NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wearing only a strategically carved cluster of leaves, the chiseled male figure towering over two female forms in the 1922 marble sculpture “The Triumph of Civic Virtue” now watches over a lonely cemetery in Brooklyn.
The same statue, once representing victory over vice and corruption, was a long-time fixture on a pedestal outside Queens Borough Hall. Two years ago, it was decried as sexist and offensive by an angry public and exiled to Greenwood Cemetery.
Now civic groups are demanding a similar fate for an 1892 bronze statue in New York’s Central Park of medical pioneer James Marion Sims, long revered as the father of modern gynecology, but more recently found to have experimented on female slaves.
Changing U.S. attitudes and values involving race, gender, and other issues are prompting demands to tear down decades-old statues of heroes now seen as villains by Americans who say history is not written in stone.
“People once taken to be heroes can, in an another era, look far less heroic,” said David Greenberg, associate professor of History and of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Twenty-first century America’s rejection of once common behavior, from slavery to mistreatment of women, children and laborers, has sparked outrage over monuments in parks, statehouses and other public spaces across the country.
The New York City Parks Department has deflected demands to remove the statue of Dr. Sims and instead plans to install a plaque adding historical context, said department spokeswoman Tara Kiernan.
“These debates have to do with shortcomings that at the time were seen by many people as normal or unremarkable, but strike us now as violating our ideas about racial equality, sexual equality, other values that are more a product of the last 50 or 60 or 70 years,” Greenberg said.
Changing social mores are behind most calls to scrap shrines, even those tied to politics.
Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin, incensed over Republican Governor Scott Walker’s 2011 anti-union efforts, failed in their efforts to remove the statehouse portrait of his long-dead predecessor, Governor Jeremiah Rusk, known for the violent suppression of a 1886 labor uprising. So far, the painting of Rusk, whose militia shot dead seven people demonstrating in favor of an eight-hour workday, has been spared from a musty closet.
South Carolina’s statue of former governor, U.S. Senator and white supremacist “Pitchfork” Benn Tillman, who in a speech before the Senate in 1900 defended white constituents who had murdered black citizens, has been on the Statehouse grounds since 1940. People have called for it to be taken down for years. A 2008 bill seeking its removal stalled, but anti-statue sentiment remains strong with the demand reappearing in a full-page newspaper ad in January 2014.
“Those debates get complicated if the person did something positive for science or for politics,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “You can’t dismantle everything just as norms change because it may be that the art and the original vision are worth having.”
Moral judgments such as outrage over the sexual abuse of children, for instance, can add up to a force powerful enough to topple a legend - or at least his statue.
A bronze likeness of Penn State coach Joe Paterno, then the winningest coach in college football history, was removed from the school’s sports stadium in 2012 amid allegations of a coverup in a scandal involving his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky was later convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
The harsher light of modern day can cast shadows over a once-revered subject’s past, and it remains unclear how monuments being chiseled today will be viewed by crowds strolling past them a century from now.
“We’d like to think we are improving in our moral judgments. But sometimes it’s just that norms and practices change,” Greenberg said.
Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in South Carolina, Brendan O'Brien in Wisconsin, Frank Simons in California; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson