The Tragedy of Vessel, Staircase to Nowhere

Have you heard about Vessel? It’s a giant climbable sculpture at the center of Hudson Yards, the $25 billion real estate development that masquerades as a neighborhood in the far west-side of midtown Manhattan, New York City. The creation and demise of Vessel is a cautionary tale on the foibles of contemporary art, but it’s also a metaphor for the crisis of American urbanism, and how media passes off unworthy works and individuals as impressive and noteworthy. Vessel is the zeitgeist of postmodern art. Allow me to fill in the details.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

Artist’s conception of Vessel. Image/Heatherwick Studio.

The Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project is the brainchild of New York real estate firm The Related Companies. Founded by billionaire Stephen M. Ross, the firm became an inexorable force in developing commercial properties. Hudson Yards is a city unto itself, but it should remind readers of the dystopian story The Hunger Games, where a class of frivolous and diversion obsessed elites attempted to rule over a ruined and fragmented society.

The official opening of Hudson Yards and Vessel took place on March 15, 2019. CNN’s pretend journalist Anderson Cooper moderated the affair. Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer gave a frothy speech, and then Big Bird the anthropomorphic muppet joined with Cooper, Stephen M. Ross, Sen. Schumer, and Thomas Heatherwick (designer of the gigantic staircase to nowhere), to launch Vessel in a flurry of confetti. A gospel choir sang out praises, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre performed. It was all quite the spectacle, and no one had a clue what awaited them.

The 28-acre Hudson Yards complex is a huge gentrification project that hopes to transform an aging neighborhood into an exclusive enclave for the affluent. In part it offers 16 imposing skyscrapers with classy office space for some 55,000 employees, plus posh apartments and condos for 5,000 au courant swells (apartments go for $9,000 a month and condos start at $2 million). There is an arts center named The Shed for swanks like you, innumerable chic boutiques, cafes, bars, restaurants, an exclusive hotel, plus “public space” and gardens for the voguish to stroll through… et cetera, et cetera. But the center of Hudson Yards is its massive “public square” where Vessel dominates.

The Related Companies felt a bona fide tourist attraction was needed to draw happy shoppers into their Hudson Yards consumer paradise and real estate scheme. You know, a special touch to put a human face on the commercial development, investing in the “public space” and all that. It was essential for the attraction to offer, or at least appear to offer, something for the city’s goldbricks, clock-watchers, and proles to unite around. An iconic object to inspire unlimited selfies and generate free advertising to attract customers like moths to a flame. Enter the celebrated English postmodern designer and architect, Thomas Heatherwick.

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Vessel, aka “Chalice of the Privileged.” Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Heatherwick was commissioned to create the attraction, and he delivered Vessel, an eight level, sixteen-stories high, tangled labyrinth of 154 connected staircases with eighty landings and 2,500 steps that go nowhere.

The 150-foot-tall structure was envisioned as an immersive design experience where people would socialize while getting a bird’s eye view of the megalopolis. The armature of Vessel is concrete covered with copper-colored steel.

But all of Vessel’s 75 enormous pre-fabricated steel pieces were fabricated in Italy because the miracle of globalism has nearly shut down America’s steel industry. Starting at its base Vessel is 50 feet across, and floor by floor it expands in width until it becomes 150 feet wide at its top level.

Vessel became an irresistible backdrop for selfies, but more than a few detractors rechristened it “the pineapple,” “beehive,” “wastepaper basket,” “pinecone,” “rat’s nest,” “Chalice of the Privileged,” “giant shawarma,” and other ill-favored nicknames.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

“Paradoxides Heatherwickis.” Giant extinct marine Trilobite found in Hudson Yards, North America.

Personally I think it looks like the extinct marine arthropod known as the Trilobite. Some pretentious artsy-fartsy types said it looked like one of those impossible staircases by Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972). I am certain that suggestion would have displeased Escher.

I discovered Escher as a pre-teen and fell in love with his lithographs, woodcuts, and mezzotint prints. I studied them not for their impossible perspectives but for their technique and off-kilter realism. He inflamed my passion for printmaking. Escher considered himself not an artist but a mathematician. It speaks volumes that the art world basically ignored him his entire life; his first retrospective came when he was 70-years old (he would die at age 73). Who will Thomas Heatherwick inspire? Certainly not me.

Heatherwick’s whimsical joke of a building cost $200 million to construct, but no one is laughing. I realize pseudo-intellectuals and the terminally trendy say he is the new Leonardo da Vinci of design, but few noticed Leonardo’s Vessel had, shall we say… design flaws. For instance, those damnable stairs.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

“Relativity.” Lithograph. M.C. Escher. 1953.

I was privileged to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France before some idiot burned it down. Since medievalist engineers did not equip churches with elevators, I climbed up and down its stone steps to visit the rooftop gargoyles; those 774 steps were a real workout.

I visited the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, it was exhausting to climb up and down its 1,066 rough hewn steps to gain access to the rooftop view of the city. It goes without saying that the history of those two Cathedrals was more than awe inspiring.

