By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
I dont have the details; but Im not sure they matter.
By the time you read this, my guess is that this story will have been all over the news.
Let me explain.
We have this shower radio at home and I keep it tuned to CBS news
thats how I get my first news fix of the day. However, the shower is large,
boxlike, tiled and sound reverberates sometimes with the water running, you get
only half a story if youre not really focused. I dont usually really focus
The news story, from what I can piece together, is concerning the
commissioning and erection of a statue of the three firefighters raising the flag at
Ground Zero. Apparently, to pay tribute to those fallen and our heroes of the Sept. 11
tragedy, an Iwo Jima-like statue has been commissioned of the three firemen who
spontaneously, creatively and courageously raised the flag over the rubble of the World
Trade Center site.
|The two historic flag-waving
photos: (left) Flag raising at Iwo Jima and (above) Firefighters at Ground Zero are on the
cover of recently published books.
You all recall the incredible symbolism of the Iwo Jima
Memorial which portrayed American courage during the Second World War. To Americans of
this war on terrorism, the moment captured by Bergen Record photographer Tom
Franklin, seems to convey a similar pride in our people and their heroism and patriotism.
Of all the images of those tragic moments of Sept. 11 and the months
that followed, this one is etched the deepest in the American psyche and closest to the
American heart. It has brought many an emotional tear.
Now, the rub: The statue has been commissioned depicting a white, a
black and a Hispanic firefighter even though it was three white firegfighters who actually
won the moment and our hearts.
The debate has just begun and I think it is a wonderful debate:
historical accuracy vs. political correctness. Or is it truth against hope; or reality as
opposed to interpretation; or racism vs. brotherhood. The spinmeisters can and likely will
go crazy with this one.
Gee, I could take either side.
First of all, considering the tragic moment, the effort of NYC
firefighters Dan McWilliams, George Johnson and Billy Eisengrein symbolized to us more
than any thing else words, deeds, or pictures our national resolve to
overcome the Sept. 11 tragedy. Yes, timing is everything and they were there.
The soldiers that climbed the hill at Iwo Jima and are preserved
forever in bronze were heroes in the right place at the right time. The credit is theirs.
A photographer was in the right place at the right time and exercised
his craft with creativity and skill. The image his camera captured became the bronze
sculpture that is probably as well known as any in our nation.
Since the firefighters stood at Ground Zero and raised the flag, their
moment has been likened to the Iwo Jima moment.
The front of the holiday greeting card I received from my friends at
the Bergen Record, the paper he shot it for, was this powerful image. Ive
seen it in magazines, on TV and emails. It adorns the cover of a new book, "Ground
Zero Spirit (shown on this page). Photographer Tom Franklin has made the rounds on
interview shows. His image is legendary Americana already . . . and there arent that
How can it be altered?
The losses suffered in that greatest of American tragedies were as
multicultural and multinational as our City itself. The heroes at home, in the form of
those brave firefighters and the police and EMS workers, and our heroes abroad who
prosecuted the war in Afghanistan and will continue the war on terrorism have skin of
The funerals and memorial services over the past four months were said
in remembrance of blacks, Hispanics, white, Christians, Jews, Muslims. Should a memorial
be more inclusive than reality?
The controversial statue based on the Franklin photo is to be erected
at the Fire Departments Brooklyn headquarters in tribute to the 343 firefighters
killed in the attack. The decision to represent different races was made by the Fire
Department and Forest City Ratner, the property-management company that owns the
department headquarters building and commissioned the work.
Incidentally, less than 6 percent of the Citys firefighters are
black or Hispanic. Now theres a story worth looking into.
Perhaps the Fire Department should recruit minority members instead of
carving their faces into statues.
This City seems to be getting into controversies over the political
correctness of art with some frequency. We all remember Mayor Giulianis attempt to
dictate political and religious correctness to the Brooklyn Museum.
The tale of Queens County, political correctness and the statue of the
boroughs namesake is abridged from my column of April 26th of last year:
Catherine of Braganza: Politics And The Arts
The misadventures of the beleaguered statue of Queen Catherine of
Braganza seem to be a never-ending story. The homeless 35-foot statue of the Queen for
whom our borough is named was originally commissioned by the Friends of Queen Catherine to
be erected in Long Island City overlooking the East River.
A casting of the statue of Queen Catherine of Braganza, the namesake of the
Borough of Queens. Political correctness made her homeless.
Manuel de Sousa of the Friends of Queen Catherine headed the
decade-long cooperative effort, funded largely by the people of Portugal, birthplace of
Catherine who became the Queen of England. Beep Claire Shulman secured the plot of land
from the Port Authority, and Long Island artist Audrey Flack won a design contest and was
selected in 1995 to sculpt the Queen. Tallix Inc. was retained as the foundry to fabricate
progressive bronze casts of the Flack sculpture and to make the final bronze full-scale
Other than some grumbling as to the artistic beauty of the sculpture
it was plain ugly and old fashioned the project went along smoothly until
1998 when some black groups protested the monument observing that Queen Catherines
family had engaged in slave trade.
Under some pressure, eight years and several castings into the project,
Shulman withdrew her support and the offer of the site for the statue to be erected.
Tallix stopped work and the head of the 35-foot Queen was left outside on a scrap heap.
Some attempts to complete it were made unsuccessfully.
Its now more than a decade since de Sousa and his Friends of
Queen Catherine first made the offer to the people of Queens to erect a statue of the
Queen for whom their borough is named.
That offer was accepted and 10 years and $10 million later, we see the
results of politics intruding into the arts.
Mr. de Sousa and the people of Portugal are owed an apology.
The statue deserves a home.
Even ugly art should not be judged politically.
Politics And Art
Taking a page from the Fire Departments code of artistic and
political liberty, Helen Marshall could perhaps resolve one of the biggest controversies
of the Shulman years by fulfilling the commitment to the people of Portugal and finally
erecting the statue of Queen Catherine of Braganza while addressing those who object to
her familys involvement in the slave trade.
She could get sculptress Flack to give Queen Catherine African
features. Who knows, maybe there was some African blood hidden in her lineage? Surely the
suggestion that the Queen for whom our borough is named might have had black ancestry
might make her more palatable to those who convinced Shulman to abandon the plan.
Last week we reported that the painting of Queen Catherine would no
longer hang in Borough Hall. Dan Andrews, a spokesperson for Helen Marshall, Queens
first African American borough president, said, "Marshalls plan is to reach out
to Queens artists to shop around for ideas . . . that would reflect the diversity of
Last month, newly-elected Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron
called for the replacing of a painting of slave-owner President Thomas Jefferson that
hangs in City Hall with one of Malcolm X.
Rudy wanted his image of the Virgin Mary and not the one depicted by an
artist on the walls of the Brooklyn museum.
The Fire Department wants the heroic firefighters who raised the flag
at Ground Zero on Sept. 11 to be remembered as white, black and Latino.
Ive asked the Trib art department to reduce my
waist by six inches, take the gray out of my hair and give me a bit of that Richard Gere
chiseled chin. Youll understand if the sketch in my column changes next week.
Now, dont get me wrong, Im not taking sides at least
not too strongly on this latest revision of history.
I dont violently object if the Fire Department wants to modify
reality for their statue of tribute.
Id suggest that maybe they ought to modify their recruiting
But if we are revising history, why have three firemen?
If it was the last City administration, we might have seen a fireman, a
Mayor and a New York Yankee raising the flag.
Or, how about a newspaper columnist, a stripper and a chef? You can
pick their colors.