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First, I have to make a disclosure – a proud one. Bruce Ratner, the man whose company paid for the controversial statue of the three firemen raising the flag over Ground Zero, is my brother. He is a respected businessman in New York City, but a man for whom business has never come first.
Instead, the community good was always his first order of business. His donation of the funds to memorialize forever the incredible bravery, gallantry and “the last full measure of devotion” given by the fallen heroes of the Fire Department of New York City is the best evidence of Bruce’s character.
Bruce is neither an artist nor a sculptor of anything, unless it is the lives he has helped shape by years of philanthropy. Bruce did not design the statue. This was as it should have been. Bruce would never, ever try to even suggest how that Department should commemorate its honored ones, living and dead. He simply felt privileged to be able to donate the money, whatever the final design. He still feels privileged.
That being said, I think some of the critics need a lesson in the difference between history and art.
History always aspires to describe what actually happened and why it happened. For history’s sake, it is important that the actual men who raised the flag be remembered – who they were, their names, their backgrounds, their actual service and the strength of character that led them to think of raising Old Glory at that moment in that particular way. That was history, and it belongs to them and the nation. No one will ever or should ever take that away.
But art is different than history. Art aspires to higher truths. It seeks a language – whether with oil on canvas, bronze on a pedestal, or dancing on a stage – that speaks not just to this generation but to all generations that follow. The best of art never pretends to be or tries to imitate a photograph.
Think about this for a moment. Was Abraham Lincoln ever the giant he is depicted as he gazes compassionately out from the Lincoln Memorial? Did he ever really sit in the throne-like chair, like the one he sits in today at the Memorial? Of course not. Daniel Chester French, the sculptor, was aiming at a higher truth about Lincoln’s greatness. It was about his having saved the union and his helping to destroy slavery. These were gigantic deeds, even if Lincoln himself was often awkward and frequently belittled by his contemporaries. Lincoln’s monumental achievements deserved a monument, and everybody who visits the Memorial understands that what French gave the country wasn’t a photo of the president, but a memorial to his greatness. It is one of the great pieces of public art in America.
Consider another example from Europe. When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, was he really suggesting that God had a beard or a human physique? Was he claiming that Creation literally took place by the finger of God touching Adam? Of course not. The great Renaissance artist was simply trying to express higher truths about the miracle and grandeur of Creation, and to put into a human form those deeds that people for all time would be able to easily visualize the miracle.
Well, here’s a newsflash for some of you: Like it or not, the statue of three firemen is also art. If they wanted a photograph, an excellent one already exists. But the sculptor seems to be aiming for something higher than a literal depiction. Perhaps it’s something about the many firemen who died that terrible day; perhaps that the dead (and the living) hailed from every walk of life, every race, every ethnicity. Perhaps more importantly, the sculptor, I think wanted to express something about the unity of all Americans under our flag, a unity that was born again out of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Beauty and art are both in the eye of the beholder. Some may look upon the statue of the firemen and have a different opinion about what it means or what it should say. Certainly if the artist or the city wanted a “true” history, then they might consider a statue for each of the men and women who died that awful day, and somehow place them at the site. But such a thing is not practical and would be probably just a little bit sacrilegious. Instead, something that represents these hundreds of heroes must suffice.
In Washington, D.C., another monument to American freedom is the depiction of the men raising the flag on the slopes of Mt. Suribachi. Of course, it’s the Iwo Jima Memorial. Does it “stand” only for the handful of Americans who raised the flag? Or the Americans who died on that bloody island? Or all the Americans who died in the Pacific War, or perhaps all the Americans who ever sacrificed their lives for their country, whether at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, the Chosin Reservoir or Hue? I’ve been to that monument a dozen times, and I never, ever looked up close to “see” what the race was of the men, even though I know one was a Native American. Given the enormity of what those men did for me, I would be ashamed to even think those thoughts.
For all of you worrying about political correctness, save it for another time. All I care about is the fact that the three firemen depicted raising the flag are true-blue Americans, whatever their complexion.
So, if you want to know who raised the flag, look at the picture.
If you want to know what it meant, see the statue.