Now imagine the Vessel’s labyrinth of 2,500 steps, and the herculean task of climbing all 5,000 to go up and down this “interactive” cardio nightmare of a sculpture. What is the point of all that marching up and down? Heatherwick must surely despise the elderly. Worse, the structure offers not a single bench or place to sit, and its one tiny elevator is exclusively for people with disabilities; nonetheless, the elevator only stops on floors 5, 7, and 8.

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Interior view of Vessel. Oops... that’s a still of David Bowie from the 1986 movie titled, “Labyrinth.”

Climbing Notre Dame Cathedral and Cologne Cathedral were well worth the effort, but the giant shawarma? I have visited authentic tourist attractions around the world, places like the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza in Yucatán, Mexico, the ancient Roman Colosseum in Rome, Italy, and the 17th century home of American patriot Paul Revere in Boston, Massachusetts.

These and other attractions I sojourned to are steeped in history and meaning; they are stirring points of interest. But what profundity does Vessel extend, aside from being a backdrop for smartphone photos?

However, Vessel has a much bigger problem than its steps. It is cursed by its railings. They are only 4-feet-high, even at its 150-foot-high eighth level. They are low enough for your average teen or adult to jump over—and jump they did.

The first suicide took place in Feb. 2020, when a 19-year-old man leapt from the Vessel’s uppermost deck. The second suicide occurred in Dec. 2020 when a 24-year-old woman also hopped over the railings at the eighth-floor to meet her demise. The third suicide happened in Jan. 2021 when a 21-year-old-man on the eighth-floor bounded over the railings to his death.

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Interior view of Vessel. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A day after the third suicide Vessel was closed to the public so that “safety measures” could be instituted to prevent further deaths. Suicide prevention signs were mounted on the building and affixed to the railings. More security personnel were hired. Visitors were banned from entering Vessel alone, and though entry was once free visitants now had to pay a $10 entry fee (as if paying admission would prevent suicide). The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number was printed on the admission tickets. Everything was done to insure safety… except for raising the height of the railings, which is something The Related Companies refused to do, despite pleas from suicide prevention specialists. A “safer” Vessel reopened on May 28, 2021.

On July 29, 2021, a 14-year-old boy jumped to his death from the top floor of Vessel. That same day the building was closed, perhaps forevermore.

So there you have it, all that effort come to naught. London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), educated Thomas Heatherwick. That institute also boasts Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman as alumni. How can a prestigious institution of art and design like the RCA cultivate, encourage, and champion such charlatans? It’s simple really. Postmodernist dogma with its aesthetics of ugly, superficial, kitsch, reigns supreme in universities and art academies; museums, galleries, and art critics are also spellbound by the doctrine. Critiques of Heatherwick and his postmodern cohorts are negligible because they are favored by the ruling elites. Even though Vessel has proven to be a literal deathtrap, its designer is viewed as blameless. The art world reaps what it sows.

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

From the top floor, a glance over those 4-feet-high railings... it sure is a long way down. Image © Raphe Evanoff 2019. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One of the quagmires facing the contemporary art world—with its steady stream of horrid, silly, incomprehensible, and frightfully expensive thingamajigs, is its having become contemptuous of the public. Witness those workday-world New Yorkers who mocked Vessel as a “wastepaper basket,” “rat’s nest,” and “Chalice of the Privileged.” They were ignored by sophisticates who regarded them as uncultivated and artless. The corps d’elite simply doubled down on their Vessel nonsense. And the big payoff? Four tragic suicides, traumatized families, the $200 million Vessel closed indefinitely, and calls for it to be torn down.

I do not write the following to cast aspersions on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, but since they promoted Vessel in a video and performed at its official opening they are open to critique. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform in Los Angeles years ago, and it is widely acknowledged the troupe has had an impact on modern dance. Still, I found their Vessel promo film to be regretful.

For the task of glorifying Vessel the dance company abandoned their autonomy and took money from The Related Companies, the multi-billion dollar real estate firm behind Vessel’s creation. The firm hired visual effects studio MILL+ to produce the Alvin Ailey film. The effects studio specializes in producing “immersive experiences” for entertainment franchises and product promotions. I hate to break it to the dance troupe but this is not art, it’s advertising. Related Companies has left its imprimatur on the legacy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and that’s a shame.

The MILL+ production with the Alvin Ailey troupe is titled The Film, and it opens with a morning scene in New York City. Troupe members are shown dancing their way through the cosmopolis; they undulate over cobblestone streets, and with fluid free-style steps glide through the subway, leaping up stairs and down avenues on a journey to an unknown destination. Eyes lift from sidewalks to tall buildings to see strange shadows of the climbable sculpture cast upon the edifices. Reaching Hudson Yards the group dances triumphantly; presumably they are dancing at the feet of the gigantic Vessel, even though it is never seen. In the final frames the troupe is observed from above gathered in a loose circle, arms thrust skyward as if in spiritual exaltation. Their bodies cast a growing shadow, the eerie penumbra taking on the shape of the Vessel.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre cast the shadow of Vessel. Screen grab from “The Film” video by MILL+ (Creative Commons).

Though not shown in the video, all I could see were ghostlike figures jumping from the top of the shadowy Vessel, they were leaping into suicidal oblivion. That is what the Vessel has become… a grave marker for postmodernism.

