappeared now, he is climbing down the inner staircase. What if the column were to fall right now with him inside? No-here he is…Then suddenly…like the flap of a gigantic bird’s wing, a huge zig-zag through the air! Ah, I shall never forget that colossal shadow falling across my eyes…All is over. The column lies on the ground, split open, its stony entrails exposed to the wind. Caesar is lying prostrate and headless. The laurel-weathed head has rolled like a pumpkin into the gutter. The bronze statue of Victory is intact. By evening it had disappeared.

–M. Vuillaume (from The Communards of Paris, 1871, ed. Stewart Edwards, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973, pp. 146-48).


1 Barbara Hoffman, “Law For Art’s Sake,” in Art and the Public Sphere, W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 114).

2 See Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schoken Books, 1989).

3 M. Christine Boyer, The City of Collective Memory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994).

4 Albert Boime, Hollow Icons: The Politics of Sculpture in 19th-Century France (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1987, pp. 8-9); see also Art and the French Commune (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

5 Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, p. 5).

6 David Harvey, The Urban Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 200-228).

Boyer, op. cit., p. 313.

8 See Bruce C. Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago’s Anarchists, 1870-1900 (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1988).

9 I am indebted for much of this information to the work of Professor Wm. J. Adelman and his walking tour, Haymarket Revisited, available from the Illinois Labor History Society, P.O. Box 914, Chicago, IL 60690.

10 Susan Buck-Morss, Untitled Essay in Dennis Adams: The East Pavilion (Seville: 1992 International Exposition, p. 32).