Art and Archetype: on Symbolism and Public Space

by Kim Cook

Art Council New Orleans

As Mayor Mitch Landrieu addresses City Council with regard to four monuments representative of the history of racial oppression in the United States, people will emerge with divergent perspectives on this topic. I recognize that I am still relatively new to this city and perhaps as someone not born here I am less entitled to an opinion. Yet I am moved to share my thoughts about the making and placement of art and art in public spaces (including statues, monuments, and public gathering places in this category). As I contemplate these topics I think about two things: what art invokes and what our public places say about our values.

I learned long ago from my mentor in theater, Edgardo de la Cruz, that whenever I stepped out on stage to perform a character, no matter how small or casual the role, that I was invoking an archetype, something bigger than myself, and he taught me to respect the size of the symbol that the character represented. As I proceeded with my graduate studies and did work in various forms including visual art, writing, as well as my first love, performance, I came to understand for myself that every mark made on paper or canvas, every movement in dance or theater, every note sung or word spoken, summons something larger than ourselves. This summoning or calling forth is how the energy of art works; it calls into the world all that it ever meant or can mean for that idea in space and time, past and present. It reverberates. Thus, when we contemplate the continuation of these monuments in public space it is important to recognize that they are bigger than a representation of one individual or one event; they amplify and perpetuate the iconography and history of pain that it is inherent in the story (history) they arose from.

In the sense of art in public spaces, I hold that our public space is where we express how we esteem ourselves and each other. Public space is our collective home, our living room if you will, and it is not acceptable that we would adorn our home with environmental cues that say some of us are less valuable than others. If our monuments, places of public memory, and statues convey a preservation of a past and present racism embedded in our social fabric then we are actively contradicting a collective commitment to progress, equality, and a hopeful future.

There are many ways to celebrate our common roots, our positive trajectory, and our values. Let’s shed the symbols of slavery and oppression and take our passionate commitment for public narrative forward towards the vision we hold for New Orleans. Art can inspire, enhance, and invoke the best in us, let us joyfully and creatively imagine a new iconography for our city, one that is inclusive, progressive, and embraces that which speaks to the whole of our citizens and the unique value of our cultural history.