Getting All Out of Art

When we visited New York in October, we saw this sculpture:

I didn’t really understand what it was, although there was a sign that said it was the Merchant Mariners’ Memorial at Battery Park. I thought it was amusing because of the bird perched on the guy’s head.

Tourists were in front of it, snapping photos, and I had a hard time getting an angle I wanted.

And there was a fence around it, too.

I was with hubby and daughter and we walked on through the park. After all, we could see the State of Liberty and Ellis Island. I don’t know much about Merchant Mariners other than:

  • my dad’s uncle was one during WWI (he died in his 30s from a car accident)
  • my dad’s friend when I was a kid was one (he was a very sweet guy but used to get drunk and in bar fights when he was on leave)
  • Daniel Keyes, the author of Flowers for Algernon (run to library if you haven’t read it), joined the Merchant Marines at age 17 and practiced medicine on the sailors

Daughter has been visiting (and has to leave today BIG SOBS). She’s packing right now. I just ran across these pix and wondered more about the sculpture. A lot of effort and money goes into these public art projects, so what is this one about?

Apparently, it’s supposed to look like THIS:

American Merchant Mariners' Memorial, designed by the sculptor Marisol Escobar, is located just south of Pier A on a rebuilt stone breakwater. It is a representation in bronze of four merchant seamen with their sinking vessel after it had been attacked by a U-boat in World War II

American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial, designed by the sculptor Marisol Escobar, is located just south of Pier A on a rebuilt stone breakwater. It is a representation in bronze of four merchant seamen with their sinking vessel after it had been attacked by a U-boat in World War II

These men were drowning after a Nazi U-boat attacked their ship. And look how powerful it is. Why is it so blocked now that you can’t get the effect of this drama? A beautiful work of art, but because the “setting” or “context” is no longer correct for it, much of the meaning and beauty is lost.

Like a diamond needs the right setting and a painting needs the right placement, does writing need the appropriate context, too? Are there ways that the full expression of a book, story, or poem is lost because the context has changed? Or is writing something that we can always access in just the way someone did 20 years before? or 200? What do you think?




Filed under #AmWriting, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Vintage American culture, Writing

35 responses to “Getting All Out of Art

  1. Context constantly changes for writing. Many 19th Century authors and poets make references to the Bible they assume the reader will pick up on, because it’s the one book everyone knows in their world. Many of those references are lost today (without the aid of Sparknotes).

    On the flip side, some literature finds revived significance. The ethical dilemma and prospect of “designer babies” gives Aldous Huxley new importance. Brave New World was relevant to the eugenics discussion when published, and the gene manipulation discussion today.

    • I so agree about Brave New World. I also feel that way about books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 as we continue to add laws and rules to our society. Whether they are necessary or not, the more we add the more we move in that direction. In fact, I’ve wondered why sci fi hasn’t exploded as the most important book genre of our time.
      So by context you mean both the knowledge of the reader and relevant issues? It’s interesting to me that different people seem to mean different things by context.

      • Thanks, Luanne, I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts. My intended use of the first example was just to describe the authors’ perceptions of the reading public and its breadth of knowledge. You’re right, it’s not exactly context, but perhaps revealing of the tenor of the times.

  2. I do think writing (and reading) need context. For example, we wouldn’t read Tom Sawyer now the same way we would’ve when it was written. Even a decade of time could change a story’s context.

    Thanks for teaching me about this sculpture. I didn’t even know about it.

    • Carrie, I’m enjoying seeing the different notions of context so far. You are saying that the time we live in–our culture and the way we look at things–changes a work of art because part of the art is in the reading? Is that it? Or am I mangling it? I have a real problem with Tom Sawyer because it seems to condone cat abuse. Would I have felt that way if I’d been alive in those days? My grandmother who was a lovely person grew up on a farm in the 1920s and her view of animals was never like mine. She helped me bake a pie for my aunt’s dog’s birthday when I was a kid, but she told my mother when I was in my 20s that I treated my dogs too much like humans by allowing them on the furniture. Isn’t that because her context was different from mine? Regarding the race stuff in Twain’s books, I think Huck Finn has held up longer than Tom Sawyer in part because it’s clear that Twain does not condone racism in that book, but shows how ridiculous it is.

