A year ago Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu proposed placing a statute near the entrance to Manteca via Yosemite Avenue off Highway 99.
He saw a statute — he favored one he had seen of a young family walking — as a way of bolstering the city’s image. It would tell the world that Manteca was growing up, valued public art, and was a town on its way to making its mark as a city of 120,000 plus.
Cantu got hammered.
Critics zeroed in in two things — the cost and potential damage.
The brass statute was expected to cost $70,000. That prompted a howl on social media that the city could better spend $70,000 on something else such as fixing streets. The other drumbeat, though less in its intensity, was how the statute was likely to be damaged by homeless thinking they could recycle parts of it for cash.
Cantu dropped the idea.
Now a year later he should thank the roaming packs on social media eager to lash out in reptilian style at the tap of a key instead of engaging in a thoughtful debate about public art and its value.
Imagine the grief Manteca as the self-proclaimed “Family City” would have created for itself had it translated its municipal slogan into a clear image cast in bronze.
At Manteca’s entrance there would have been a statue of a nuclear family — female mom, male dad, two daughters, and son — looking as happy as a lark.
In today’s political climate that would have been akin to waving red meat in front of some people begging them to trash Manteca.
The statute wouldn’t be seen as celebrating families but instead lionizing intact traditional nuclear families. The list of those who could be offended by such a statute is not exactly short. It includes families with two moms, families with two dads, single parents, communal families, divorced families, transgender parents/offspring, and those who are single.
Cantu’s decision to drop the statute discussion before it moved forward saved him from becoming the proverbial political punching bag beyond what he already is for simply holding the position of mayor. It’s a safe bet that regardless of whatever anyone who is mayor of any town says or does that it won’t prompt a favorable reaction from someone.
It’s a shame because what it did was avoid having a discussion about the value of public art.
What we are seeing today is the mob setting the agenda for public art.
There is no question that statutes to the “heroes” of the Confederacy as well as attempts to memorialize them is an entirely different cat than public art. Almost all were erected long after the Civil War. A war by the way, the South lost. You can argue it was all about states’ rights but you can’t dismiss that one of the rights that the South was fighting for was the right to enslave and own other people, specifically Blacks.
The period they were erected was a time of unchecked terror against Blacks for exercising the same rights that their oppressors had.
What other country has named military bases or even buildings at one of its military academies after traitors? We need to get a reality check if we think that is OK and doesn’t send a subliminal message especially when Black men and women have served with honoring protecting this country and even have given their lives for it that have actually been stationed at the bases named after traitors who fought for the right of states to allow the ownership of Blacks?
Civil War statutes glorifying not simply those that came out on the wrong side of history but were on the wrong side when they were alive is not public art as much as it is a monument to racism.
Unfortunately the most blatant and obscene use of the public square for public art has been hijacked into an orgy of political correctness against all statutes that don’t fit narrow politically correct parameters.
It is not right that a Swiss citizen by the name of John Sutter placed hundreds of indigenous people into “forced servitude” that is a kissing cousin of slavery. Yet do we dismiss everything else Sutter did or do we point to what leaders like him did and emphasize the blemishes and dark spots as well instead of simply putting them up on a pedestal?
We should not run away from history no should we assume that it is judged the same by all people. Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and even Nagasaki definitely saved the lives of many more Americans, other Allies, and even the Japanese. Yet there are those who look back with the comfort of 75 years who make a different case.
This brings us back to the purpose of public art.
Public art by definition makes a statement about something that is either political in nature, culturally or religious based, or rooted in some belief.
I may adore the mountains and abhor the seashore while you abhor the mountains and adore the seashore. The same rings true with art whether it is music, paintings, statutes or murals which all, by the way, are used to make political statements or express values outright or subconsciously.
Public art has value beyond something to gaze at. It can celebrate or reflect history, culture, and economics. It also starts conversations.
Those are the principles driving the Manteca Mural Society project as well as the intricate design of the interactive water play feature at Library Park.
It has helped capture what surely would be lost to time as well as celebrate the strengths of the community.
Public art is an important element of civilization societies as the ancient ruins of the Ming Dynasty, Mayan, Aztecan, Incan, Greek, Roman, and Anasazi civilizations to mention just a mere handful can attest to.
A town that is on its way to being a city of 120,000 needs public art as part of the equation.
The mural project is a good start but there are other ways that public art can be pursued either on the city’s dime, the city working in partnership with community groups, or city working with a developer to attain.
First, however, the city needs to not just offer a few pontificating words about public art in its general plan document. They need to discuss ways of pursuing public art whether it is how a park or even a street such as the repaving of the 100 to 400 blocks of North Main Street it or as a statement made at the entrance to Manteca.