When Venessa Ramirez, Sara Mameesh, and I discovered the art of a Nazi on campus, we knew action needed to be taken to get those ideals off our campus.
By Melanie Moyer
It started with a sunny afternoon and a quiet courtyard. The three of us maintain a small, socially distant bubble in the name of COVID-19 safety, which has let us delve deep into conversations we are all passionate about. It was during one of these conversations that we began discussing the strange statue that watched us as we enjoyed our quiet evening. We were curious as to why a naked little boy would be holding a falcon, and, to better understand the art, looked up the back story of creator Fritz von Graeventiz. Venessa was understandably speechless with what appeared on her screen. How does one go about telling their friends that they were in the presence of art created by a member of the Third Reich?
Our trio is united on the common ground of fighting for marginalized groups and derive much of our passion for social justice from personal experiences. Seeing the face of Hitler, a man who led a movement that took the lives of over six million people and created ideals that still plague our society with racism and intolerance, sculpted by the same hands that created the statue in front of us was sickening. It is impossible to deny the repulsive history of an artist once you see a picture of him sculpting a giant eagle and swastika. The Saint Mary’s campus and community mean so much to all of us that it was devastating to think about how long this artist and his ideals resided on campus without the student body knowing. Our call to action came from solidarity with the Jewish community and the rejection of our culture’s pattern of not holding people accountable for terrible actions.
That evening, we emailed a trusted professor about what our next moves should be, and she advised that we created a petition to get support from fellow students. On Tuesday evening, we made the petition and were overwhelmed with the immediate response. After receiving over 500 signatures in the first few days, we got a much-anticipated response from the school about how they would handle our discovery and demands.
Our petition demanded not only the permanent removal of the statue but also an apology, an explanation for why it had been bought for the school, and a replacement with a piece of art that celebrates the Jewish culture and its prosperity. The school has yet to respond to these demands or take public action towards fulfilling them. They have only “temporarily” taken down the statue. In translation, they have only “temporarily” rejected the presence of Nazi ideals on campus.
One of the most significant conversations going on in the world of art, music, and literature is whether we should separate works from their problematic creators. Many of my literature classes have grappled with the issue of whether or not we should be reading the books of men who have sexually harassed or abused women. I know many people who no longer listen to Michael Jackson or R. Kelly because of their abusive behavior. Overall, most can agree that it is problematic to support abusive artists when they financially benefit from it, but we are still caught up in the debate of whether their work should be appreciated in the same way when no financial transaction is involved. The case of “Falcon Boy” is unique because the artist and his estate do not profit from the statue remaining on campus, though it should be noted that if this statue was bought from the artist or his trust, there is a chance that institutional funds could have supported the Nazi. Further, the statue has no surface-level ties to the Nazi regime and has no iconographic ties to the group. Some have tried to argue that the statue is harmless because it depicts the deceased younger brother of the artist, implying that we should feel ashamed for denying the familial history of the artist.
In this case, we must recognize that artistic production will always be an extension of the ideals of an individual, otherwise art would have no connection to the social world we live in. The art we make is in constant conversation with our lives and responds to our experiences and hopes for the future, and thus, a piece of art will always stand for the character of the individual who made it. We do not want the expression of someone who even sympathized with, let alone participated in, the Nazi regime on our campus. For the sake of Jewish students on campus, as well as those who come from other groups targeted and murdered by the Nazi party—we cannot forget that Hitler targeted Black people, the Roma and Sinti, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with mental and physical disabilities, women, and so many other groups—these ideals cannot be on our campus. Fritz von Graeventiz does not belong in our inclusive community.
We have often been met with the argument that this statue somehow represents the history of the Holocaust, and, by demanding its removal, we forget our “shared history.” I, and so many others, am tired of the eurocentric and colonialist belief that European history must be the dominant history in education and cultural attitudes. I do not deny that we must learn from the Holocaust and the rise of the Nazi regime in Europe, especially as we recover from a presidency that teetered on fascism and invited racist, sexist, and xenophobic beliefs into our political discourses and legal decisions. However, it is infuriating that those who advocate for “shared history” are really advocating for the celebration of times when white supremacy ran rampantly through our society and justified the murder of millions of people. If we want a piece of art that teaches its viewers about the Holocaust, the murder of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, and the terrors of World War II, it should not be an ambiguous representation of a Nazi’s deceased younger brother.
Many have told us that “Falcon Boy” represents history, but I wonder how a piece of art can represent or teach us about history when there is no explanation accompanying it. How can the struggle of those who fought during World War II be represented when the observer has no idea what they are looking at? Every museum that responsibly features historical art and artifacts from the lowest points in human history has explanations along with their work, but the display of “Falcon Boy” lacked this integral aspect. What can be learned when there is no direct message about war being conveyed?
Ramirez, Mameesh, and I knew that when we went public with our discovery we were making ourselves susceptible to the opinions of the general public. We knew that people get uncomfortable when groups of diverse and empowered women target the structures of power and privilege that exist in the United States and beyond. Our petition was ridiculed with trolls and we received emails from ‘Boomers’ and ‘Karens,’ but we also received an overwhelming amount of love and support from our community. It is still hard to fathom that over 1,300 people stood with us and that we had our pursuit featured on several news outlets. Our intentions have always been to make the Saint Mary’s community inclusive for all, and we will continue to fight for this with this endeavor and others so long as we are students here. We hope that this petition shows the power of our voices when we come together, and urge supporters to keep fighting for our demands to be met.
Victoria Vidales '21,