At a fundamental level, art is intended to elicit an emotional state. Statues in public spaces in particular are lightning rods for controversy, possibly due to the implication that the piece will remain for a significant period of time or that some community value is manifested physically by the statue itself.
However, there are just some statues that everyone seems to hate (or at least love to hate). Beauty may indeed be in the eye of the beholder, but for some of the statues below, only the sculptor’s mother may have applauded at the unveiling.
Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue (photograph by Brent Moore)
A common nominee for biggest eyesore in Nashville, Tennessee, this gold and silver disaster along the highway depicts none other than one of the key founders of the Ku Klux Klan (General Forrest’s defenders usually counter that the Klan didn’t become such an overtly white supremacist group until later, but this is splitting racial hate hairs). The statue is surrounded by thirteen poles, each of which used to fly confederate flags.
And yes, he is dual wielding a sword and a pistol, and awfully delighted about it.
photograph by Brent Moore
Massachusetts, United States
Burnside Fountain (Photograph via Wikimedia)
The Burnside Fountain in Worcester, Massachusetts, allegedly depicts a young boy riding a turtle. For those of us with our minds deeply drenched in the gutter (hello, everyone), this statue depicts a clear act of man-turtle loving.
The background of this fountain dregs up some morbid bits and bobs. Architect Henry Bacon, who later was the architect for the Lincoln Memorial, put together the plan for this fountain, and the piece was assigned to sculptor Charles Y. Harvey. Around a week after beginning the sculpture, Harvey began hearing voices ordering him to kill himself. He eventually was found in a park along the river with the two razors that he used to slit his own throat. Another sculptor, Sherry Fry, completed the statue and the finished artwork was installed in Central Square with no dedication ceremony or unveiling.
photograph by Rafaelgarcia/Wikimedia
Washington, United States
Christopher Columbus (photograph by Hubert K)
It’s unclear why a favorite “discoverer” of countries has a statue in Seattle of all places, facing a body of water he would perhaps never have dreamed of existing. The statue was soundly rejected by the local Arts Commission of Seattle, but the Seattle City Council overruled the people who could have averted this disaster. Christopher Columbus’ alien-robot doppelganger was the first statue by local Douglas Bennett, who said he wanted to depict Columbus as gaunt and worried. Bennett allegedly never received a commission to sculpt again.
via City of Seattle
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, United States [TBD]
Satan with two children (via Satanic Temple)
For a statue that does not yet exist, it has certainly drawn a lot of controversy. In protest of the existing monument of the Ten Commandments, the Satanic temple has asked the grounds committee for the Oklahoma State Capitol to permit the placement of a privately funded statue of Satan in a Baphomet form, complete with pentagram and two children.
Any decision on the statue’s installation will have to wait until the current ACLU lawsuit to remove the Ten Commandments statue is resolved. According to the Temple, the statue will have a lap for visitors to sit in for Kodak moments.
Triumph of Civic Virtue
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Triumph of Civic Virtue (Photograph by Jim Henderson)
Long derided as sexist, this statue by Frederick MacMonnies depicts a nude male depiction of “Civic Virtue” standing astride Vice and Corruption, represented by two female sirens prone on the ground. First unveiled in 1922 outside New York City’s City Hall, then-Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia banished it to Queens, allegedly due to his exasperation of being “mooned” by the rather shapely buttocks of the nude Civic Virtue.
After nearly a century of bickering and wrangling between defenders and detractors of the piece, “Triumph of Civic Virtue” was finally banished in 2012 to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Civic Virtue in the cemetery (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
Wellesley, Massachusetts, United States
Sleepwalker (photograph by Lorianne DiSabato)
When first installed, some students at the all-women Wellesley College reported feeling disturbed or even threatened by the realistic statue of a balding man shambling across the snowy lawn in his tighty-whities. More than a hundred students signed a petition requesting that the university administration remove it immediately, citing concerns about triggering sexual assault fears and undue stress.
Despite the controversy, on February 20, 2014, the president of Wellesley College announced that the college will keep “Sleepwalker” where it stands until the end of its temporary exhibition this spring.
Sleepwalker & a snowman (photograph by Lee Toma)
Prague, Czech Republic
Proudy (via Wikimedia)
The Czech artist David Černý has built his career on challenging sculptures that leave few social mores sacrosanct. With “Proudy” (“Streams”), two animatronic sculptures in front of the Kafka Museum piss continuously into a puddle shaped like the Czech Republic. Microchips in these two satisfied-looking statutes allow the precisely aimed streams of water (moving hips and penises and all) to be used in writing out famous quotations from Czech literature.
Jesus the Homeless
Davidson, North Carolina, United States
Jesus the Homeless (via Shellpoint Baptist Church)
This statue of a man sleeping on a park bench with a blanket against the cold fits right into any city’s skid row panorama. Unfortunately for the upscale denizens of Davidson, North Carolina, the statue is here to stay, and a closer look at its metal feet reveals crucifixion wounds that identify the subject as none other than Jesus, son of God.
When first installed, the statue prompted calls to the police requesting that they remove the vagrant, outcries that the piece demeans the neighborhood, and grumblings that this particular portrayal of Jesus is rather insulting.
“Jesus the Homeless” is intended as a visual depiction of a biblical passage in which Christ instructs his followers, “As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” Other communities have been more enthusiastic about the statue, with requests for additional casts in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Apparently even Pope Francis might approve of one installed on the Via della Conciliazione, the road leading into St. Peter’s Basilica.
San Diego, California, United States
Unconditional Surrender (via US Navy)
When this 25-foot statue by J. Seward Johnson II was approved, two of the 12 members of San Diego’s Public Art Committee resigned in protest, and a third threatened to join them. Even the remaining board members admitted that the sculpture did not quite represent fine art at its best, but cited the fervent stream of visitors who loved to take pictures in front of it.
The kissing couple depicts a famous Life magazine photo of a sailor embracing a woman in Times Square on the day that Japan announced its surrender at the close of World War II. Fittingly, even the photo itself comes with a whiff of controversy because the woman in the picture, Greta Friedman, explained that she was “grabbed by a sailor. . . . I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight.” In other words, a drunk sailor delirious with celebrating the war’s end, grabbed a random woman and made out with her, leading some to question whether a statue should be erected to celebrate a non-consensual act of intimacy.