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Starting Over: It’s not about the elk, it’s all about the elk

Barry Johnson starts with a beloved statue and then follows it and a New York Review of Books article all the way to Confederate monuments and buttons.


Toward the end of an engrossing New York Review of Books article, I suddenly was caught up short by a familiar image. Back in August, Brian Libby, the indefatigable author of PDX Architecture, decided to check in on the current state of Roland Hinton Perry’s Elk, which the City had  removed from its natural habitat in the middle of Southwest Main Street near the Justice Center after its plinth was damaged by fire. Libby’s photograph of the newly sheltered Elk, reduced to a column’s width square, illustrated the NY Review of Books article along with a 2-column shot of the Pergamon Altar in Berlin from the 2nd century BCE, and a 3-column reproduction of Willem Van Hacht’s splendid Apelles Painting Campaspe, which dates back to 1630.

This isn’t a story about the Elk, per se. Libby’s already told that one perfectly well. And a former colleague of mine at The Oregonian, Doug Perry, added some historical details in his story about Brian’s story. They’ve got you covered.

Roland Hinton Perry’s Elk in seclusion/Photo by Brian Libby

It’s not even a story about a correction to Susan Tallman’s NYRB article, a review of two new books about the history of art history, that I would like to suggest. It’s a small correction: Tallman says that Elk was targeted by protesters, perhaps because “its materials and manner of execution, as well as its urban position, testify to its origins in the white male power-base of turn-of-the-twentieth-century America.” The Elk, as Libby points out, was not targeted for destruction: The fires were part of a celebration of the elk and, maybe, the natural world by the protesters. The “white male power-base” was represented by the Justice Center, not this spindly legged yet large member of the deer family. In fact, protesters replaced the original with an amusingly elk-ish statue of their own. Vivo el uapití! (Tallman does give herself an out: “It may just have been in the wrong place … at the wrong time.” But the “targeted” suggestion is wrong per all accounts I’ve seen.)

“Perhaps the protesters, like Winckelmann, recognized a style and, through it, an entire worldview.” These are Tallman’s last words on the Elk. To which I would say, “definitely not.” But the words do fit into what I took away from Tallman’s article, though it isn’t quite what I think she had in mind. Her reasonable larger point is that “Art history is, inevitably, a story imposed on a selected group of artifacts by people who, consciously or unconsciously, have predilections and agenda.” I don’t disagree.

The Elk/Brian Libby

But what I took from Tallman’s review of Christopher S. Wood’s “A History of Art History” and Eric Michaud’s “The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art,” both of which she persuaded me I need to read, was about art itself. Art communicates willy-nilly. It communicates differently every time I look at it. And though I may shove my art experience into different categories based on my taste or their style or manner, those categories never contain my experience. The only category that might, would be “memories of my art experiences,” and none of us really trusts memory at this point, do we? Except maybe for a phone number or two?

Most of the time, the Elk is just a swerve I have to make as I pass on Southwest Main Street between Third and Fourth avenues. When I look at Libby’s photos of it as it is today, I’m struck by those skinny legs and proportions that don’t quite seem “right.” Libby mentions how much smaller it seems at ground level than up on its granite pedestal. Perry notes that ungrateful Portlanders objected to this gift to the City originally because it wasn’t a West Coast elk. But back before “all this,” I remember sitting in Lownsdale Square, gazing at it in all its shaded serenity and feeling myself exhale and enter a reverie—not about the Elk, surely, but along the trail my electrons blazed for me through and around the area encased by my brainpan. I did not muse about early 20th century power relationships or the way this bronze elk reflected them. 

Art is emancipatory. (All art? That’s another story.) It can lead me almost anywhere, even to thoughts about the intent of the artist, the times the artist lived in, the artist’s relationship to those times, the times and art and artists that followed and preceded the art+artist+times I’m focusing on. And, yes, if I love that way of thinking, exploring, discovering, maybe I become an art historian. Or someone who reads art historians. Who have predilections and agendas. I try to factor that into my own considerations.

