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Why a New Statue of Medusa Is So Controversial

The gorgon, seen holding Perseus’ severed head, stands across from the court where Harvey Weinstein was tried

The statue, which stands across from the New York County Criminal Courthouse, inverts the myth of Perseus slaying Medusa. (Courtesy of Medusa With The Head)
smithsonianmag.com

A statue that inverts the Greek myth of Medusa’s beheading now stands across the street from the Manhattan court where disgraced film executive Harvey Weinstein stood trial. Titled Medusa With the Head of Perseus, the seven-foot bronze sculpture depicts the snake-haired gorgon naked, wielding a sword in one hand and holding Perseus’ head in the other.

Per a statement, the work—created by artist Luciano Garbati in 2008—reacts to Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus With the Head of Medusa (1545–1554). Both, in turn, are based on a version of a Greek myth relayed in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

According to legend, Poseidon, the god of the sea, raped a maiden named Medusa in the temple of Athena. Blaming Medusa for the temple’s defilement, Athena turned her into a monstrous gorgon capable of transforming those who looked at her into stone. Later, the demigod Perseus beheaded Medusa as part of a heroic quest.

“While predating modernity by thousands of years, the story of a woman who was blamed, chastised, and shamed for her assault is unfortunately timeless,” notes Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic.

In Cellini’s sculpture, Perseus stands naked atop of Medusa’s corpse, holding her head aloft in victory. As Garbati told Quartz’s Annaliese Griffin in 2018, seeing the work as a child led him to imagine a reversal of its dynamic.

“There are lots of depictions of Medusa, and they are always describing the myth at its worst,” the artist said. “… What would it look like, her victory, not his? How should that sculpture look?”

Garbati’s statue won fame online following the exposure of Weinstein’s sexual crimes and the emergence of the #MeToo movement. In 2018, an image of the statue circulated on social media alongside the caption “Be grateful we only want equality and not payback.”

Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Garbati's work responds to Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa. ( Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY 2.5)

New York­–based photographer Bek Andersen spearheaded efforts to install the statue in Manhattan, working with Garbati to outline a proposal for the city’s Art in the Parks program, reports Hyperallergic. Anderson also founded Medusa With The Head (MWTH), an art collective that strives to reframe classical narratives. In MWTH’s view, Garbati’s work asks, “[H]ow can a triumph be possible if you are defeating a victim?”

Some, however, are skeptical of the statue’s status as feminist art. On social media, notes Tessa Solomon for ARTnews, a number of critics argued that the statue would make more sense as a #MeToo statement if Medusa were decapitating her rapist, Poseidon. Others questioned the feminist value of placing a male artist’s likeness of a naked, conventionally beautiful woman in such a prominent location.

“#Metoo was started by a Black woman, but a sculpture of a European character by a dude is the commentary that gets centered? Sigh,” wrote activist Wagatwe Wanjuki on Twitter.

Curbed art critic Jerry Saltz, meanwhile, deemed the statue “conceptual art 101 at its most obvious and simplistic. Anyone who sees the statue, reads the title, and is reminded of the original myth will instantly ‘get it.’ That’s all there is after that, other than the Playboy magazine–like nudie realism.”

Added Saltz, “[S]he’s still the total object of the male gaze here, not of thought, fear, admiration, pathos, power, agency, or anything other than male idiocy.”

Responding to the criticism, Andersen tells AdWeek’s David Griner that she doesn’t “think any reaction could be considered ‘wrong.’”

The photographer explains, “It is an emotionally charged sculpture, and it is understandable that viewers have a strong reaction to the work. The reality is that mythology and history are both told from the perspective of a narrator with an implicit bias. But the inversion of the myth destabilizes what many consider to be a fixed history, and that can be an uncomfortable idea.”

Medusa With the Head of Perseus will be on view at Collect Pond Park, across the street from the New York County Criminal Courthouse, through April 2021.

As Andersen says to the New York Post’s Jackie Salo, “My hope is that when people walk out of the courthouse, they will connect with [the statue] and they will have either have accomplished a comfortable sense of justice of themselves or feel empowered to continue to fight for equality for those being prosecuted.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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