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Tuesday September 21st

A post-Silent Sam look at public art on UNC's campus

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Silent Sam is down, a giant spider stands in front of the New West building and people are questioning what UNC’s changing landscape says about the campus.  

While some say Silent Sam should be protected because of its artistic value, others argue that it makes a negative political statement. Additional controversial art pieces add to the debate over what public art has meant in the past and what it will look like going forward at UNC.

The changing nature of public art 

UNC has added several statues and monuments since Silent Sam’s installment in 1913, including a ram statue meant to honor student-athletes and the Unsung Founders Memorial, a table dedicated to “the people of color bound and free who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.” 

Cary Levine, an associate professor of contemporary art, said the public art of recent years is becoming more likely to represent broader communities of people and social movements, rather than specific figures. 

“I think that in terms of our ideas of what we’re memorializing, we’ve really moved past the idea of the great individual, the genius — and often those people are the great white male genius — as the epitome of some kind of achievement, or some kind of victory, or some kind of accomplishment,” Levine said. 

 The way in which artists memorialize historical events and groups has also changed because more artists are focused on challenging and questioning the viewer’s ideas with their work, rather than just presenting a single perspective, Levine said.

“I think we have been thinking about, as a culture, the idea that a memorial often is something that is one perspective on history,” Levine said. “And this is something that artists who are producing memorials today have grappled with — how do you memorialize something at a moment in history when history is a complex thing and might mean different things to different people?”

Daniel Sherman, a professor of art history, said a major turning point in commemorative art occurred with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Sherman said the memorial was “deliberately non-representational” and influenced later public art, including the Alumni Memorial in Memory of Those Lost in Military Service located at UNC. 

“You’re less likely to see individuals and allegorical symbols, and more likely to see more abstract work or work that represents people but not specifics,” Sherman said. 

Timothy Marr, an associate professor of American studies, also said that the dedication of monuments and works of art, even ones that represent specific figures, has broadened over time to commemorate a wider scope of people. He said the Eve Carson Memorial Garden, dedicated in 2010 after her murder, is an example of this broader trend. 

“The Eve Carson monument I think is interesting because yes, that monument is dedicated to her memory, but it also is universalized to include all students who have died while they were here,” Marr said. “And I think that’s a trend in commemoration.” 

Marr said additional examples of universalized commemoration include the museum in Andersonville, GA, which is now dedicated to all prisoners of war throughout American history, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which is dedicated to the global cause of “unfreedom” and connects history to current enslavement issues. 

Controversial art on campus 

One of the University’s first monuments was erected in 1837 as a memorial to Joseph Caldwell, a UNC president. When a newer monument was dedicated to him in 1858, the UNC Class of 1891 moved the original one to his slave, Wilson Caldwell’s, grave. 

After it was moved, the original monument was dedicated to Wilson Caldwell, his father, November Caldwell, David Barham and Henry Smith. Barham and Smith were also Black servants to the University. 

The Class of 1891 placed a plaque on the monument that commended Caldwell for being “The best type of Black man.” The plaque also said “Diligence dignified his service/ Three generations of white men testify of his faithfulness.” 

Marr said this is a problematic commemoration of a Black person because Caldwell is celebrated only for being submissive to his owner. 

“The movement of those monuments to Wilson Caldwell does in some ways signify the expansion of a family, but it is clearly a hierarchical family based on service and obedience,” Marr said. “It’s a really problematic issue, and I don’t think you can see it as racial progressiveness in any way. This is testified in the final sentence of a memorial tribute at his place of burial, which read ‘Let him rest here until he’s ready for work again.’”

A century later, a different work of public art, The Student Body sculpture, drew controversy  when students said it made use of racial stereotypes. This sculpture, created to represent the student body as a whole, was dedicated in 1990 and stood outside of Davis Library. 

The figures included an Asian woman with a violin and a Black man with a basketball, which students responded to by forming the Community Against Offensive Statues. The University moved the sculpture outside Hamilton Hall after it was defaced with red paint, and later removed the violin and basketball players. 

Silent Sam’s future 

As the University decides what to do with Silent Sam, Marr said the administration should consider the historical context of what the statue stood for in 1913.

Since the monument was erected almost 50 years after the end of the Civil War and Confederate soldiers had already been commemorated in cemeteries, Marr said Silent Sam was actually a celebration of the culture in 1913 in which the North allowed the South to oppress Black people. 

“Should Silent Sam be re-erected in 2018, that re-erection would be a political statement in our moment,” Marr said. “And the University better be very careful about remembering 1913 again by re-performing that erection 105 years later, because I don’t think that people are fully aware of the historical resonances of what that monument stood for in its time, and what it would mean to try to re-establish it again today.” 

Discussion also surrounds what to do with the pedestal where Silent Sam once stood. Sherman said empty pedestals can have a meaning of their own, much like commemorative art itself. 

“There are a lot of empty pedestals where monuments have been removed all over the world, and sometimes, a pedestal empty is itself a statement,” Sherman said. “I don’t think in this case it would be a sufficient statement, but I think that that pedestal and what should be done with it should really be the object of sustained discussion and consultation on campus.”

Some scholars draw a connection between the fall of Silent Sam and the installation of “Crouching Spider,” a Louise Bourgeois sculpture on loan for the year. 

Levine said the 27-foot-wide spider is a departure from past public art, which was intended to beautify the campus. In contrast, he said the spider is meant to challenge the viewer’s assumptions and expectations about art. 

“I think that there probably is a connection between the opening up of dialogue that works like Bourgeois, even in an abstract sense, represent, and thinking of public objects as objects that challenge us — and the rethinking of things that have been sitting there for decades, if not more, and wondering about whether they still represent our values,” Levine said. 

Levine said the conjunction of Silent Sam and the spider might represent a turning point in the public art that UNC places on its campus. 

“Hopefully the University will embrace that turning point and begin to move in the direction that I think is worthy of an institution of this caliber — and an institution that is at its foundation about the pursuit of knowledge, about inspiring people to think differently about the world that they inhabit,” Levine said.

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