None of this comes as a surprise, I have long felt darkness was falling over the art world. I was 19-years-old in 1972 when an unfamiliar character named Christo spent $700,000 hanging orange nylon fabric across Rifle Gap in Colorado. It wasn’t the first time I despaired for art, and it wouldn’t be the last. I felt the gloom when wrecking cranes destroyed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2020-2021, and when mobs began defacing and pulling down historic classical sculptures in public places during the summer of 2020 and beyond. Graffiti finding a home in art museums didn’t help any. But the implosion of Vessel was the last straw, it was akin to watching the final curtain coming down on the theater of postmodernism—and there was no applause.

It is said “art is a reflection of society,” but who shapes society? The people of NYC didn’t ask for a $200 million “wastepaper basket,” it was imposed upon them by a giant real estate firm and the city’s ruling Democrats. Society, such as it is, had nothing to do with it. But then again… New York City’s newly elected Mayor Eric Adams (D) approved legislation in January 2022 giving nearly a million non-citizens the right to vote in city elections. And the just elected District Attorney for Manhattan, Alvin Bragg (D), has downgraded armed robbery to a misdemeanor, making it a non-jailable offense. And that is why the city is called Gotham.

Perhaps Heatherwick’s $200 million “rat’s nest” really is the appropriate icon for New York City. As the Rolling Stones sang in their 1978 song titled Shattered, “Go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots.”

Toppling Rock Icons like Confederate Statues

On Nov. 3, 2021 the New York Times published Can We Separate the Art From the Artist?, an opinion piece by their regular columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan. It compared classic rock performers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to the statues of Confederate generals, implying it was time to topple classic rockers for their politically incorrect behavior. Boylan put it this way:

“The past several years have seen a reassessment of our country’s many mythologies—from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical glossing over of slaveholding founding fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a hard look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture. That reassessment extends now to the people who wrote some of our best-loved songs.”

Boylan declared yet another front in the ever expanding culture war. Bring out the long knives, were going back to the 50s, 60s, and 70s to find objectionable lyrics and horrid deeds committed by long dead performers so we can expunge them from history.

I do not entirely disagree with Boylan’s opinion piece, just 99.99% of it. The cloaked advocation of censorship intimates that defacing and toppling statues is a very good thing. That alone makes the statement odious to me as an artist and defender of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Artists should be well aware of how detrimental censorship can be, not just to individual artists, but to society as a whole. America is supposed to be the land of liberty, not the land of purges, repression, and censorship.

Free Speech Movement marchers carry “Free Speech” banner on the Berkeley campus, Nov. 20, 1964.

Free Speech Movement marchers carry “Free Speech” banner on the Berkeley campus, Nov. 20, 1964.

I was eleven-years-old in 1964 when the Free Speech Movement began at the University of California, Berkeley. As a kid I admired the bravery and high-mindedness of those students. The movement electrified my generation, and made an everlasting impression on me. I was propelled into a lifetime of advocating and defending human and civil rights.

Back in 1964 leftwing students carried banners emblazoned with the words, “Free Speech.” But today’s leftwing students have burned placards reading “Free Speech.” I have a sneaking suspicion Boylan stands with the latter, but uses less inflammatory language to describe the position.

Free Speech sign burned by anti-Trump protester in Berkeley, March 4, 2017.

Free Speech sign burned by anti-Trump protesters in Berkeley, March 4, 2017.

Boylan asserts we have seen a “reassessment” of “the generals of the Confederacy” and “slaveholding founding fathers.” But what does removing Abraham Lincoln as the name of a public school in San Francisco have to do with this reassessment? How do “activists” defacing the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons with anti-police graffiti have anything to do with taking “another look at the sins of our historical figures”?

Black Lives Matter supporters in Wisconsin tore down a bronze statue of Norwegian-American abolitionist Hans Christian Heg, decapitated it, dragged it through the streets, and tossed it into Lake Monona. Heg was an anti-slavery activist who joined the Union Army to free the slaves. As the colonel of the all-Scandinavian 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment of the Union Army, he was killed in 1863 fighting the Confederates at the Battle of Chickamauga. Yeah, dragging the broken memorial statue of Hans Christian Heg through the streets was an essential “reassessment.”

Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons, defaced by BLM activists June 3, 2020. Graffiti reads: "ACAB" (All Cops Are Bastards), "F**k 12" (a codeword for police is “12”), “RIP George Floyd” & "#BLM."

Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial in Boston Commons, defaced by BLM activists June 3, 2020. Graffiti reads: "ACAB" (All Cops Are Bastards), "F**k 12" (a codeword for police is “12”), “RIP George Floyd” & "#BLM."

Perhaps Boylan and followers think the destruction of the Hans Christian Heg bronze statue was merely “collateral damage.” This so-called “reassessment” has defaced, toppled, and destroyed dozens of historic public sculptures that had nothing to do with Confederates or slave masters. Nevertheless, you can’t build a better world without breaking a few eggs, eh Boylan? Welcome to the struggle for “a more just society.”

When Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote of being appalled by the private lives of Elvis Presley and other “disgraced musicians,” I thought of a 1979 punk rock concert flyer in my collection. The cheap xeroxed leaflet announced a gig at the new Masque punk club that operated in smoggy old Los Angeles at the time. Two of the most notorious punk bands in California played the Masque musicale, the Germs and the Dead Kennedys (referred to by fans and foes as the DKs).

Xerox flyer announcing January 13, 1979 punk concert at the Masque annex, featuring the Germs and the Dead Kennedys.

Xerox flyer announcing January 13, 1979 punk concert at the Masque annex, featuring the Germs and the Dead Kennedys.

The Dead Kennedys had just released their first single, it was titled California Über Alles. It might be said the song was an attack on the type of liberalism represented by Boylan. The ornery song attacking liberals put the DKs on the map, but it might also be the kind of song guaranteed a place on Boylan’s personal list of wrongthink. Apart from the fact the DKs performed a deliriously berserk version of the Elvis song Viva Los Vegas, Presley’s face was featured on the 1979 Masque leaflet in mockery of his “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” status.

First single by The Clash released March 1977.

First single by The Clash released March 1977.

Consider the very first record released by The Clash in March of 1977, it presented two songs; White Riot and 1977. Today’s liberals would condemn White Riot as a “white supremacist” song: “White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, a riot of my own.” 1977 was one of the songs that kicked off the punk rebellion, its refrain was “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977.” Yet the Clash were not calling for censorship of their musical foes, they were saying, get out of the way.

I attended that riotous 1979 Masque shindig, and between the nihilistic caterwauling of the contentious Germs, the frantic histrionics of the DKs, and the ghostly apparition of the pompadoured dead King, those at the Masque were all shook up. If only Jennifer Finney Boylan had been there.

In the heady days of the late 1970s when punk music was brand new and truly provocative, it received almost zero airplay on commercial radio in Los Angeles, and it got even less attention in the press. At one point nearly all venues in LA closed their doors to punk; this was in essence a form of censorship. But let us skip to 1985 for another long forgotten example of censorship.

In Sept 1985 the US Senate held hearings designed to censor pop music. The hearings were under the aegis of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group led by liberal Tipper Gore, co-founder of the PMRC and wife of Democrat Sen. Al Gore. The PMRC released a list called the “Filthy Fifteen,” enumerating some of the performers or bands who had released “objectionable” songs. Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Twisted Sister were on the list.

Fully backing the censorious PMRC in the august body was liberal Senator Gore, who testified in their favor. Gore badgered heavy metal rocker Dee Snider of Twisted Sister in a Q and A after the rocker’s testimony. Readers should listen to Snider’s spirited defense of the first amendment, along with the eye-opening anti-censorship statements given by folk singer John Denver and composer extraordinaire Frank Zappa. Those three really understood what was at stake, the same cannot be said of Jennifer Finney Boylan.

Boylan’s Can We Separate the Art From the Artist? presents an age old, and frankly tiresome argument. However, the NYT columnist did offer an untried, newfangled twist to the dispute. Instead of targeting offensive lyrics, Boylan went after the personal sins and immoralities of individual performers. Wow, just think of all the musicians that can be purged for having deficient morals! The gossip blogs will be so busy. But wait, this is not being carried out by someone on the fundamentalist religious right, Jennifer Finney Boylan is a liberal Transgender activist.

Jerry Lee Lewis concert poster, 1958.

Jerry Lee Lewis concert poster, 1958.

In the opinion piece Boylan attacked Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Gary Glitter, the Rolling Stones, Don McLean, as well as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But why stop there? I am certain at least a hundred names could be added to the registry of the persona non grata. The list of classic rock songs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s construed to be “sexist” or “racist” is too long to cite here.

Figuratively speaking, Boylan fired so many flaming arrows at Don McLean in the opinion piece it almost made me like his American Pie ballad… well, almost.

Boylan recounted the arrest of McLean for suspicion of domestic violence and seemed forlorn the singer was not drawn and quartered in the public square. Let me be clear, I have no sympathy for McLean, that is my 0.1% agreement with Boylan.

Still, the columnist’s telling of McLean’s trouble with the law ends with the snide remark, “His iconic song still plays on the radio,” implying no one should ever hear American Pie again, as if hearing it will cause a male listener to commit sexual violence. Many sophisticated intellectual types—yeah, that automatically excludes me, consider McLean’s American Pie a masterwork.

Album art for “American Pie.” 1971.

Album art for “American Pie.” 1971.

But don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player. You can take up the wickedness of McLean with the National Endowment for the Arts, which claims American Pie is one of the 20th century’s greatest songs—and the Library of Congress, which chose the song for preservation in the National Recording Registry. So, when will progressives blitz those institutions for not being, well, progressive enough?

And what about today’s dominant rap genre, is there a more misogynist music out there? Snoop Dogg, the heavyweight champ of sexist degrading lyrics once rapped: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks, lick on these nuts and suck the d**k, gets the f**k out after you’re done.”

Snoop now has his own wine label, Snoop Cali Red, made in partnership with Australian vintner 19 Crimes (apt name). The wine can be found in grocery stores serving bourgeois cliental. Even CNN recently raved about original gangster sommelier Snoop Dogg and his stinking inferior plonk. Don’t even ask me about Cardi B and WAP. Where is Boylan’s critique?

