ET IN ARCADIA EGO
Et In Arcadia Ego is the concept behind many paintings, statues, and works of literature. But if you aren’t an art history major, or a 17th century art junky, or fluent in the dead language of Latin, you might be confused as to why we chose this for our title. So for the purposes of The Weekly, we’re taking a bit of artistic license and translating it to: “Even in paradise, there is tragedy.”
At The Culture Crush, we’re always trying to find the beauty in things. We look for the silver lining. The diamond in the rough. Love in a hopeless place. You get it. But sometimes, and especially right now, facing the ugly is necessary. Which is why we immediately knew that Alex DeMarco’s poetic piece on Harlem’s Morningside Park was an important one to publish.
DeMarco paints West Harlem staples as symbols and gives a deeper look into the history of these landmarks. He says, “The park serves as a metaphor for the racial tensions that exist not only in New York City specifically, but the entirety of the United States. It reminds us that while America may be more diverse in population than at any point in its history, it is more segregated than ever.” Read Across Morningside Park.
It can be easily argued that Columbia University created a big divide, due to the fact that neither the upper-middle class Morningside Heights whites or the West Harlem blacks wanted students in the park. Despite this sentiment, it was those same students whose 1960’s civil rights activism saved the park from being destroyed by their Academic Overlords. Today, if you take a stroll through Morningside Park, the plot of land that Columbia had its eye on has been turned into an exquisite pond with a tranquil waterfall. Et In Arcadia Ego. The waterfall represents peace and beauty, but for us it’s important to remember the dark history and protest behind it. We will always walk through these parks and neighborhoods haunted by their cultural ghosts. Gentrification has caused pieces of history to be wallpapered over.
When those in power can slap plastic plaques on cheap buildings and call them gold and people believe them, then we know we’re in trouble. It’s important to note that the renaming of neighborhoods is just another form of “gold plating.” Calling South Harlem “SoHa” and Bushwick, Brooklyn “East Williamsburg” is just a real estate ploy and one that diminishes the combination of cultures that gave those neighborhoods their unique identities in the first place.
American cities have renamed their elementary schools, airports, bridges, parks, streets, town squares, costume institutes, sports stadiums and even their reservoirs more times than we can count. They’ve erected, removed, and erected statues again. Raised, lowered, and redesigned flags. We’re obsessed with these symbols of American exceptionalism, but we don’t even have an agreement on what they mean. The dark shadow of American history is ever present. The muck of our past remains, but how we remember it changes. Et In Arcadia Ego. As Alex Demarco says, “change is undeniably good, a sign of an increased tolerance and the ability to co-habitate. However, as is always the case, change comes with a price.” What real estate moguls need to grasp is that trying to stamp out these neighborhoods and trying to rid them of their history is culturally futile.
To love America is to also criticize it. We aren't really a melting pot nation that we profess to be. In actuality, our cultures clash together, which can also create a lot of beauty. Et In Arcadia Ego.
All this talk of statues, symbols, and ghosts of the past reminded us of a curious and disturbing story we happened upon when we were working on our presidential inauguration issue almost a year ago today. We are always in search of more symbols and icons to draw and paint as another storytelling element to complement the documentary photography. Washington D.C. is full of symbols, some more overt and noticeable than others. In essence, our inauguration issue was an exercise in contrasts and juxtapositions. Republicans and Democrats. Celebrations and lamentations. Freedom and authoritarianism. As such, we found the architecture of D.C. appropriately symbolic of America, given its history of deep contrasts between its ideology and its reality.
This sharp dichotomy became even more pronounced as we were looking through some of our key images in search of elements to draw. While many are familiar with the dome of the Capitol Building, which houses the legislative branch of our government, not as many are aware of the existence of a statue at the top of the dome, much less the story behind the statue. Even we did not notice it was there, despite looking at the pictures for 2 weeks, until we did a high res scan of the film. And while we immediately considered drawing it, when we delved into it's history, we decided that it was best saved for another day. The Statue of Freedom, originally commissioned in 1854, is a uniquely American symbol. Not only in what it represents overtly, but also in the circumstances of its construction.
Aesthetically, the statue resembles “Columbia,” (the namesake of Columbia University) one of the earliest symbols of the United States. The figure represents the spirit of the Frontier and the concept of Manifest Destiny. She is adorned in a blanket similar to the style of Native Americans. However, deeper than just the aesthetic contrasts are the contrasts resulting from its construction.
One figure who was pivotal to the statue’s construction and design was Philip Reid. Reid was the foreman on the project and he was also a slave. Though self-taught, Reid developed a method for casting the monument directly onto the building. And while he would eventually be freed when Lincoln abolished slavery in the nation’s capital, the irony of a slave serving as the supervisor of a statue dedicated to freedom cannot be overstated. Moreover, in a recent check on the same government websites that we consulted a year ago about the statue, his role has been minimized in its design and construction, demonstrating just how history is subject to be corrupted in service of power. Et In Arcadia Ego.