Remembering or Erasing The Past? The HAA Department Responds to Stephen Foster Memorial

The Stephen Foster sculpture in front of Carnegie Museum in Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Photo by Aaron Henderson.


Remembering or Erasing The Past? The HAA Department Responds to Stephen Foster Memorial

Author: Ben Ogrodnik

2017-2018 Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education

During a volatile political climate, where public attention has scrutinized the meaning and origins of Confederate public sculptures across the country, students and faculty at University of Pittsburgh’s History of Art department have weighed in on a local monument, the Stephen Foster Memorial, which contains a controversial depiction of Foster above a black slave.

A group of faculty and students from HAA recently attended community meetings, held on October 4 and 25, debating the fate of the Memorial, organized by Pittsburgh’s art commission. Since the Race-ing the Museum workshop, the history and future of this Oakland sculpture has been a lighting rod of discussion in the Pitt academic community.

The recent hearings on the monument have generated thoughtful dialogue on race relations in Pittsburgh, and on ways of remembering the US history of slavery in ways that do not silence or white-wash the exploitation of African Americans.

Kate Joranson, Head, Frick Fine Arts Library, attended the public hearings, and remarked: 'While listening to the public comments, I found myself wanting to participate despite not having prepared comments in advance. I ended up sharing that in addition to the choice as to whether to remove the statue, the art commission has a companion choice to make: Who’s voices will they choose to amplify?.'

History of Art graduate student, Sarah Connell, also attended the events and reflected that, 'I was particularly struck by the misunderstanding of the statue as an objective record of a real event or a portrait of a specific African American, rather than a fabricated character or stereotype.' However, Connell observed, on a more hopeful note, 'I was encouraged by the large number of people who attended the public hearing and by how overwhelming the comments called for the relocation of the work.'

As a result of the department’s participation in this event, Professors Kirk Savage and Shirin Fozi led the drafting of a letter that was sent to the Art Commission of Pittsburgh, advocating the removal of the Stephen Foster statue. On Wednesday, October 25, 2017, the commission unanimously voted to take down the statue.

Despite the arguments for keeping the 117-year-old bronze statue, which ultimately lost out, Katie Lynn Loney astutely noted that the removal of the sculpture does not equate to the erasure of history or loss of Pittsburgh pride in local artwork or historical figures. To the contrary, the conversations around the memorial have renewed an interest in the meaning of historical representation and how memorials can lose purchase or significance with the passage of time.

As Loney stated, 'Those advocating for the statue’s removal, showed that they were well aware of the statue’s power to degrade African Americans and to support white supremacy. While people [at the hearings] showed that they were ashamed (and a couple proud) of the memorial and the historical moment of its production, I was particularly struck by everyone’s awareness of the memorial's contemporary presence and what it says about our community to celebrate the statue in public space.'

Here is the letter by Savage and Fozi, co-signed by 40 members of the HAA department:

October 9, 2017

The Art Commission

City of Pittsburgh

Dear commissioners:

We are writing as faculty and graduate students of the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh. We encounter the Stephen Foster statue on a daily basis. Over the years several of us have brought classes, colleagues, and other groups there to learn and to spark discussion. We have had numerous discussions about the statue in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. After considerable thought we have concluded that the statue must be removed from its place of honor in Schenley Plaza.

While we bring a certain specialized knowledge to this debate, we write with due humility, knowing that our voice is one among many legitimate voices in our public sphere. Many of us attended the public meeting on October 4 and listened carefully to the voices in that room. This letter also responds to that public dialogue.

The key problem with the Stephen Foster statue is not the man himself (though his music isn’t without controversy), but the imagery on the monument. It is the inverse of the Confederate monument problem. There the controversy is almost never about the mode of representation; Confederate statues take the same poses and styles as Union statues do. The Confederate problem arises instead from the men being represented – what they stood and fought for. In Foster’s monument, the problem is almost entirely about the representation itself and its racial storyline. In the public discussion, these two issues – the man and the monument – often become confused with one another, yet they need to be pulled apart in order to move the conversation forward.

If we survey the whole array of public monuments in the U.S., the Foster statue stands as one of the most outrageous racial representations ever erected in public space in this nation. There is truly nothing quite like it anywhere.

Why? Because of the black banjo player and his juxtaposition with the white genius Stephen Foster in a conspicuous narrative of inspiration/appropriation. The barefoot, ragged black banjo player was a common stereotype in minstrel shows and print culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. 'Uncle Ned' does not refer to a real individual, but to a caricatured figure that Foster invented for a song published in 1848. The song, like so many other works of art, music, and literature of its time, depicts Ned as a faithful servant whose 'hard work' earns the affection of those who have enslaved him, painting a sentimental and harmonious picture of a horrific historical reality. Yet it is here in Pittsburgh, for the first and only time, that this delusional stereotype entered the high-art realm of public sculpture.

The only reason for putting Uncle Ned into bronze was to magnify the elevated genius of Stephen Foster. In the composition he appears as the intellectual in the act of composing, his eyes lost in thought, as he perches upright on a rock in gentlemen’s attire protected from the ground by a cloth underneath him. Uncle Ned, seated below him, is his opposite: a natural entertainer, in direct contact with the ground, his mouth open in song revealing the gaps in his teeth, his bare foot slung over his knee in a pose that slouches informally. All these oppositions are consistent, and are immediately and unthinkingly absorbed as racial difference. And difference here is not horizontal but vertical and hierarchical. White/black, up/down, culture/nature, thinker/entertainer, gentleman/pauper, master/slave: all these binaries combine to communicate a clear racial storyline that confirms the superiority and power of white culture.

The monument is not really about Stephen Foster, but about the need of white elites in the Gilded Age to transform Foster into a culture hero, to rebrand him and the city of Pittsburgh in the process. And the most effective way they knew to make that transformation was to insert the good plantation 'darky' and the racial hierarchy he evoked.      

During the public meeting, we heard this refrain in favor of the sculpture: Stephen Foster was a good man because he valued black music and because he recognized that enslaved people had feelings just like regular people do. We don’t agree that white people deserve congratulations for realizing that enslaved people are in fact people. But quite apart from that, we want to return the issue to the representation itself. The sculpture does not in fact focus on their shared humanity, but on the unbridgeable divide between their two worlds. Even if 'Uncle Ned' is Foster’s muse – again a point of controversy because Ned could just as easily be seen as Foster’s own creation, not inspiration – the muse serves only to spark the great man who represents a higher order of civilization. There is no level playing field here between black music and white music. It is one-way road from the primitive to the civilized, through the territory of appropriation.

This is a racial storyline that falsifies history and hurts everyone by perpetuating the very racial thinking that has always justified slavery and segregation. It does not take special training to recognize its basic storyline: the racial hierarchy is out there for all to see.

We do not advocate for destruction or even 'censorship' of this insidious narrative. We simply want to withdraw it from its place of honor in public space. Ideally the sculpture would be relocated to a museum space where it could be recontextualized and reinterpreted in relation to the difficult issues of racial slavery and segregation that the monument both raises and obscures.


Kirk Savage, William S. Dietrich II Professor

Shirin Fozi, Assistant Professor

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