  3. I agree, setting is so important. Had I seen it in person, my reaction would probably be laughter because of the bird too. The photo tells an entirely different scene.
    Sorry to hear your daughter is leaving the nest, Luanne…but she’ll be back. 🙂

    • I cannot for the life of me figure out why they blocked that sculpture. What was the point of ruining it?
      Ugh, it will be months before I see her again. 🙁

  4. Yes, the context of a piece of art is important. Your writing about U-boats and the Merchant Marine made me think of “Blackout” (AKA “Contraband”), a movie from WWII that was partly propaganda — but in my mind propaganda with a good purpose. The main character is a Danish Merchant Marine captain. He is played by Conrad Veidt, a famous German actor whose wife was Jewish. Hating Nazism, he moved to England in 1933 and later to the US. He acted in various anti-Nazi films, including “Blackout” and “Casablanca.” All these details of context make “Blackout” that much more interesting.

  5. Fascinating discussion here! There are all sorts of public art works in Philadelphia (many WPA, but some after), and I’ve looked some of them up. I’ve wondered if people knew what they were at the time. It’s horrible that they blocked the full sculpture you saw in NYC–it really does change the meaning.

    I think “context” can mean all sorts of things–from the time in which the viewers, readers, or listeners, in the case of music or theater see, read, or hear something to the particular format of the art. Shakespeare’s plays were certainly more understandable to people of his time, who would have understood the politics, as well as the jokes, far better than people today. But there are also certain forms that are understandable in a particular time. I think it’s difficult to understand now, how, for example, many considered the work of the Impressionists to be shocking.

    Sorry about your daughter leaving. 🙁 I hope she’s off to do something wonderful!

    • Really, we walk by this stuff all the time and don’t pay enough attention. I am so glad I looked up this one, but it bothers me that they blocked the view. Why would they do that? No matter how much work they did at Battery Park, why wouldn’t they have remedied that problem?
      I agree about different types of context, and I like how you bring up form itself needs to be understood within context. It’s of particular interest to me because I’ve been working with experimental flash nonfiction lately, and I can’t imagine that it would have made sense even 100 years ago. Maybe not even 50 years ago.

  6. First of all, I loved “Flowers for Algernon.” I read it in 8th grade English class.The movie, “Charly” didn’t stray too far away from the book’s plot and emotions. Interestingly enough, the man who portrayed the main character, was also in the war movie, playing JFK, Jr.
    Cliff Robertson played both John F. Kennedy in “PT 109” in 1963 and Charly, special needs adult in 1968. Although not the merchant marines, in a way connected to one of your threads of your post, Luanne.
    I was also dismayed the the true beauty and character of the statue representing the Merchants Mariner Memorial is hidden behind a fence and not able to be seen from a distance to take in all the details, Luanne. Hope you will have a chance to see your daughter again, soon. I am sad 🙁 if you aren’t able to spend time with her, hope others will be close by. I understand sobbing.
    I will be up at Mom’s on Christmas Eve, missing the grandchildren but so glad I still have her around. I come back in the afternoon on 27th to pass out gifts and hear of their special times, too. xo

    • Cliff Robertson looked like my uncle, my mom’s brother. I can’t see him in movies without seeing my uncle haha. But I do think Flowers for Algernon is one of my top ten books!!! It moved me so much, and I’ve read it many times and have taught it. Did you know that a shortened version that was used in high school (jr high? texts was stolen and not approved by Keyes?!
      Enjoy your mom this Christmas, Robin! You will just have an extended Christmas, over several days!! xo

      • Yes, finally a Christmas break like my old teaching days!
        Luanne, I did not know this about a teaching guide and definitely Keyes had a right to be upset about it without his authorization!
        Thank you for so many wonderful conversations we have had over the year or two. Warm regards for you, Luanne and ♡♡♡♡ greetings sent to all.

