Author: Carol Reid
Appeared in: The Horn Book Magazine, September/October 2004
Publisher: The Horn Book, Inc.
Pagination: p. 617-619
T A T U E O F L I M I T A T I O N S
by Carol Reid
We’re all familiar with the recent, infamous arrest of a breast (snit over a tit?), in which Attorney General John Ashcroft oversaw the cover-up of the dishabille Spirit of Justice. We may also recall those cheeky cameramen back in 1986 who would sprawl on the floor in an effort to capture a risible image of Edwin Meese waving his porn report around in front of that same statue. But I recently uncovered another statuary controversy, similarly both silly and sinister. It happened in the spring of 1939 at the World’s Fair Exhibition in Queens, New York.
Before becoming a children’s author and illustrator, Louis Slobodkin had been a sculptor of great renown. He received many prizes for his work, which continues to be seen in museums around the world. Having dropped out of school at age fifteen, Slobodkin enrolled at the Beaux Arts Institute in New York City at the age of fifteen, then went on to head the Sculpture Division of the New York City Art Project. In 1939 he won second prize in a government-sponsored competition, which earned him the right to exhibit a commissioned work at the World’s Fair.
The winning sculpture was a seven-foot steel-and-plaster rendering of the young Abraham Lincoln called the Rail Joiner, symbolizing the unity of North and South. When Slobodkin arrived at the Fair on Sunday, April 30, to inspect the installation, he was informed by a dour doorman: “’Taint here any more.” Shockingly, it seemed that workmen had smashed it to bits on the direct order of Edward J. Flynn, New York World’s Fair Commissioner General and influential Democratic Party boss.
When confronted, “Boss” Flynn’s flack Theodore T. Hayes at first dissembled and claimed that the artwork had been placed in storage, then tried to buy Slobodkin off, and finally settled on the statue’s being too, uh, statuesque, adding, furthermore, that visitors had “scoffed at it.” Hayes hastened to add: “We couldn’t take that sort of criticism from people representing John Q. Public. I don’t care what those artist fellows think; it should never have been placed there at all.”
On May 5th, Slobodkin told the New York Times that, according to an inside source, his Lincoln had indeed been set upon with a sledgehammer, supposedly because a lady who lunched with Flynn had not found it to be in “good taste.” He informed reporters that the assistant commissioner had confirmed the fate of the piece. When fellow artists protested and a public poll showed support for the shattered statue, Hayes tersely announced to the press: “After all, it is government property. Beyond that there is no comment.” Slobodkin attempted to avenge the matter in court, but to no avail. “I worked for a year on that statue,” he lamented. “A day’s destruction for a year’s work…. Oh, well.”
One marvels at how easily those involved were moved to take up arms against the Great Emancipator, and on the merest of pretexts. Was the ex-prez just a tad too sexy in his youthful, muscular, working-class shirtsleeves? Or was Slobodkin’s style simply too abstract? From our present cultural vantage point, it’s hard to imagine a purely formal objection to art—though history does provide some examples, such as the première of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which incited a riot largely by confounding the aesthetic expectations of its audience.
Happily, the following year, Slobodkin’s sculpture was recast in bronze and has rested unmolested (as Young Abe Lincoln) at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., ever since. And now another bronze casting of it adorns the Justice Building in Lincoln, Nebraska , as part of a community fund-raising “Pennies for Lincoln” campaign launched on Lincoln’s birthday in the year 2000. It’s a fitting tribute to the man who putatively knew the value of a penny, not to mention the worth of truth and beauty. And a proper putdown of the World’s Unfair Commissioner, for whom the last two apparently didn’t matter.
This attack on Slobodkin’s statue was both despicable and inexplicable, but, ironically, as is frequently noted, censorship often leads to bigger and better things. Occasionally, as in a case like this, it leads to a completely different path or direction, the opening of a new gift, as Slobodkin soon embarked upon a successful career in illustration. And while I wouldn’t care to compare the apples and oranges of his sculptures and books, the world would undoubtedly be diminished without them allbut perhaps especially without Louis Slobodkin’s lasting legacy to children’s literature.
POSTSCRIPT: I recently came upon a revealing account in a Milwaukee Art Museum catalog called Controversial Public Art: From Rodin to di Suvero. It reports in some detail on this “cause célèbre” and adds an intriguing and alarming aside: “Meanwhile, the damaging of Slobodkin’s life-size nude, Bathsheba, at the Contemporary Arts Building seemed more than coincidental.” The entry concludes with a stirring quote from the artist (who by 1947 clearly felt his brush with censorship had been inspired by a bit more than the discouraging word of a dyspeptic dowager):
There was a big bonfire started by a tyrant [Hitler] who wanted to be an artist but could only become assistant paper-hanger. That fire was fed by books. Those books were burned for many reasons. One of the main reasons was that they were concerned with humanity and human relations. Of course those books weren’t lost. They were printed on indestructible truths with the fireproof blood from the heart. My ambition is to do work which will have that much reason to exist.