When Men Become Gods - Alan Wallach

When Men Become Gods - Alan Wallach
When Men Become Gods - Alan Wallach

Alan Wallach writes for Issue 7 of the US libertarian marxist journal. Undated but published late 1978/early 1979.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 3, 2022

[Transcribers note : this was an illustrated essay—the illustrations can be seen in the pdf of this issue]

Lincoln Borglum, whose father Gutzon began the massive faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, fears that in a thousand centuries man may conclude that they represent the gods or mark the tombs of heroes. The younger Borglum, who finished the job after his father died shortly before WW II, wants a hall of records carved into the mountainside, with the history of the U.S. inscribed on its walls—just to get the story straight. (The New York Post, 1 May 1978)

In the West, the tradition of large-scale figure sculpture has come to an end. It is now unlikely that anything comparable to the great works of the tradition will again be made. A number of reasons might be cited to explain this decline : the scale of our cities, modern communications, our over-familiarity with the sight of our leaders, their obvious lack of heroism, the deepening disillusionment of the age. Because of our growing distance from the tradition it is perhaps possible to begin to assess what the tradition meant in the West—and also what it means in China, where it lives on.

Despite an extraordinary cultural diversity, the subjects of monumental figure sculpture were generally limited to gods, heroes and rulers. The meanings associated with these subjects were, in a sense, equally limited. Monumental treatment endowed the subject with an aura of divinity. The superhuman size of the figure as well as the way it was exhibited on a pedestal or within a special precinct removed it from everyday life. The viewer could thus experience it only as part of a mythic realm—a realm exempt from mundane laws of time, change and human scale. In the long run it mattered little whether the subject was king, hero or god. All belonged to the same otherworldly domain.

The power of monumental sculpture to elevate its subject to the timeless realm of the gods was recognized at the beginning of recorded history and exploited, although perhaps not always consciously, for political ends. Often the sculptor emphasized a ruler's special godly attributes or mission—the divine origin of his inspiration or his unique ability to communicate with the gods. For example, in the statue known as Augustus of Primaporta, the Roman emperor is accompanied by a tiny winged figure representing divine genius; or in the case of Girardon's equestrian Louis XIV—a prototype for statues of the king that were erected in all the major cities of France—the king looks to heaven for guidance.

The monumental figure of the ruler made visible a claim of divinity and unassailable power that usually was part of a dominant system of religious and political beliefs. In other words, the statue extended into the realm of visual and spatial experience the dominant ideology of the society that produced it.

By virtue of its physical presence, the statue forced its viewers to define themselves in relation to the abstract power it personified. That power was experienced subjectively in terms of the figure's size, expression and symbolic attributes. But it was also experienced in the way the figure's presence articulated and charged the surrounding space. The figure turned the surrounding space into a ideologically active environment—one in which the only appropriate response could be awed respect. In this sense, all monument figures might be thought of as cult objects since all demanded reverence from their viewers.

What I am saying may become somewhat clearer if you imagine an open space and then add to it a monumental statue. Consider the way the statue, by becoming the focal point, transforms the meaning of the space and your relation to it.

At first the feelings inspired by a monumental figure of a ruler may have been ambivalent—a wavering between the protection it offered and its inherent threat. With time, however, the statue and the aura of divinity surrounding it were accepted as a normal part of experience. To the extent the dominant ideology shaped experience, the meanings the statue embodied appeared consistent with and therefore as a continuation of other aspects of experience. Thus its ideological function generally went unnoticed even as it added to the force of the ideology. (If this seems paradoxical, try to imagine as ideological any large-scale figure sculpture that is normally part of your environment—for example, the sculptures in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art.) Only when the ideology as a whole was called into question, as in moments of revolutionary upheaval, would the supremely ideological character of the statue be fully revealed. This may explain why opposition to an ideology so often included iconoclasm—for example, in the French Revolution, or in anti-colonialist struggles.

Yet if the statue survived the destruction of the ideology that had been its raison d'etre, it necessarily lost its original cult function. The museums are filled with monumental figure sculptures that are normally experienced as part of contemporary ideologies (Our Cultural Heritage, Civilization, etc.). In the context of the museum, or rather in the context of a culture in which the museum has become the primary art institution, the work has been placed in the service of a new cult—the modern, Western cult of art—which endows it with a new aura.

What I have been attempting to describe are two ways of seeing monumental figure sculpture : in terms of the traditional relations between the figure and the ideology that gave it meaning; in terms mediated by the art institutions of modern, Western culture. These two ways of seeing, although they frequently coexist within a given society (e.g., religious shrines and archaeological museums), are mutually exclusive : each is unimaginable from the viewpoint of the other. For example, educated Europeans and Americans often react with horror when they first encounter idolatry. Horror results not because of intellectual or religious prohibitions but because, for the spectator, the worshipper's ritual activity in front of the statue appears absurd.

In China, the authorities have set up thousands of over-life-size white marble statues of Mao Tse-tung. These statues are probably the most unobtrusive monumental figure sculptures ever made. With their compact shapes, immaculate, machine-tooled surfaces and limited repertory of poses—Mao in an overcoat holding rolled-up blueprints, Mao in a "Mao jacket" with arms behind back, etc.—they recapitulate the bureaucratic virtues of orderliness, uniformity, impersonality, efficiency, control. Impassive, aloof, Mao makes almost no claims upon the viewer. He is simply there, a ghostly, paternal presence.

The term "cult of personality" partially expresses the meaning of these works. They contribute to a system of belief which is further supported by other forms of artistic celebration : poems, songs, paintings, embroideries, billboard portraits, etc. Mao is the central figure in a ubiquitous iconography of political power—an iconography that includes other leaders (Hua Kuo-feng, Chou En-lai, Chu Teh); heroes of production (e.g., Iron Man Wong, the Chinese Stakhanov); the People, usually represented genre-style, as types; political villains, always caricatured (e.g., the Gang of Four). And yet, with the exception of occasional monuments to the anonymous "heroes of the people", Mao is the only figure to be memorialized in stone. The strength of the Mao cult is further attested by the recently constructed tomb in Peking where his embalmed and painted body is solemnly displayed, as if to confirm Mao once was flesh.

The cult of personality reflected Mao's enormous ambitions. With his death, the cult became purely an expression of the state power he had for so long dominated. The current leadership opposed Mao's policies while he was alive (and no doubt heaved an enormous sigh of relief at his passing). That it has chosen to maintain the cult—at least for the time being—reveals how irrevocably Mao symbolized the authority of the state at the time of his death.

I remember now the statue I saw in January at the entrance to the People's Park in Loyang. It is not hard to imagine the park in spring : families crossing the narrow bridge over the Jin He River on their way to the menagerie and hothouses; the flowers; crowds of people enjoying a day off. The white figure on its pedestal, a distant, looming presence—above them yet in the midst of their lives. When men become gods. . .

Alan Wallach
May 1978
A somewhat different version of this article is appearing in
Art in America.