Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Spike of Erasure: A Century of Dissembling in Pittsburgh

 A Memorial to Amnesia - Always Already Yesterday's News

Outside the Frick Fine Art Building, in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, sits a fountain that was dedicated on Labor Day (September 2), 1918. “In Loving Memory,” reads an inscription that once wrapped around the base of the fountain, “of Mary E. Schenley, Donor of this Park.” It’s a monument that wants you to believe it is the commemoration of a spontaneous outpouring of affection that gripped the citizens of Pittsburgh a century ago for its long-lost and beloved heiress and benefactress, without whom Schenley Park would not have been possible.

Actually, the creation of the bronze grouping – a lolling Pan and lyre-playing nymph – were an act of class fealty – one final payback by Andrew Carnegie and his two fellow executors of the Schenley estate – for having finagled from the heiress the land necessary to build the Carnegie Institute across the way (Mary herself couldn’t have cared less; she died in 1903, and would have been embarrassed by a public memorial during her lifetime). A Song to Nature doesn’t even sit on donated park land – it sits on acreage expressly purchased by the city for Andy’s Palace of Culture for $75,000 – a princely sum in 1891 – and resting on a now-buried stone arch bridge that cost even more ($112,000).

People who had direct dealings with Mary E. Schenley during her lifetime – tenants in her downtown slums, for instance – knew her as an absentee landlord who preferred London and the south of France to the smoky steel valley where the impoverished paid for her substandard housing. Originally, Andrew Carnegie had wanted to promote the memorial with a “public subscription” (the Edwardian equivalent of crowdfunding) to equal his own contribution, and make the fountain look less of an inside job, but was warned by the no less a politician than the mayor that such a gambit might be “hazardous” – it seemed the great lady was not nearly as beloved among the populace as Carnegie so fervently wanted to believe.

The Schenley fountain, ostensibly a memorial, in fact wanted us to forget – about Mary E. Schenley or Andrew Carnegie – and dwell in a happy Song to Nature, its amnestic effect already at work by the time of its dedication.

This Pittsburgh tradition of mythologizing – or dissembling – continues a century later. Inside the Frick Fine Art Building, a structure built some half-century after the fountain, the University Art Gallery will soon be hosting “Spiked,” an exhibition that will want you to believe it is the spontaneous outpouring of affection by a grateful citizenry for its longtime (and long-lost) editorial cartoonist whose staff position at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was recently eliminated.

Actually, the exhibition is another inside job, this one curated and stage-managed by the cartoonist’s own spouse – herself a PhD graduate from the Department of History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh which oversees the gallery – who was recently hired back by her former dissertation advisor and department chair.

The high-minded issues “Spiked” wants to raise (and is already raising at a “pop-up” version at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., “organized in conjunction with the University Art Gallery”) – journalistic integrity, freedom of speech, censorship, and the like – mask more prosaic and mundane realities: a financially-strapped print journalism industry that can no longer afford the luxury of staff editorial cartoonists, the increasing scarcity of staff positions for graphic artists generally, and even the personal temperament of creatives (can you say primadonna, boys and girls?) that can sometimes hinder working relationships with editors. Such prosaic complications, while mentioned in passing, have been quickly shunted aside, so as to get to the all-important mythologizing.

But far from demonstrating a rapid-response outpouring of love for the victim of the new right-wing regime at the P-G, “Spiked” rather demonstrates the self-serving political connections of a peculiar Pittsburgh Power Couple, long networked into a privileged academic and media elite, now willing to pull out all the stops in an all-hands-on-deck show of resistance (and, one would like to think, a “recess appointment” of sorts made while the more conscientious faculty of Pitt HAA was on vacation).

The rhetorical statement “Spiked” would like to make might have been better served at an independent Pittsburgh art gallery – there are plenty to choose from – preferably one not attached to the University of Pittsburgh, nor paying the cartoonist’s spouse a salary and covering the cartoonist’s health insurance.

All tolled – with professional framing and hanging costs, pricey catering in the Lochoff Cloister for the opening and presumably several more public events including gallery talks and panel discussions, the “organizing” costs related to the “pop-up” exhibit at the Corcoran (including travel?), not to mention the paychecks the curator will continue to collect during the ongoing run-up to and run of the show – “Spiked” is very likely to top $10,000. That’s quite a generous outlay by the University of Pittsburgh – and a flagrant conflict of interest – on behalf of a single Pitt employee and her spouse, the sole beneficiaries of this largess.