        • It was actually just a shortened version. Somebody took and shortened it into a short story instead of a short novel and it was not authorized! Isn’t that crazy that they thought they could get away with it. But in a way they did.

        • Oops, I meant to swing back to your Christmas break. HOW NICE!!! I’m so glad because I know a break is very appreciated and probably needed!!!

  7. It seems to me that the barrier has obscured the key element. What is the barrier for? To keep away the public, for whom it was intended in the first place?

    • It seems as if they put a raised platform for people to walk on, so that we no longer get a viewpoint from the ground up of the sculpture. But if they planned this re-furbishing of the park, why didn’t they move the sculpture?! It’s very annoying now that I see what they did.

  8. That is a travesty that the full meaning of this moving tribute has been obscured. The Merchant Marines are a misunderstood and often forgotten valuable part of our global security and transportation. I’m very glad you featured this, Luanne.

    I do think many books – fiction and non-fiction – move in and out of relevancy; I find that in my own ‘library’ when I re-read a favorite and my reaction is completely different than an earlier read. But I think it is paramount that we preserve and honor books for what they represented at the time they were written. Today’s penchant for presentism – whether in literature or history – becomes its own distortion of past reality.

    • Isn’t it, though?! I was shocked to see what it really depicts. You can’t tell me that anybody gets that from what they see now. I didn’t know much about them at all until I researched some about my dad’s uncle. And I really learned a lot more from reading the memoir of Keyes. That was really fascinating.
      Ooh, great point about having a different reaction when you re-read and from a different perspective. I had to go look up presentism! That’s probably the 2nd time I’ve seen it and the definition didn’t stick the first time. YES. That is so true. So so true. If we get rid of our history and our art that represents the culture of that history, we will forget all we have learned that has brought us TO today.

  9. Thanks for your interesting comments about the Merchant Mariners Memorial. I appreciate your care in trying to learn more and pass it on. It’s like bringing a buried treasure to light.

  10. I guess it all comes back to the old saying ‘you need to see the entire picture’, Luanne. I think it’s awful that some of the memorial is blocked so you can’t get the full effect. I’m pretty sure Marisol Escobar would be horrified if she knew people couldn’t access the full extent of her work (I believe she is still alive – about 85 I think).

    Hugs for your daughter leaving. xxxxxxxxx

    • Thanks, Dianne. I miss her so much!
      I just don’t get this whole thing with the sculpture. I don’t see online where it’s blocked. And it was only erected in 1991. It makes no sense to me.

  11. Gosh, yes, we need context for everything. So much of culture clashes because we don’t share the same contexts. I see this all the time with generation gaps between our parents and our kids. I cannot imagine my grandparents enjoying my children or vice versa.
    If we aren’t aware of the historical environment, can we enjoy nuance? No way. I feel like I can only go back as far as my grandparents’ times, and I can only go forward until my end. We are a context on our own, as individuals.

    • Interesting way you compare people and their context with each other. I hadn’t thought of that, but yeah. I did really like my great-grandfather, but then I was the oldest great-grandchild. On the other hand, he was also the oldest of 6 or 7 kids, so maybe it was that we were both the oldest, I don’t know. I do think that to compare myself right now with my grandparents when they were my age is REALLY different, and that alone shows me how much things have changed.

  12. Luanne I was amused at the bird too and the art did not add up for me. But when you showed the whole picture it is heartbreaking. It is as powerful now as when it happened. When I think of stories though, some lose their power due to age. I watched the Star Wars series with my daughter and she laughed at some of the acting and storylines of the original three movies. I had to remind her they were forty years old.

    • I agree with you that sometimes stories can sound silly decades later, but then so can art, in some cases, I think. It seems like overly sentimental stuff was really popular in Victorian times–art that might not be viewed very favorably today except by people who particularly appreciate old styles.What’s scary is what you say about Star Wars. That means my own life is already out of date hahahaha. 40 years. Think of it!

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