Monday, May 30, 2011

Art History I: Memorial Day Edition

As we remember those who serve, Indianapolis has the distinction of having one of world's largest war memorials located at the geographic center of the city and state - the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument. This memorial, dedicated in 1902, is often taken for granted, which is understandable despite its presence (at some point you just kind of accept it's there and move on).

Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Back in 1998, fresh out of architecture school, I had the unique opportunity to work on a round of renovation work on the Monument to prepare it to receive the Colonel Ely Lilly Civil War Museum. I investigated its history and spent some time at the Monument studying its architecture, but especially its statuary which is quite remarkable for its allegorical power.

The west side is a homecoming scene - a soldier returning to his family (not visible here but in the linked image) with the allegorical figure of Columbia (holding in her left hand the shield of the Union - "E pluribus unum") leading the returning victors. At her feet, a grateful freed slave offers up his shackles as farmers and tradespeople carry on their tasks. A victorious angel oversees all, marking, presumably, the Almighty's approval. The background also includes a tree and what must be a sunrise (consider that you view the tableau facing east) of a New Dawn.

In researching this article, I learned of a controversy regarding a current Indianapolis art project that would have appropriated the image of the freed slave in a new piece by Fred Wilson:

I believe the piece to be smart and provocative as it can be viewed from the Monument (though the Homecoming tableau is on the west face and the new piece is east of the Monument) and the appropriation - and statement - are clear. As counterpoint, I'd like to offer another famous flag-bearing Indianapolis figure:

"Pro Patria" (Henry Hering) faces downtown from the steps of the Indiana War Memorial. the subject of Wilson's sculpture, were he standing, would direct evoke Pro Patria and begin to tell a story of victory over adversity.
The east side features a group of soldiers tending to a fallen comrade. Above them Columbia again watches over, bearing a torch leading onward the troops behind her. The march forward is irresistible. There is no doubt whatsoever about the outcome.

Atop the Monument, yet another Columbia stands ready with torch and sword in hands. One popular fable has her facing south to guard against a possible second uprising, but I prefer to think the architect Bruno Schmitz just thought it nice to have her face the sun.

"Lady Liberty" and Columbia are synonymous and represent the embodiment of American ideals. Images of the Monument when viewed alongside John Gast's painting make clear where our collective head was at in the late 1800s. The maintenance of the Union and the concept of Manifest Destiny are linked here, and not very subtly. The painting suggests the displacement of Native Americans and the conquering of Nature.

File:American progress.JPG

Like all great public art the Monument works at several levels to tell several stories at once. They are products of their time and must be viewed that way. There are some who would seek to retell or redact the stories they feel do not conform to today's mores. This is ironic in that the Monument memorializes, however imperfectly, thousands of citizens who died, at least in part, to preserve the Nation's values, the greatest of which is the freedom to express ones self.


Memorial Day Thoughts...

People often wish each other "Happy Memorial Day!," which to me is a clear indication they are not aware of the meaning of the day. That's especially sad considering that we have been in a de facto state of war (in that Americans are fighting on behalf of national interests) since October 2001 when we invaded Afghanistan - nine years and seven months. For some perspective, that's longer than World War II and the Korean Conflict combined. Only our involvement in Vietnam (~1954 - 1975) has lasted longer.
Almost everyone knows someone who is currently serving, or knows someone who has a family member serving. One would like to think we would be a little more mindful of the significance of the day.

I also sadly see some taking advantage of this national day of remembrance to pass moral judgment or to make pronouncements about US warriors' injustice or atrocities. This is a sad confusion. Not to diminish the horrors of war, but it's critical we separate cause from effect, and the deeds of an individual from those of the whole.

Memorial Day is not about whether our warriors' mission was correct or moral. That's not a warrior's decision to make - that comes from his or her civilian leaders, which is a different discussion entirely. Once a warrior is under orders, she or he has two choices - obey or be punished. Some do choose punsihment over obeying an order they feel is invalid or immoral (a very special kind of bravery to be sure), but we do not expect this, nor do we ask it.
What we are memorializing today is their willingness to serve and possibly be injured or die on our behalf, whether we ask them to or not. As far as I'm concerned, today we could as well honor ALL civil servants who put themselves in harm's way for us: police, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, et. al.
Hopefully, one day, our leaders will get over themselves, see the middle east for what it is, and walk away from it. They just want to be left alone. Just like (most of) us.

Our armed services are made up of volunteers from our communites. Whatever our thoughts about the morality of war, we should at least be grateful for their willingness to serve. We should keep them in our thoughts and prayers and wish them a safe and happy homecoming as soon as possible.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Fuel Prices...


I feel that I am more than qualified to speak on this topic as I'm one of the unfortunate many who must commute to work and do not have a mass transit option. This means I drive. A lot. I live in Yorktown, Indiana, near Muncie (cue the Close Encounters theme) and work in Indianapolis. My daily commute is 108 miles. At one time I drove a hand-me-down Buick Park Avenue (not my first choice but I can't argue with FREE CAR) that got a respectable-for-its-size 27mpg. One of my coworkers questioned my green cred for 1) driving a gas hog and 2) not living closer to work in the first place. After some defensive behaviour and rationalization, I realized he did have a good point, but there was only so much I could do to address it.

Here's what we did: In the summer of 2009 we sold the Park Avenue and traded in our other hand-me-down dog-hauler 1987 Chevy Astro under the "Cash for Clunkers" program for a 2010 Toyota Prius. I drive moderately and do as little extra driving as possible. I've halved my fuel use.

There is a lot of discussion about the price of fuel now. I'm not sure why the trigger was $4.00 a gallon. There's nothing magic about it. It's tied directly to the price of crude oil and the price of gasoline in the global market. Supply, demand and futures traders all impact it.

Proposed energy legislation would initiate a cap and trade program that would raise the price of carbon-based fuels to help offset the environmental impacts of their use. While the impact on households of such a tax would be fairly limited, there is an outcry that it would be an undue burden at a time of economic uncertainty, falling wages and increasing energy market prices.

Based on what I see in driving behavior, I can argue that gas prices are not high enough! On my daily commute to Indy and back, I still see solo drivers in SUVs and pickup trucks speeding (75mph on I-69 is pretty common), racing from one red light to the next (Binford Boulevard), jack-rabbit starts followed by slamming on brakes (downtown).

I see engines idling at the ATM and driveup bank, while pumping gas (not only ironic but unsafe) and while the cars' owners are inside the C-store stocking up on smokes and lottery tickets. And this is in spring and fall, not the dead of winter with a baby on board to keep warm.

While working in my yard at the entrance of our housing addition, over the course of several hours, I'll watch some of my neighbors make three or four trips of short duration. They almost are invariably driving an SUV or minivan.

This behavior not only wastes increasingly precious and costly resources - not only oil but money!, but also adds to pollution. There are no shortage of online resources sharing ways to reduce gas consumption and none of them represent a sacrifice of any kind. There is no reason to not do it.

Before we complain too much about the price of gas, we should first stop, observe our behavior and ask what we can do to reduce our consumption. We can't all buy the latest hybrid, or move closer to work, or take public transportation, but if we're not doing all we can do, we've no right to complain.



Gas Mileage Tips
Waxman-Markey Clean Energy Act