Eric Michaud

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

Dear New York Review of Books, In Portland we love our Elk.

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.

Continues…