Thursday, June 4, 2015

In the eye of the beholder

Or, as Ed Meese famously said, "I know it when I see it."

Saint Louis University, where I earned by PhD in 1997, has decided to remove a public statue--for decades visible along West Pine Street--just before Commencement due to public pressure. The statue depicted Jesuit father Pierre DeSmet evangelizing two native Americans.  Student and faculty voices protesting its apparent (and apparently obvious) insensitivity finally secured its removal.This story reminded me of what happened to Penn State football coach Paterno.  Deacon Greg Kandra discusses this here.  And here is Jesuit father Claude Pavur's take.  This includes a photo of the supposedly-offending statue.

"Supposedly" because, folks, if you;ve driven anywhere near SLU's campus you already know about the statue.  It.has.been.there.awhile.  Did you see what I did there?  Four years of doctoral studies on that campus and I probably passed that statue two, if not four, times a day (depending on my parking luck).  Is it old-fashioned?  Probably.  Does it represent an earlier aesthetic and outlook?  Sure.  Is it offensive?  Well, if it is now then why not earlier?  Even in the mid-1990s an occasional student would write the school's newspaper complaining of the statue, but these almost always were students from away--as if they hadn't seen it during the myriad campus tours offered during the admissions process, as if they hadn't visited campus at all prior to enrolling.  In other words, those complaining were also those wondering why everybody was so crazy about the Cardinals and/or why the pizza was so, almost Eucharist-host-like, thin.

Furthermore, given the extensive renovations pursued by long-time president Lawrence Biondi, SJ, the DeSmet statue never seemed that prominent in the university's physical space.  In the few years I was there (1993-7) Biondi accomplished the closure of West Pine, the demolition of a decrepit building, the renovation of several buildings that had belonged to dwindling religious orders, and the construction of a fountain/clock-tower space.  The DeSmet statue piece seemed to watch all this development benignly--observant but removed.

All that, though, is external criticism.  Father Pavur makes a deeper point:  the statue's critics entirely misinterpret the piece's meaning and perspective.

The two natives, robust, proudly upright in frame, and clearly fit for battle, are transfixed now in peace, enthralled at the spirit of the man before them. Neither is kneeling. One of them rests on his right calf and raises his left knee. The other stands nobly, holding his spear vertically as a staff, to receive a blessing through the brotherly / fatherly gesture of a hand resting on his shoulder. The stranger, someone truly Other, is speaking words that raise their hearts and minds to the Great Spirit in a way they had not ever experienced before. The man in the robe is looking the standing chief full-square in the eye, giving him his complete attention, seeing into his soul, loving him. The stranger makes both of them feel more noble, more truly who they were meant to be, more truly themselves. He points to a higher way than they have ever known. That is what they sense. That is why they keep looking. They feel the Spirit coming through this man’s words.

Father Pavur's interpretation has at least as much right to be heard as the critics, whether current or the student amateurs of decades past.  Hey, if you like an art piece or you do not like it, you do have a right to express those views--in print, online, etc.  Father Pavur, though, is a Jesuit who worked at SLU and did so in Jesuit history.  So he has an angle on what the statue's original intent might be, not just a passing "ick, how dated" reflex.  Should some statues be removed?  One must allow for the possibility;  consider the Paterno case.  However, the DeSmet statue can remain because it is not a celebration of triumph but rather evangelization.  The question is if any critics today can allow that perhaps that, and not crass triumphalism, lies at the heart of the statue's existence?

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