The best way to handle music you find abhorrent and loathsome is… do not listen to it, do not purchase it, ignore it. The same goes for visual art, literature, movies, and any other creative endeavor. We still live in a free society—even though it’s looking rather threadbare these days, so behave like you are autonomous and unfettered. A free people produce and consume whatever cultural output they like.

Boylan’s opinion contained this gem: “I want to live in a world where I can be moved by art and music and literature without having to come up with elaborate apologies for that work or for its creators.” Oh for goodness sake Boylan, grow up will you.

Humanity is imperfect and flawed. The history of the world is replete with composers, painters, writers, and many other creative types who struggled with a dark side—some even nurtured it. The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was a street brawler who carried a sword and murdered a man in a fight. German composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite who changed the face of Western music. America’s virtuoso jazz trumpet player Miles Davis beat his wives. Should we burn all of their works? We will never live in the utopian world Boylan longs for. It would be more profitable for the columnist to begin a new career writing those “elaborate apologies” for the world’s ill-natured artists and their errant works.

The biggest problem confronting Boylan comes in identifying potential wrongdoers. I mean, aside from bad press or arrest, how do you single out a miscreant musician? Remember, lurking behind grandiloquent lyrics one might find an evildoer. Boylan’s opinion piece ended with this meditation on the problem of reprobate musicians: “Maybe reconsidering those songs, and their artists, can inspire us to think about the future and how to bring about a world that is more inclusive and more just.”

“Reconsidering” songs and artists my foot. This ain’t the Age of Aquarius pal. The people of the world are being silenced through censoring, deplatforming, and shadow banning by tech oligarchs who think they are delivering us to a “more inclusive and more just” world, and you are just fine with that. Except, instead of cruising to paradise we are being coughed up to dystopia.

The Soviet Union knew how to help artists create a “more just” world. By 1932 artists were required to join the communist’s Artists Union, that is, if they wanted to work and exhibit. Artists were vetted on whether they possessed the proper loyalty to communism and displayed a zealotry for uprooting old reactionary ideas. If so, they were allowed to join the union, if not they were forbidden to create, display, or sell artworks. Socialist Realism, a genre that extolled workers and communist leadership, was the only allowable art in the one-party state. The communists did not worry about coming up “with elaborate apologies” for trouble making artists who preferred the old ways… they just sent them to the gulag.

This scheme to bring about a “New Socialist Man” by silencing social democrats, conservatives, nationalists, and religious types who opposed communism, was applied to the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet satellite states of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Let me tell you a tale of artistic freedom that took place in Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia.

Original Czech 1968 graphic protesting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Artist unknown. The poster depicts a Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.

Czech graphic protesting Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Artist unknown. Image depicts Soviet Red Army soldier in 1945 as a liberator, then as an oppressor in 1968.

On Jan. 5, 1968, Alexander Dubček became the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia. He initiated the Prague Spring reforms that relaxed the communist stranglehold on art, speech, media, and travel. The Soviets feared the reforms would undermine the Communist Bloc, so on Aug. 21, 1968, the Soviet Red Army and allied Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia with 2,000 tanks and 200,000 soldiers and crushed the Prague Spring.

A few weeks later a scruffy group of Czech hippies started a band in Prague named The Plastic People of the Universe; the moniker came from Plastic People, a song by Frank Zappa. The Plastic People were not activists or politically orientated, they just wanted to play their music.

The Soviet installed regime wanted musicians to dress well, keep their hair short, and sing the praises of socialism; rock was thought to be part of decadent capitalist society. The communists viewed the Plastics as a bad influence on youth and revoked the band’s musicians license in 1970, which denied them the right to perform in public. The Plastics began playing secret gigs at pubs or homes. They released an album in 1974 titled Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, a reference to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bondy was a Czech poet banned by the communists, who also wrote lyrics for the Plastics.

The Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1968.

The Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1968.

The album was dark and disconcerting, reflecting life under a humorless totalitarian regime. It mixed Gothic psychedelic rock with freeform jazz, using electric violin and theremin for highlights. In 1976 the regime arrested the Plastics and put them on trial for “organized disturbance of the peace.” Four of the defendants received prison sentences. This heralded, not the demise of The Plastic People of the Universe, but the communist regime. Which brings me to the following point.

The trial and imprisonment of The Plastic People galvanized Czechs against the Stalinist brutes that ruled them. Czech intellectuals viewed the needless repression of the band as a major assault on artistic expression; notable Czechs of different convictions and professions gathered together to write a statement on universal human rights they titled Charter 77. Published on Jan 6, 1977, one of its initial 242 signatories was the avant-garde playwright Václav Havel.

What the communist regime said of Charter 77 might sound familiar to readers. The document was called “anti-state” and “anti-socialist,” and its signatories were slandered as “traitors and renegades.” Those who signed were hounded by secret police, and basically forced into internal exile. Copies of the charter were circulated by way of samizdat, self-published texts written by hand or typewriter—itself a crime against the state.

