In 1968, students at Columbia University in New York occupied buildings on campus to protest the Vietnam War. In 1985, they convinced the school’s board of trustees to divest from Apartheid South Africa. Today, students are carrying on the school’s tradition of civic engagement by organising a sit-in to protest the installation of a two-tonne Henry Moore sculpture on campus. As of this writing, 200 students have confirmed their attendance on Facebook to the 31 March protest. Meanwhile, a petitionprotesting the sculpture’s placement has garnered more than 1,000 signatures in three days. Kids today!
In a spectacular op-ed published by the student newspaper on 30 March (where, full disclosure, I was an editor as a student at Columbia), four students expressed their shock and dismay that the university would install such a “hideous”, “offensive” and “ghoulish” work of art in front of the main library. David Finn, the co-founder of the public relations agency Ruder Finn, and his wife Laura donated Reclining Figure (1969-70) to the university more than 20 years ago, but the school only recently settled on a permanent location for the work. Other versions of the bronze sculpture are in the collections of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in Israel and the Louisiana Museum of Art in Denmark.
The students’ op-ed—which we can only hope is a genius, early April Fools' Day prank—claims that Reclining Figure “is so repulsive that when thieves stole Moore’s original cast, valued at £3 million, they literally chopped it up and sold it for scraps”. The writers caution that Moore’s “ghoulish figure clashes with the neoclassical aesthetic instantly recognizable to generations of Columbians”.
The decision to install the sculpture in a place where students frequently gather to partake in sacred collegiate activities like smoking and playing football “crosses a solemn line” and amounts to “a war on our spirit”, they write. (They also take a gratuitous jab at the poor, defenseless “Public Outdoor Sculpture at Columbia” blog, where the work’s installation was first announced. The publication is “so obscure that it only clocked three entries and two comments in all of 2015”.)
The day after the op-ed was published, two brave students to wrote to the newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, to defend the sculpture. Columbia, it should be noted, is one of the few US colleges to require all undergraduate students to take an art history class. Perhaps the school will consider adding Henry Moore to the syllabus next year.