Essay — From the November 2017 issue

Monumental Error

Will New York City finally tear down a statue?

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In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Crippen criticized more than two dozen statues for their aesthetic failures, mocking Beethoven’s frown and the epicene figure of Bertel Thorvaldsen. Yet he took pains to single out the bronze monument to J. Marion Sims, the so-called Father of Gynecology, for its foolish “combination toga-overcoat.” Would visitors really be so hurt, Crippen asked, if the Sims statue, then situated in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, was removed?

A little more than a century later — after it had been refurbished and moved to Central Park — the Sims statue has once again prompted angry calls for its removal. This time, the complaint is not that it is ugly. Rather, East Harlem residents learned that their neighborhood housed a monument to a doctor whose renown stems almost exclusively from a series of experimental surgeries that he had performed, without the use of anesthesia, on a number of young slave women between 1845 and 1849.

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew

Sims was attempting to discover a cure for vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), a common affliction that is caused by prolonged obstructed labor. The timing, nature, and purpose of his experiments make for an impossibly tangled knot of ethical dilemmas. Most prominently, they raise the issue of medical consent. Did Sims obtain consent from his subjects, as he later claimed — and if he did, could a slave truly provide it? What woman would agree to be operated on, without anesthesia, upwards of thirty times? On the other hand, given the horrific nature of VVF, wouldn’t most women endure additional horrors in pursuit of a cure? And without a willing patient, would delicate surgery on a wound barely visible to the eye even be possible? What of the fact that if Sims managed to cure the women, they would be promptly returned to the plantations, where little awaited them but backbreaking work, use as breeders of additional slaves, and state-sanctioned rape?

All these questions came to the surface a couple of months ago, when activists long opposed to the Sims statue linked it to the Confederate war memorials being torn down in cities across America. They staged a protest in front of the statue in August, and an image from the event — four women of color in blood-soaked gowns, representing Sims’s experimental subjects — went viral. Newspaper accounts across the country soon followed. Would the monument to Sims be the very first in New York City to go to the chopping block?

1 Two partial exceptions to this rule are Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, which was removed in 1989, and Frederick MacMonnies’s Civic Virtue Triumphant over Unrighteousness, which was relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery in 2012. In both cases, however, city officials insisted that the decision was practical: Tilted Arc was removed because it was said to block foot traffic, and Civic Virtue for restoration purposes.

That, too, is a more complicated question than it seems. What Crippen noted in 1899 is still true today. Even minor alterations to works of public art in New York City are subject to an arcane system of approval, and there is no formal mechanism in place for citizens to challenge the decisions of earlier times. The governing assumption is that if a memorial has realized permanent form, it represents a consensus that should be preserved. Not a single statue in the history of New York City has ever been permanently removed as a result of official action.1

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is the author of six books. His article “Getting to the End” appeared in the December 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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