The partnership between art and politics began even before Julius Caesar commissioned his first marble bust more than 2 millennia ago.
In fact, says Eastern Washington University art historian Barbara Miller, “It’s only in recent times that we have recast artists and their relationship with society. We assume (this new role) means they can express their own point of view and not be beholden to anybody, but that’s not the case.”
Even today, says Miller, art remains “a vehicle for expressing values and agendas.”
That’s why she sees nothing unusual about Knights of Columbus chapters around the country paying artists for memorials that focus public attention on the abortion debate.
“There’s nothing improper about it,” says Miller. “After all, art is about issues.”
The statue being cast for Spokane’s Holy Cross Cemetery is in response to a challenge issued by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York in 1992. His goal was to erect a memorial to the unborn in at least one Catholic cemetery in each diocese in the country.
So far, says local Knights of Columbus spokesman Ed Mertens, more than 1,000 memorials have been installed. Some dioceses have chosen simple plaques or gravestones, while others have installed statues.
But the 11-foot-tall monument designed by Spokane artist Vincent De Felice “is the Cadillac,” says Mertens. “This is one of the most fantastic memorials in the country.”
The $30,000 statue depicts a cloud-shrouded infant escorted to heaven by three cherubs and a dove. An engraved plaque on a pedestal below quotes from the Gospel of Matthew (19:14): “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
According to preliminary sketches, the plate also reads “Memorial to the Unborn” and names the artist, along with the co-sponsors, the Knights of Columbus and the diocesan cemeteries.
Whether the actual word “abortion” appears anywhere on the memorial remains a point of contention.
Cemeteries Director Dennis Fairbank says it’s important that the memorial “transcends the abortion issue.”
“A lot of people in the community have lost children to fetal death,” he says, “and they have no place to go to think about their grief.”
Fairbank says the Cemeteries Board chose De Felice’s design over seven other proposals because “his was a little more universal.”
“We’re not trying to make a statement about the pros and cons of abortion,” says Fairbank. “It’s simply a memorial to all those who have not been born, including abortions, but also stillbirth, miscarriage, everything.”
De Felice agrees.
“I don’t think it should say anything about abortion,” he said last week as he prepared the clay prototype for shipment to an Oregon foundry. “I think it should commemorate all cases of loss.”
Mertens, though, who has undertaken the task of raising close to $20,000 from local Knights of Columbus chapters and other sources, says there will be nothing ambiguous about this memorial to the unborn.
“The Knights of Columbus have always fought abortion very strongly,” he points out, and, through this memorial, “we’re attempting to get more people to realize that this is something that’s got to get turned around in this country.
“So it better have something on it that relates to abortion - I can tell you that right now,” says Mertens. “Otherwise, people might say it’s a good-looking statue, but what’s it about?”
Plans call for the memorial to be installed at Holy Cross Cemetery in time for a dedication ceremony May 27.