Thursday, April 11, 2019
April 11, 2019: StatueStudying: Christ of the Ozarks
[On April 9th, 2003 a group of both Iraqi civilians and U.S. military forces together toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, a hugely symbolic moment that highlights the role statues can play in our communal spaces and identities. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that moment and four other statues, leading up to a weekend post on my own continuing thoughts on Confederate statues like those in my hometown.]
On a few illuminating contexts for a ginormous American statue.
Near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, at the top of the strikingly named Magnetic Mountain, stands a 65.5 foot-tall statue of Jesus. “Christ of the Ozarks” was erected by retired clergyman and political organizer Gerald L.K. Smith as part of a planned religious theme park on his sprawling estate that he called collectively his “Sacred Projects” (that overall project largely didn’t pan out, although Smith did also build a 4100-seat amphitheater where performances of “The Great Passion Play” are to this day featured almost nightly from May through October each year and have become one of the nation’s most-attended theatrical events). The statue, designed primarily by sculptor Emmet Sullivan and completed in 1966, faces the town of Eureka Springs as a blessing on and thank you to the town for allowing Smith to construct such a giant monument. I haven’t seen confirmation of this, but I have to believe it’s the second largest statue in the U.S. that portrays a single human subject, trailing only Monday’s subject the Statue of Liberty (and of course Jesus Christ was an actual historical figure as well as a symbolic one like Lady Liberty).
When we learn more about the personal and social histories of both Smith and Sullivan, the symbolic American meanings of “Christ of the Ozarks” deepen significantly. Smith initially rose to national prominence working with Huey Long in Louisiana; he quit his ministry in order to help run Long’s Share Our Wealth campaign, and took it over entirely after Long’s 1935 assassination. But while Long focused more overtly on issues of class and poverty, Smith was more dedicated to the cause of white supremacy, and gradually moved more fully into that realm. Those efforts culminated during World War II, in the course of which he founded the anti-Semitic America First Party and ran for President in 1944, denied the Holocaust, lobbied for the release of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, and generally became one of America’s most extreme white supremacist voices. I don’t mean to suggest that white supremacy and Evangelical Christianity are necessarily linked, but they certainly have often been, as we’re seeing again with the strikingly resilient evangelical support for our most overtly white supremacist president. At the very least it’s an important and telling fact that the nation’s largest monument to Christianity was constructed by one of the most extreme white supremacists of at least the last century.
Emmet Sullivan, the sculptor of “Christ of the Ozarks,” fortunately was not as far as I can tell an extreme white supremacist (or even a white supremacist at all). Instead, his telling American contexts are to two quite distinct South Dakota artistic and cultural projects. Born in Montana, Sullivan’s first significant project was his work as one of the sculptors of Mount Rushmore in the late 1920s and 1930s. During those same years, Sullivan received his first sizeable solo project, designing and sculpting the five mammoth dinosaurs (sorry paleontologists, I know that’s a frustrating pairing of words) at Rapid City’s Dinosaur Park. Despite their relative proximity, these two sculptures might seem not only different but ever opposed, with one based on American history and the other on distant and unrelated prehistories of the continent. But I would say that both depict actual historical figures in larger than life and somewhat caricatured ways, reflecting more their symbolic value than any details of their historical identities. And in that sense, there might be a compelling continuity between those projects and Sullivan’s last prominent one (completed just four years before his death), “Christ of the Ozarks.”
Last statue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other statues you’d highlight and analyze?