Winckelmann. I left him hanging at first reference up there in the fourth paragraph. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) wrote “History of the Art of Antiquity” in 1764 and both celebrated and researched the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. His father was a cobbler, and his mother the daughter of a weaver, so his ascent to the top echelons of European intellectual life was improbable. Historians of the history of archaeology consider him a founder of the field; historians of the history of art think of him the same way.

“Winckelmann set in play two crucial concepts for art history: style as the basis for attribution, and art as the reflexive representation of a people,” Tallman writes. She quotes Michaud’s contention that Winckelmann saw art “as a sort of bodily secretion of the nation as a whole.” I see what Michaud’s Winckelmann means, but I think of art more as a creative interaction with the life and culture of a nation, though more likely a city or state than an entire nation. It might also be a profound description of that place. Maybe I’m just squeamish, but I don’t think of  it as a “secretion.” 

The Elk, shackled so it can’t escape/Photo by Brian Libby

A little later Tallman quotes Austrian architect/theorist Adolf Loos, perhaps via Christopher S. Wood. Maybe you’ve read the quote before: “If nothing were left of an extinct people but a single button, I would be able to infer, from the shape of that button, how these people dressed, built their houses, how they lived, what was their religion, their art, their mentality.” And then Tallman points out Michaud’s alarm at this sort of thinking, how it leads to racist taxonomies. To my mind, Loos’s expansive hyperbole is the sheerest poppycock. During the past four years we’ve become poppycock experts. I personally often use a stronger word than poppycock. Now, if Loos had the full array of contemporary lab equipment and vast databases at his command via computer, that button would be more useful.

Tallman is headed toward today’s monuments of the past and how we consider them, which is how she arrives at Perry’s Elk, then to the conservative-led row over Yale’s change in its introductory art history classes to make them more global, and finally to those Yankee-forged monuments to Confederate heroes. I wonder what Loos might have inferred from those bronze buttons.

Tallman concludes her review this way: “Classical sculpture could only be loved by Christians once the gods they represented had died. Robert E. Lee is not yet a dead god.” 

The monuments to Lee, who bamboozled a series of incompetent Union generals before succumbing to the brilliant one, aren’t art to me. They are political statements by post-Reconstruction Southern white people: As long as we remember, we didn’t lose. Remembering is complex and has long tendrils that have nothing to do with remembering at all. Eventually, maybe memories become like the Elk in the road you swerve around. But like the Elk they can be summoned when called upon, in their case to support white supremacy (and in the Elk’s to celebrate the vanishing natural world, possibly). They have no place in the middle of anyone’s road or square or in front of anyone’s Capitol Building.

The Elk/Photo by Brian Libby

The Lee monuments are symbols of our continuing racism, North and South, and the persistent failure to atone for it. They represent the worst of the past—slavery and civil war. They suggest no escape from it, no constructive engagement with that dim history; instead, they pull us back toward the misery, the hopelessness of slavery, the columns of the names of the war dead in the newspaper. They are the opposite of the emancipatory aspect of art. 

High Desert Museum Creations of Spirit Bend Oregon

The pandemic has given us some space and time. The first thing it centered in Portland was the racism inherent to the status quo here—a status quo, a racism, defended by the city’s police department. I’m hoping the upcoming election will allow new approaches to be taken. Then, the fires reminded us of the monster that awaits us. Climate change and racism are connected—economically, culturally, politically. An election or two won’t be enough to deal with them. But that’s where it starts.

Of course the protesters didn’t attack the Elk! It’s not about the Elk. It’s about way more important things than the Elk. Or maybe it is about the Elk, and protecting it is the most important thing we can do. Art is like that.

Barry Johnson has written about and edited arts and culture stories of various sorts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the Seattle Sun. He edited the arts section of Willamette Week and wrote a general culture column in the  early 1980s and started at The Oregonian as arts editor in 1983, moving between editing and writing (visual arts, movies, theater, dance) until leaving in 2009. Since then, he's been thinking about new ideas to help make arts and culture journalism ever more useful and engaged. Oregon ArtsWatch is one of those ideas.

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