But presumably speed and timeliness – deadlines are always a consideration in the world of political cartooning – overrode more polite and genteel considerations, such as integrity and ethics, or maintaining the semblance thereof. Or perhaps – as in the case of Andrew Carnegie and the Schenley Memorial – those concerned with mounting “Spiked” lacked faith in the Pittsburgh citizenry (or themselves), and simply did not want to chance finding out what the local cultural community might really think of the honoree.

A Song to Nature by Victor David Brenner, 1916. Ostensibly a memorial to Mary E. Schenley, it asks us to forget the networks of power and influence that built Andrew Carnegie's Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. More recent public displays of art in that neighborhood plan to continue that amnestic tradition. Photo by Don Simpson.

A fig leaf can yet easily be offered – a handful of rejected cartoons by some of the cartoonist’s colleagues (who still have jobs) would fit nicely into a side hallway in the University Art Gallery where Miss Frick once displayed Asian do-dads, for example. This would ostensibly offer some context for the main exhibit: the former P-G cartoonist’s rejected cartoons (although too much context might dilute the rhetorical message, and worse, divert attention from the main subject: a retrospective of the cartoonist’s oeuvre).

Or perhaps the cartoonist’s media and political friends can belatedly chip in to subsidize such an important show, sparing the taxpayers and other supporters of the University of Pittsburgh the expense – and perhaps salvage a portion of the Department of History of Art and Architecture’s integrity.

On the other hand, such a “public subscription” might fail to materialize – and then what?

Even if “Spiked” were held at another venue, it would still raise some unpleasant questions – no doubt ones the curator and cartoonist would prefer “spiked.” Such as: Wouldn’t the Toonseum, a gallery dedicated to cartoon art, have been a better choice for this exhibit? And didn’t the cartoonist serve as president of the board of trustees of that august institution for most of its ten-year history? And didn’t that board quietly resign en masse over this past winter – and slink off into the night, without so much as a press release – leaving a new, inexperienced regime holding the financially-tattered bag? And wasn’t the first act of that new regime to shutter its downtown location, announcing a “curtains drawn” period of rethink and relaunch, nary to be heard from since? And aren’t foundations and other donors to the Toonseum, who watched their most recent round of funding go down a rat hole, even now demanding reimbursement?

On second thought, Andy, maybe a “public subscription” isn’t such a good idea.

Such distracting considerations aside, there is the more fundamental question of timing.

Because, far from being censored or suppressed, the former P-G cartoonist has probably enjoyed more gallery exposure in Pittsburgh than any cartoonist (living or dead). His work almost continuously adorned the walls of the Toonseum during its ten-year history, with every third exhibit (it seemed) revolving around his and his national editorial cartoonist colleagues’ work (his otherwise feckless presidency of that non-profit being completely incidental, one supposes). As a consequence, this supposedly “spiked” cartoonist is likely the single most frequently exhibited and well-represented artist of any sort in any medium over the past decade in the city of Pittsburgh.

Far from rectifying some perceived injustice, the forthcoming “Spiked” seems poised to only add to the grossly over-weighted preponderance. By the end of 2018, it may be possible to lay digital enlargements side-by-side so as to cover the entire acreage of the former Schenley lands.

It is interesting to note that Mary E. Schenley actually spent precious little of her lifetime living in Pittsburgh. Born and raised in Kentucky, and sent off to a Long Island boarding school as a girl (where she ran off with an Englishman three times her age), her connection to Pittsburgh was mainly one of property and the revenues it produced for her. Even her belated “friendship” with the adoring Andrew Carnegie was based on something he wanted from her – land to build (mostly) a monument to himself.

In the case of the editorial cartoonist, he continues (as of this writing) to live in the Pittsburgh, although he could just as well be cartooning from the Starbucks across from the Old Executive Office Building – or the south of France – for all anyone would know. One thing’s for sure: he has not produced a Brewed on Grant (his weekly local comic strip feature), or any local-themed editorial cartoon, since his employment at the Post-Gazette came to an end. This local dimension to his work, presumably of no national syndication value, seems to have gone absentee.

Unlike a public monument, gallery exhibits are by their nature ephemeral; like yesterday’s news – or editorial cartoons – they are always already forgotten. The Schenley fountain will always be there, inducing us to a nostalgia than never existed, glossing over the realities of slum landlords and strike breakers. “Spiked” too will come and go, effacing its own power relations in the bargain. Pittsburgh will have been treated to yet another innocuous lie – at our own expense.
The City of Pittsburgh ended up paying for half of the Schenley Fountain. For more on the history Schenley Memorial, see my master's thesis and dissertation in the Frick Library –drop in when you go and visit "Spiked."

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