This is the age of protest: from MeToo to Extinction Rebellion, from Black Lives Matter to Antifa. No wonder protest art is booming. The latest example has popped up in New York. Medusa with the Head of Perseus, by the Argentine-Italian artist Luciano Garbati, has just been erected in Manhattan, opposite the court where Harvey Weinstein was convicted of sex crimes in February.
Garbati’s seven-foot bronze statue flips the original Greek myth, in which Perseus beheaded Medusa the Gorgon – and it echoes the great Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1554).
In the age of protest, however, there are even protests against protest statues. Art critic Jerry Saltz has attacked the naked Medusa statue already, saying that she is “the total object of the male gaze here, not of thought, fear, admiration, pathos, power, agency or anything other than male idiocy”.
Garbati, too, has been attacked as the wrong sort of person to put together MeToo art. For instance, the American activist Wagatwe Wanjuki tweeted: “MeToo was started by a black woman, but a sculpture of a European character by a dude is the commentary that gets centred? Sigh.”
Classically-minded critics have said that Medusa should really be holding the head of Poseidon who, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, raped her. Others take against the general idea of justice being dressed up as vengeance outside a courtroom.
I like the statue – and, even as an obsessive classicist, I like the way it plays around with myth. One of the great things about Greek and Roman myths is that they are protean – a word that itself comes from Proteus, the Greek sea-god who can constantly change shape.
The ancient myths are so elemental in our culture – and have been incorporated in so many guises in Western European art and literature – that they can be happily bent into any shape or context and still be recognised. This autumn, for example, a new computer war-game is being released: Troy – A Total War Saga. It’s based on the Trojan War but full of supposed “errors”, with the inclusion of the Minotaur and the Cyclops, who don’t appear in Homer’s Iliad.
The Medusa is a good way to do protest art. To catch the prevailing mood, protest art has to be made quickly. Garbati actually sculpted this work in 2008; only now has it been put up opposite the New York State Supreme Court Building, where Weinstein stood trial. The most famous piece of protest art in history, Guernica, was completed by Picasso in 1937, the same year that Guernica was bombed in the Spanish Civil War.
The Medusa statue is more successful than the most recent British protest statue, A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) 2020, the black resin sculpture by Marc Quinn that went up in Bristol in July. It shows Reid, a black protestor, raising her arm in a Black Power salute. The statue was erected on the plinth where a statue to Edward Colston, the Bristol merchant involved in slave-trading, had stood until it was toppled and rolled into the city’s harbour.
Like lots of protest art, the Jen Reid statue didn’t last long – it was taken down by Bristol City Council the day after it was put up. The Medusa, too, is only temporary, and will be taken down next April. On the other hand, nor was the Reid statue particularly striking. There’s nothing wrong in being realist – protest art often is. But it was little more than a straight, here-and-now depiction of Reid at the Bristol protests; little more than a 3D snapshot.
Effective protest art has to add something beyond mere realistic depiction. Even the Trump baby, the huge inflatable of the US President that floated over protests against his visit to London in 2018, added a touch of the grotesque and the comic to mere lifelike depiction.
The Medusa statue flips a familiar story on its head, which immediately sparks an emotional and intellectual reaction in your brain. And it places the horrific amorality tale of Harvey Weinstein in the ancient, eternal world of Greek myth. The ancient Greeks knew a lot about monsters and sex crimes – Weinstein is an appropriate modern recruit to the classical rogues’ gallery.
Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books)