A Big Piece of Public Art – But What’s the Point?
Can a 39-foot-tall art installation redress the tarnished legacy of former President Woodrow Wilson? That’s the question raised by a recently dedicated sculpture at the plaza outside the home of the Woodrow Wilson School on the campus of Princeton University.
The short answer is no, but not because Wilson’s racist views cannot or should not be addressed directly and honestly. It’s rather because this particular installation, years and millions of dollars in the making, fails to deliver its intended message to its viewers.
The background: In 2015 some Princeton undergraduates dug into Woodrow Wilson’s past – he was president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey, and president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Wilson created the motto “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” As a leading advocate of the League of Nations, who vowed that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson won the Nobel Prize in 1919.
For a long time that was how Wilson was portrayed on the Princeton campus. But a deeper look shows that President Wilson encouraged racially discriminatory hiring practices by the federal government, and segregation of black workers already hired by the government. Wilson declined to offer his support to the women’s suffrage movement. The defense that Wilson was just a man of his times didn’t hold much water. His views and positions were challenged by many people at the time. Needless to say, some present-day undergraduates were enraged, taking over the office of the university president at one point to demand that Wilson’s name be removed from the title of the prestigious School of Public and International Affairs.
The immediate dispute got remanded to an alumni-student committee, which decided in 2016 that the Wilson name should remain on the school but that the historical record should be restated to show his full range of views, along with the voices of his critics, who previously were not widely heard. Landscape architect and sculptor Walter Hood, whose work includes several other large scale installations intended to address racially charged histories at other institutions, was commissioned to create the Princeton sculpture. And the university chose to place the artwork at the main entrance to the heavily trafficked plaza immediately in front of the building housing the Woodrow Wilson School.
When I first heard about the installation – last April when Hood appeared at the university to discuss his artistic intentions – I wondered what impact the piece might have on the overall dynamics of the popular plaza where it would be located. The Woodrow Wilson plaza is at a crossing of several pedestrian paths and faces busy Washington Road. On warm days students and townspeople are lured by the shallow reflecting pool, where toddlers can get their first dip, to abundant seating, and to shaded areas on the perimeter of the pool. It’s big enough so that skateboarders can work their magic at a safe distance – only university administrators, wary of potential lawsuits, seem to be nervous. The plaza has all the characteristics of a successful open space, except food. But maybe, I mused, the new sculpture would at least provide some food for thought.
So what impact has the new sculpture, 39 feet tall, had on the Wilson School plaza?
This new artwork provides a striking and welcoming gateway into the plaza — good news for any public open space. It does so without conflicting with another piece of “modern” art (actually now 53 years old), the jagged-edged Fountain of Freedom, installed at the other end of the plaza. The new piece consists of two pillars, one black and one white, leaning against each other with a base on the ground of about 12 feet. To some viewers the juxtaposition of the colors might suggest a right and wrong way of viewing the world, or an old and a new way. The fact that they almost — but do not quite — unite at the top could suggest that the two views are coming closer together but aren’t quite there yet. Other viewers might note that the black column stands perfectly straight, and the white one leans into it for support. That could suggest the extent to which white society has depended on the black community for its own social and economic standing.
But this piece, “Double Sights,” aims to be more than a provocative visual landmark on the campus scene. As the university president, Chris Eisgruber, said at the dedication ceremonies, the art installation is intended to be a “stimulus to reflection” and “an invitation to dialogue.” It will “expose the profound contradictions” in Wilson’s legacy. “Rare will be the student, faculty member, alumnus, or visitor who walks onto this plaza without being drawn to this towering and powerful work. As they near it they may be discomfited or perplexed, angered or enthralled. It’s hard for me to envision that anyone will look at this sculpture without thinking, consciously or unconsciously, about the troubled history it represents.”
But even as Eisgruber was making his bold claim, some people were visibly confused. They were having a hard time reading any of that troubled history plastered on the pillars. Several dozen protesters spoke after the formal dedication ended. One carried a poster with a very legible quotation attributed to Wilson: “There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place [is] in the cornfield.” But, the protester complained to a reporter, “that’s a quote that probably will never be found on this sculpture. But if it is, it’s at the top, and that’s a problem.”
The protester was mistaken. In fact the cornfield quote was attributed to an IRS official in Wilson’s administration, not to the president himself. The quote certainly is not on the sculpture. But who can say for sure? Well, if you have access to a computer, you can find the full text of each panel at the university’s website. But for the visitor to the plaza, it’s impossible to read the text at the top. And the text is also difficult to read even at eye level. That’s a major challenge for an artwork that is inscribed with quotations of some of the racially insensitive words of Wilson as well as rebuttals issued by such black leaders as WEB DuBois, Ida B. Wells, and Booker T. Washington, among others.
The format is also challenging: Each vertical column is in the shape of an isosceles triangle. Walking around a column, the viewer sees three vertical surfaces – one almost 40 inches wide, the other two about 28 inches wide. These surfaces rise to that 39-foot height. That’s a strong vertical. Perhaps to compensate for that, the artist set each line of type across two sides of the upright. But in order to read a single line of text, you physically need to walk from one side of the column to the next. To pick up the next line you have to walk back to the other side – and hope you can find your place.
Words matter, and that’s a problem for “Double Sights.”
The Princeton installation represents the work of an acclaimed artist: Hood received the MacArthur “genius” award of $625,000 just before the Princeton dedication. Then, a few days later, he was awarded the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for an artist who has “pushed the boundaries of an art form, contributed to social change, and paved the way for the next generation.” The award pays about $250,000.
The installation also represents the resources of a deep-pocketed patron, Princeton University. Some of the writing and many of the images of Wilson’s critics are represented on 8 by 8-inch tiles made of lenticular glass, a creation of Rufus Butler Seder, a Massachusetts artist who creates what he calls “industrial strength public art” with hologram-like images that appear to move as the viewer moves in front of them. Seder writes on his website (www.rufuslifetiles.com) that each tile takes four to five hours to complete. I estimated that the Princeton sculpture uses more than 200 tiles – a lot of time and material.
At the dedication ceremony some objected to the cost of the commission and its execution – $14 million was the number kicked around by protesters. They argued the money could have been spent in the advancement of various social justice programs. The university has not released the costs of other projects aimed at diversifying its campus imagery and it declined to do so in this case. Implying that the $14 million figure was a vast overstatement, the university did refer to the Wilson sculpture and other components of its “iconography project” as “worthy investments” that are “meant to have a long-lasting impact.”
Whatever the actual cost of the sculpture, however, the inarguable fact is that this installation could have benefited from a competent – if not acclaimed — graphic artist, whose services could probably have been had for a few hundred dollars.
Much has been said about the cluttered media world in which we live, and the limited attention span of the people to whom the media is directed. Perhaps some thought ought to be given to how much visual imagery a person can absorb in a public place. As the controversy swirled around the “Double Sights” installation, a graduate student wrote an op ed in the student newspaper that questioned – among other issues — the effectiveness of more traditional historic markers on the campus. At one campus location near the library a plaque recalls the life of Betsey Stockton, who began her life as a slave of a former university president, Ashbel Green. An informal survey of 47 people walking past it revealed that only 10 had ever bothered to read the historic marker.
Hoping to draw busy passersby into this complicated representation of the complicated Wilson legacy would be a challenge, even if the lengthy text were all printed at eye level in large-format for the visually impaired. Critics trying to assess the impact of modern art often turn to a convenient catch phrase: Less is more. In the case of this new installation at the Woodrow Wilson School, more is less.