President of Friends of Seagate provides details — and images — to underscore assertions about the real history of the statue
Offering detailed perspectives on events that occurred decades apart, a nonprofit historic preservation group in Sarasota figuratively has fired the first volley in what likely will be a battle over the future location of Unconditional Surrender.
Friends of Seagate Inc. wants to ensure the statute is removed permanently from Sarasota’s bayfront. And the nonprofit’s leader has offered a wealth of details documenting the reality behind the famous photograph on which Unconditional Surrender was based. Those who have objected over the years to the depiction of an assault in New York City in 1945 have been derided by those who “think [the statue] is cute,” Friends of Seagate President Kafi Benz indicates.
In a June 16 letter addressed to the City of Sarasota’s Public Art Committee, Benz referenced a task the City Commission gave the committee members a couple of weeks ago: conducting discussions that will lead to a recommendation on where Unconditional Surrender should be placed temporarily while a roundabout is constructed at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue. That project is set to begin in May 2021.
Moreover, the commissioners asked the Public Art Committee members to offer recommendations on a permanent new home for the statue.
City staff had explained that both Unconditional Surrender and John Henry’s Complexus, which stands east of the U.S. 41/Gulfstream Avenue intersection, have to be moved out of the way of construction. As of the June 1 City Commission discussion, staff proposed keeping both pieces in safe storage in a facility overseen by the city’s Utilities Department.
“A decade ago,” Benz wrote in her June 16 letter, “your public art committee unanimously recommended against accepting [Unconditional Surrender] and the reasons for that recommendation have not changed. In fact,” she added, “a contemporary turn of events lends more weight to making the same recommendation.”
“The factors that you should consider include both artistic issues and social issues,” Benz continued.
City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out to the commissioners on June 1 that the City Commission vote to accept the loan of the statue on the bayfront was 3-2. (The loan was for 10 years; with the term having expired, criteria in the agreement made the city the owner of the statute.)
The following are the artistic issues Benz noted in her letter about Unconditional Surrender’s future:
- “It is a copyright infringement of the work of a photographer of national stature.
- “The statue is not ‘art’ — it is a manufactured object that never was touched by an artist,” as technicians in China used a machine to produce it, Benz wrote.
- “It is not an original work, as stipulated in the guidelines for public art in this city,” Benz added, noting that “multiple copies of this manufactured object were distributed to several locations, and Sarasota was not even the first to receive one.
- “It is quintessential kitsch, the antithesis of fine art.
Benz also elaborated on the “social issue” at the heart of the Friends of Seagate’s belief that the statue should be removed from the bayfront for good: Unconditional Surrender “is the romanticizing of a violent domination that resonates clearly, adversely affecting those who have suffered such domination and potentially encouraging confusion about behavior that should be discouraged in a healthy society.”
She encouraged the Public Art Committee members to read a document she had attached, titled Ignorance is no excuse.
That document explains the background of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, taken in Times Square on V-J Day, which marked the end of World War II.
“Four exposures were taken of the original assault,” the document says. “The first of them even shows the woman socking the sailor in the face. Another shows her attempt to keep her dress from being dragged up her body by the man holding her in a headlock with one arm and pushing up her skirt as he exerts his tight grip with the other [emphasis in the document]. He has forced her backward, off balance, on one foot. Her right arm is fending him off even though it is wedged between their bodies. Her one free arm is the only futile defense she has. It is an assault that could be grounds for courts marshal [sic] or arrest in any age, even the 1940s.
“Of all the photographs of celebrations around the country on V-J Day that were published in the edition of Life magazine that included that of Eisenstaedt,” the document points out, “his is the only one without clear mutual engagement in the ‘kissing.’ The reality of the photograph waited for decades before understanding caught up with it.”
The document adds, “Voices raised about its reality have encountered intimidation — a tactic used against those who objected to the statues now being removed throughout the nation.”
She was referring to Civil War monuments, which have been one focus of African American and other protestors angered by the death, in police custody, of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd on Memorial Day.
“How long will it take for this glorified unwelcome domination to be removed from the [bayfront] of Sarasota?” the document asks, alluding to Unconditional Surrender.
More questions about the art factor
As for the assertion that the statute should not be considered art, Benz’s document explains, that Unconditional Surrender “was created by a machine built for an extremely wealthy dilettante who wanted to be called an artist.”
The document is referring to Seward Johnson, who is credited as the creator of Unconditional Surrender.
“His fabulous wealth enabled him to hire technicians and build facilities to engineer the fabrication of the products of his perverse contempt for authentic artists, using photographs. No authentic artists consider these fabrications ‘art’ — they are manufactured, ‘kitsch,’ and blatant copies of works of artists Johnson envied. Not a single one of his statues is of something original,” the document says. “His inferiority complex drove him to attempt to diminish the works he copied.”
The document further contends that Johnson modified the images on which his works were based, saying he added various distortions “or obscene aspects, about which he proudly proclaimed his perverse enjoyment in published interviews. For our kitsch, he flared out the skirt and provided a peek up it — deliberately enabling a titillating feature for those inclined. Such deep undercuts are not found in fine art sculpture. The statue had to be reinforced specially, to enable it.”
Of all the factors that should be considered in regard to the future of Unconditional Surrender, the document continues, the most profound is the history of the dismissal of “objections to the glorification of that unwelcome domination” of the nurse by the sailor in Times Square.
Benz concluded her letter by encouraging the Public Art Committee members to contact her if they had any questions or wanted more information.
Commission and public support for the statue
During the June 1 City Commission meeting, when the board members discussed whether they even wanted to keep the statue, Commissioner Hagen Brody noted its popularity and said, “It just really pays homage to the Greatest Generation and the successful victory in World War II.”
Additionally, during public comments that were part of the meeting, Thomas Savage, who identified himself as founder and director of the Sarasota Public Art Fund, noted that that organization had been responsible for the maintenance and insurance of Unconditional Surrender for the past 10 years.
“As you know,” he told the commissioners, “the greatest group that supports [the statue] is our veterans. By the hundreds, they were present for the dedication of the statue.”
The popularity of Unconditional Surrender, he continued, “is uncontested. Morning, noon and night, there are people at the statute.”
As for the controversy surrounding it: Savage claimed that, “Every year,” members of the news media “go and find some sourpuss who is going to talk about his or her objections to the statue. Never once in 10 years [did members of the news media] go to the statue to talk to the people who are so supportive and in love with this statue.”
Nonetheless, Savage added, he agrees with women who say they “find the action on the part of the sailor unacceptable.” However, he continued, he did not believe women felt that way 75 years ago. “It was an example of celebratory madness.”
Then Savage talked of interviewing a woman one day, whom he had found weeping at Unconditional Surrender. Her father had died at Iwo Jima during World War II, he said.
In her home, the woman told him, her mother kept a copy of the Eisenstaedt photo on the mantle and “always fantasized what it would have been like if [her husband] had returned from that war and embraced her with loving kisses.
“That’s the kind of picture you will never hear,” Savage pointed out, concluding his remarks.