Finally, on Nov. 17, 1989, the Czech “Velvet Revolution” began; it was a massive non-violent upheaval of all sectors of society. After huge protests for democracy and a national general strike for the same, the leadership of the Communist Party resigned; days later the party was dissolved. A new government was sworn in on Dec. 10, and Václav Havel was elected president on Dec. 29, 1989. The hippie band won the day while the commies bit the dust.

With few caveats, I always held the position that we must separate art from its creator. Often times sublime art springs from debauched or unsavory characters. That is the miracle of art. Over the decades I have treasured paintings, literature, and music created by people I did not like or agree with. On rare occasion, if I was confronted with something I found truly detestable, I did what I previously suggested, I would not purchase it. I would ignore it. I have never advocated censorship, which I consider to be positively un-American.

Happy Halloween!

Some years ago I took this photograph at a place of honor and history, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in North Boston, Massachusetts… established in 1659.

Spiders, skeletons, and school superintendents will give you a terrible fright!

Spiders, skeletons, and school superintendents... will give you a terrible fright!

To the kids, moms, and dads of Melrose, Massachusetts, where Halloween has been canceled in public schools in order to promote “inclusivity.” Do not be afraid of those goblins and ghosts, just look ‘em in the eye and say… BOO!

Thomas Jefferson and the Michelangelo of Paris

New York’s Democrat Mayor de Blasio and his allies finally succeeded in removing the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson that stood in the legislative chamber of the New York City Council for more than 100 years. On October 18, 2021, the mayor’s Public Design Commission voted unanimously to take down the statue. I view the censorious act as an open attack on art and history, and here I will attempt to explain my discomfort over the purge.

Portrait painting of David d'Angers by French painter Antoine Auguste Ernest Hebert (1817-1908).

Portrait painting of David d'Angers by French painter Antoine Auguste Ernest Hebert (1817-1908).

Regardless of coming from the left or right, the overwhelming number of reports on the statue’s ban fail to mention the artist who created it. That would be Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, also known simply as David d’Angers, one of the most renowned French sculptors of the early nineteenth century. As a young man in 1808 he studied sculpture at the famous École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and was mentored by famed artist Jacques-Louis David, the preeminent painter of the day and First Painter to Napoleon Bonaparte.

David d’Angers created portrait busts and medallions of historic figures like Goethe, Caspar David Friedrich, Géricault, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Victor Hugo—author of the 1862 novel Les Misérables. Hugo called him “the Michelangelo of Paris.” By the end of his life David had created nearly five-hundred portrait medallions in bronze; he once said, “I have always been moved by the sight of a profile.” Perhaps his most famous work was the 1830 commission to create granite statues for the entrance to the Pantheon, the building in Paris dedicated to heroes of the French Revolution: each granite figure is a masterwork. At center is featured Patria, Liberté, and Histoire as they prepare to bestow glory upon the nation’s paragons.

“Niccolò Paganini.” This bronze portrait bust of the Italian composer and violin virtuoso was created by David d'Angers in 1830.

“Niccolò Paganini.” This bronze portrait bust of the Italian composer and violin virtuoso was created by David d'Angers in 1830.

But this essay is about the bronze statue David d’Angers created of Thomas Jefferson, founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States. Around 1833 United States Navy Officer Uriah Levy, who was Jewish, privately commissioned David to create a statue memorializing Jefferson for his having drafted the 1776 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the document that helped to establish religious freedom in America.

By 1834 David had created a beautiful seven-foot-tall plaster portrait of Jefferson; the artist was a master at fashioning portrait busts and statues from plaster, an art form that can be traced back to ancient Greece. David’s plaster statues and portrait busts were considered finished works of art, and were often sold or gifted as such. As in ancient Greece, his plaster works were sometimes painted, not garishly in the style of the Greeks, but instead painted to appear as bronze castings. That was the case with David’s plaster of Jefferson.

However, a good plaster statue could also be the first step in making a mold for the “lost wax process” of bronze statue creation, and David did create a bronze statue from his plaster of Jefferson. The lost wax method of sculpture dates back to the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of some 2,000 years ago, and despite today’s technological updates, the technique remains essentially the same. Watch this brief video to understand how a “lost wax” bronze statue is created.

“Thomas Jefferson.” David d'Angers. Painted plaster statue. 1833. Located in the NY City Council Chamber. Photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

“Thomas Jefferson.” David d'Angers. Painted plaster statue. 1833. Located in the NY City Council Chamber. Photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

David d’Angers portrayed Thomas Jefferson standing with his right hand grasping a quill pen, and his left hand bearing the Declaration of Independence. Remarkably, Jefferson’s words on the document are readable. David, or likely one of his skilled assistants, pressed metal type fonts from a printing press—one at a time, into the clay of their “lost wax” model.

Uriah Levy presented the bronze statue to the US Congress, and it sits today in the US Capital Rotunda; Levy donated the plaster original to the people of New York. It was first installed in the Governor’s Room of City Hall in 1834, but finally moved to the City Council Chamber of NY City Hall where it has sat since 1915.

New York’s liberal Mayor de Blasio appointed the eleven-member “Public Design Commission” (PDC), also known as the “Art Commission.” The agency is responsible for the city’s public art. On October 18, 2021 the PDC voted unanimously to remove David d’Angers’ statue of Thomas Jefferson from the legislative chamber of the New York City Council. The Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the New York City Council pushed hard for the removal, saying the Jefferson statue in the chamber was “a constant reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country.”

