America’s Most Controversial Works of Patriotic Art


A year ago, for Memorial Day, Fox News aired a story about Steve Penley, an artist whose accomplishments were on view on the sidewalk outside their studio’s building on Sixth Avenue in New York. Consisting mostly of brushy paintings of Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial, the paintings were perfect for a minute-and-a-half news segment that would never be rebroadcast. It was exactly what you would expect a right-of-center news network to seize as a great example of “patriotic art.”

The subjects were recognizable and universally admired, and the depiction was affirming and unbiased. In spite of all their merits, none of these ingredients made the work more likely to linger in the public’s imagination. With the Fourth of July coming up on Thursday, it seems worth noting how many of our culture’s most memorable works had a fair share of detractors.

The funereal Vietnam War Memorial

[Image via Flickr]

When the design was first unveiled, many veterans took the monument’s closeness to the ground and black shade of marble as signs of a funereal anti-war aesthetic. It contrasted jarringly with the purely celebratory style of other war memorials — so much so that at times it seemed as though the monument would never come to fruition. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined such a nihilistic slab of stone,” Senator Jim Webb, a Vietnam veteran and early supporter of the project, said at the time.

Lei Yixin’s boring, arrogant Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the first African American to be honored with a monument on or near the National Mall, the statue of the Georgian minister as a young man was greeted with a wave of excited tension. After it was unveiled, however, artist Lei Yixin’s work was the target of an array of criticisms, most prominently that he had treated his subject’s biography with little warmth or personal nuance.

“Mr. Lei is not hired to offer his interpretation of a subject,” wrote a commenter in the Economist . “On the contrary, he is hired not to interpret, to apply the same psychologically dead and mendaciously indifferent treatment to all his subjects.”

Others took issue with the monument’s use of the paraphrased quote, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness,” which many believed made King sound arrogant. When authorities failed to agree on an appropriate rewording, the quote was removed, and both sides of the monument were re-sanded, at a reported cost of $700,000 to $900,000.

Depression-era labor leaders vs. the Tea Party

[Image via]

On March of 2011, Maine Governor LePage courted a wave of disapproval when he announced that he would be removing a mural depicting Frances Perkins and other Depression-era labor leaders from the hall of the Maine Department of Labor offices, saying the imagery was hostile to the state’s business owners. LePage, who had earned the trust of many Tea Party voters, later complained that he would not have gotten the same negative attention had he chosen to move the mural at a different time. Ultimately, it landed in the Maine State Museum.

Topless George Washington

Given Washington’s reputation as a soft-spoken military leader and believer in Enlightenment-era values, it’s understandable that viewers could have raised an eyebrow or two at Horatio Greenough’s bare-chested rendering of the president. “Did anybody ever see Washington naked!” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote. “It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine, was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.”

V-Day in Times Square

Embraced for decades as an icon of postwar bliss, the image of this kissing couple has been looked on in an increasingly critical light in recent years, with several bloggers and op-ed columnists agreeing that an uninvited, non-consensual act of intimacy between strangers would never be acceptable in the 21st century. “The fact that this much-loved photo is a depiction of sexual assault, rather than passion, is an uncomfortable truth,” wrote an author on Crates and Ribbons, in a post subtitled “The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture.”

Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History

The liberal-minded art-viewing public has always had a hard time with Theodore Roosevelt, a president remembered simultaneously as a liberator, imperialist, lover of the outdoors, environmental opportunist, and fatherly head-patter of the under-represented and disenfranchised. Nowhere is this ambivalence more clear than on the front steps of the American Museum of Natural History, where the horse-riding president is seen followed by a native American wearing a headdress and a shirtless black slave.

When the museum’s murals, dedicated to Roosevelt, were restored in October 2012, many critics believed the museum had fallen short of paying full tribute to this complicated picture. “An immense legacy is arrayed before us, at least in one of his many enterprises,” Edward Rothstein wrote in The New York Times. “But we also see the traces of something else — something avoided, perhaps, a reluctance to explore the man fully while paying him tribute.”

Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads

[Image via CUNY]

When the future governor of the state of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, first conceived a mural to adorn the Rockefeller Center in New York, he was hoping to have a hip, modern artist do the job. He eventually came into contact with Diego Rivera, a left-leaning artist who sought to include a favorable image of Vladimir Lenin in the painting. Their dispute — which ended with the mural’s destruction — was the topic of a classic poem by E.B. White in The New Yorker :

For this, as you know, is a public hall. And people want doves, or a tree in fall, And tho your art I dislike to hamper, I owe a little to God and Gramper. And after all, It’s my wall… We’ll see if it is, said Rivera.

Charles Barron vs. Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson,1834, Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, Bronze.

After he was elected to City Council, as a representative of the Brownsville and New Lots districts in Brooklyn, one of the earliest orders of business for Charles Barron was the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Barron, a former Black Panther, said he was repulsed by the work, and called for it to be replaced by a bust of Malcolm X. “The man is a pedophile,” he told The New York Times. “He raped his slave Sally Hemings; whether it was consensual or not is irrelevant.”

The Last Conquistador

[Image via Flickr]

John Sherrill Houser’s statue of Juan de Oñate, the Spanish explorer, is placed among the largest equestrian statues in the world. It is also one of the most hotly disputed. Although many locals — as well as the Spanish ambassador to the United States — greeted the statue when it was first unveiled in 2007 as a warm symbol of the Southwest’s Spanish heritage, many historians felt it glossed over the bloodiness of early colonial conquest.

“His words succinctly epitomize Spain’s world-view and medieval concept of man and nature,” Robert McGeagh wrote in his book, Juan De Oñate’s Colony in the Wilderness. Part of McGeagh’s discomfort came from Oñate’s letters to the Spanish crown, in which he referred to natives as “bestial nations… which it behooves my King and Prince as a most powerful lord to correct and repress.”

Christopher Columbus’ living room

[Image via The New York Times ]

A similar discomfort about the memory of the first European explorers in North America comes to mind with regard to the statue that stands at Columbus Circle in New York. But the loudest objections didn’t come from Native Americans when the statue was moved to the top of a “living room” installation, six stories in the air, in August of 2011.

At the time, many Italian-Americans stepped forward to say that artist Tatzu Nishi had trivialized the statue’s position and mocked Columbus’s memory. “If the artist had attempted to stage a living room set around the Lincoln Memorial or the Martin Luther King memorial… sensitivities would have been aroused,” John Mancini, executive director of the Italic Institute, was quoted saying. “It’s buffoonery masquerading as art.”