Democrat Adrienne Adams, co-chair of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, condemned the Founding Father, saying: “As it stands, we’ve been under the watchful eye of a slaveholder.” Adams went on to say “Jefferson embodied some of the most shameful parts of our country’s long and nuanced history. It is time for the city to turn the page and move forward.” She continued: “It makes me deeply uncomfortable knowing that we sit in the presence of a statue that pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed that people who look like me were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence, and were not worthy of freedom or rights.”

Democrat Inez Barron, also a partisan of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, damned Jefferson for “ethnic cleansing and genocidal replacement” of Native Americans, while adding men like him acted as a sort of “pimp” in expanding plantations so profits could “be increased.” She went on to say: “We are not waging a war on history. We are saying that we want to make sure that the total story is told, that there are no half-truths and that we are not perpetuating lies.”

There is no doubt that those who want to bury Thomas Jefferson are waging a war on history. They have normalized the banishment of Jefferson’s statue in New York, and will next eliminate his bronze statue in the US Capital Rotunda. Think not? In July 2020 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California) wrote a letter to Congress urging the removal of Confederate statues; she described the sculptures thusly: “Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to these ideals. Their statues pay homage to hate, not heritage. They must be removed.”

Pelosi’s verbiage characterizing Confederate statuary is identical to how her fellow democrats in New York described the Thomas Jefferson statue. Now that they have banished Jefferson, why would Pelosi not follow suit?

“Thomas Jefferson.” David d'Angers. Bronze statue. 1833. Located in the US Capital Rotunda. Photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

“Thomas Jefferson.” David d'Angers. Bronze statue. 1833. Located in the US Capital Rotunda. Photo courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

Washington DC’s Democrat Mayor Muriel Bowser is of like mind. She created a group called DCFACES (District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions). In Sept. 2020 it recommended the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC be “removed, relocated, or contextualized” for representing “slavery, systemic racism, mistreatment of, or actions that suppressed equality for, persons of color, women and LGBTQ communities and violation of the DC Human Right Act.”

I think the DCFACES group should be renamed DEFACES, since it believes the same removal treatment should be extended to other federal artworks like the George Washington Monument, the Benjamin Franklin statue, the Andrew Jackson statue, and the Christopher Columbus Fountain.

Once the Jefferson Memorial is “removed, relocated, or contextualized,” the next step will be to demolish Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia. Then paintings and statues of Thomas Jefferson found in museums across America will be put in storage; especially the painting of President Jefferson that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian dedicated to America’s Presidents. Finally, the National Archives public display of the original Declaration of Independence will be closed and the document locked away in a vault never to be seen again.

And why not? New York’s Mayor, his Public Design Commission, and the New York City Council, have all deemed Jefferson to be little more than a filthy slaveholder who “embodied some of the most shameful parts of our country’s long history.” DC Mayor Bowser promised to “advance” the recommendations of her DEFACES group. Not a single Democrat politician in America has criticized the vote to cancel Jefferson in New York. Even Joe Biden, when asked by CNN “journalist” Anderson Cooper on Oct. 21, 2021 if he agreed with the ban, said: “I think that’s up to the locality to decide what they want to do on that.”

All this eradicating history and erasing past leaders reminds me of George Orwell’s novel 1984; a brief passage from the dystopian tale sums it up nicely: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

David d’Angers’ statue of Thomas Jefferson did not “pay homage to a slaveholder.” It payed homage to the man who wrote the following words in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the New York City Council says the Jefferson statue “symbolizes the disgusting and racist basis on which America was founded.” But they ignore the fact that Jefferson’s words and actions launched America’s Republic, where democratic governance by the people is still being perfected today. They deny that Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal,” became a clarion call, a rallying cry for people yearning for liberty.

That cry reached the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, where Spain and France vied for colonial control; Spain ceded the western third of the island to the French, who called it Saint-Dominque (now Haiti). In 1791 the black general Toussaint Louverture led an army of slaves that overthrew the colonialist imposed slave-based system in Saint-Dominque.

“Portrait of Toussaint Louverture.” Artist, Nicolas Eustache Maurin. Lithograph.

“Portrait of Toussaint Louverture.” Artist, Nicolas Eustache Maurin. Lithograph.

John Adams, who opposed slavery, was America’s second president from 1797 to 1801. He not only supported Louverture by recognizing his revolutionary government, he established diplomatic and trade relations with him and provided Louverture with economic and military aid. When rivals attempted a mutiny against Louverture, Adams sent five heavily armed US Navy ships to aid him. American commanders planned joint operations with their black counterparts and even placed US ships and crews under the command of black Haitian officers—it was the first US Navy intervention carried out on behalf of a foreign ally. How’s that for the “disgusting and racist basis on which America was founded”?

An honest question for those “decolonize” activists who are still reading this screed, did President John Adams buttress “whiteness” and “systemic racism” by backing Toussaint Louverture?

While President Adams supported Louverture’s government, Vice President Thomas Jefferson did not. I always found Jefferson’s lack of regard for the Haitian revolution disappointing, but politics has always been a complicated affair. Louverture fought France and allied himself with Spain, until France outlawed slavery in 1794, then he allied himself with France and fought Spain! Adams lost his reelection to Jefferson, who took office as president in 1801. That same year Louverture declared himself leader of Saint-Dominque, but France betrayed him when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the island with 20,000 soldiers in 1802, reinstated slavery, arrested Louverture, and sent him to France where he died in prison. Like I said, politics is a complicated matter.

We cannot change, erase, rewrite, or replicate history. But we can learn from it. As for the moral failings of Thomas Jefferson regarding slavery, I have long taken my cue from the noble African-American patriot and fiery abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In 1852 he delivered a public speech, in which he said the following about Jefferson and the founding fathers:

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”

Douglass went on to say: “I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

I think it plain to see, New York’s mayor, his Public Design Commission, the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the New York City Council, along with the major of Washington DC and many others, even the nation’s president… all have forgotten how to stand by those “saving principles” Frederick Douglass once so eloquently defended.

I was sixteen-years-old in 1967 when I read the oratory of Frederick Douglass excerpted above. It may surprise the reader to learn it came from a keynote address made by Douglass on July 5, 1852 titled What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? Invited to deliver a talk at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass delivered his speech honoring the American Revolution of 1776 to a mostly white audience of 600 people. The speech also contained these fierce words of scornful reproach:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity (….) There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

Contemporary leftists point to that limited passage of Douglass’ speech to reinforce their narrative that America is eternally racist, yet they willfully ignore the rest of what Douglass said. For goodness sake, “this very hour” referred not to the present, but to the timeframe of his speech, which was nine years before the US Civil War (1861-1865). Over 110,000 Union soldiers would die in that war to defeat the Confederates and put an end to slavery. Douglass the escaped slave was exhorting his white middle-class audience to embrace his fellow abolitionists in the same way they cherished the heroes of 1776, and the audience at Corinthian Hall responded with enthusiastic applause.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation is a private nonprofit that maintains the historic Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. Leslie Greene Bowman, President and CEO of the foundation once said: “On the world’s stage, Monticello symbolizes how Jefferson took Enlightenment ideals about the rights of man and crafted them into a new nation introducing self-government, liberty and human equality. As the creator of both Monticello and the Declaration of Independence, he introduced world-changing ideas which have given hope to people everywhere.”

The Foundation has documented both Jefferson’s opposition to slavery and his ruinous compliance with it. The nonprofit brings attention to the fact that he drafted a law in 1778 that banned the importation of African slaves into Virginia, and in 1784 tabled an ordinance that slavery be banned in the Northwest Territories. The Foundation clearly showed that Jefferson advocated the abolition of slavery, stating: “Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was publicly a consistent opponent of slavery. Calling it a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot,’ he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation. Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. These views were radical in a world where unfree labor was the norm.”

But the Foundation is also brutally honest about Jefferson being a walking contradiction on the subject of human bondage. He wrote the glorious words “all men are created equal” yet he enslaved more that 600 people during his lifetime. He was a firm believer in gradual emancipation, an unorthodox position for his time, but for those of us in the 21st century such an incremental path to freedom is unacceptable. Put another way, I have little doubt that 200 years from now—if humans are still around, they will view today’s “progressives” as intolerant reactionaries. Yes, I know… that is already being said today.

The Foundation wrote four candid but unsparing essays on Jefferson’s relationship to the institution of slavery, they should be read by all: Jefferson’s Attitudes Toward Slavery, The Practice of Slavery at Monticello, The Business of Slavery at Monticello, and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account.

As a student of history I began studying the American Revolution of 1776 as a pre-teen in the late 1960s. This was during the highpoint of student radicalism in the US, when many were reading Karl Marx (1818-1883) and the Marxian texts of third-world revolutionaries. But it was not Marx that had a lasting impact upon me, it was Thomas Jefferson. Millennials quote Marx without reading his works or admitting his errors, just as they demonize Thomas Jefferson without reading his writings or even a clear analysis of his role in the Revolutionary War for Independence. Jefferson’s most breathtaking work, the Declaration of Independence, is a sacred text on the right of people to rebel.

The Jefferson Memorial… “removed, relocated, or contextualized.”

The Jefferson Memorial… “removed, relocated, or contextualized.”

I felt things were going awry in the early 1990s when I visited the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. It was near sundown when I arrived, and only a handful of people were on the grounds. I strolled through the 1938 monument, contemplating its design by Neoclassical architect John Russell Pope. Just as I approached the magnificent 19-foot tall bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson created by Rudulph Evans, a small group of black kids set up a giant Boombox portable radio at the foot of the statue… it was blasting the latest hip-hop.

The Bboys had come because of the polished marbled floor, which enabled them to do some really wild break dance head spins and back spins. As I watched the B-boying spectacle, I looked up to see Jefferson’s words carved into the white marble of the memorial chamber. They were from his 1786 Notes of Virginia, and expressed disdain for slavery. As the sun set, Jefferson’s words sank into my consciousness along with the old school hip hop scratch attack… “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”