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Virginia Hoffman led the city of Sarasota's Public Art Committee during the city's initial battle of the bulge
Sarasota sculptor and photographer, Virginia Hoffman, who headed the city's Public Art Committee circa 2009-2010 contemplates artist Alfred Eisenstaedt's captivating war photo "V-J Day in Times Square" - in its appropriate dimensions and display context.

A Monumental Mistake

A Statue for all Seasons?

This is the Cliffs Notes version of the sadly 'art imitates LIFE' tall tale of how an "Escapee from a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" (as it was so memorably described by then-head of the city's Public Art Committee, Ringling College graduate, artist, and spouse of a disabled veteran, Virginia Hoffman), ended up washing ashore in Sarasota.

Unconditional Surrender first appeared in the 2005 Sarasota Season of Sculpture (SOSS) show on the city's bayfront. The life-size copy was made of fiberglass and intended only for short-term display. SSOS used to mount biannual shows on the Sarasota bayfront with stated mission of bringing: “large-scale public works of art, created by world-class sculptors to Sarasota.” Seward Johnson was not considered by most artists, collectors, or critics, to be a world-class sculptor. Indeed, his work has been criticized as exploitative kitsch, and no major art museums include his work in their collections.

The public art advisory board for the city normally advises the city commissioners when art is placed on public property. When longer-term retention of this controversial statue was first broached in 2009, and again in 2020 when ownership passed to the city, the Public Art Committee was pilloried by populists for objecting to this machine-produced over-sized atavistic artifact (or, perhaps more appropriately, "artifiction" as Johnson added romanticizing flowers and titillating flare to the female figure's uniform in one of his attempts to skirt copyright).

Ralph Graves, who wrote and reported for LIFE magazine until 1958, and rose to become managing editor before moving to Time, Inc. as editorial director, resided in Sarasota during the 2009 period when the 10-year loan of Unconditional Surrender was discussed. Below is the letter he wrote to The Sarasota Herald Tribune regarding the statue:

Published August 22, 2009 as a letter to the editor in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

“As a Sarasota resident, I am writing in support of our Public Art Committee's unanimous decision against "Unconditional Surrender." I am also writing from a unique professional position. For 24 years (1948-72), I worked on the editorial staff of LIFE Magazine. And I was a colleague and friend of Alfred Eisenstaedt, the great photographer who took the original picture of the sailor and nurse on V-J Day.”

“That world-famous photograph is a true journalistic work of art. But the sculpture is not a work of art at all. It is a grotesque copycat and has none of the joy and vigorous action of the photograph.”

“I have read that veterans have signed a petition urging the city to retain the sculpture as a tribute to veterans. I, too, am a veteran of World War II, but I do not think that Eisenstaedt's photograph, much less the sculpture itself, represents the service of veterans. On the contrary, at LIFE we spent a lot of time and effort tracking down the false claims of many former World War II sailors and nurses who insisted they were the figures in the photograph.”

“Both as a veteran and as an editor, I do not think this monstrous sculpture is a suitable memorial to veterans. Nor is it a suitable work of art for our city. Respect the photograph, but reject the sculpture.”


American Gothic Horror Story

Only original art qualifies for Sarasota public art, and "original" in this context means both 1) not mass-produced or manufactured, but a unique work of art and 2) created by the person credited in the copyright. Despite the objections of Sarasota's Public Art Committee with respect to the originality requirement, a group of local veterans developed a hankering to give the pirated statue sanctuary in sunny Sarasota.

The monumental mistake was purchased by an anonymous donor (later to be revealed as Jack Curran) with the condition that it remain on the bayfront for the next decade.

Although the city's attorney agreed with Time, Inc.'s assertion that Johnson's grotesque gargantuan gargoyle was, and is, an unlicensed derivative of Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-J Day in Times Square, the colloquial curators were not deterred by niceties like the creator's rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Instead, to please a large donor, Ringling College head, attorney Larry Thompson (acting on behalf of a special purpose non-profit created to acquire the statue), crafted a loan and donation agreement that attempted to backstop the city from what was then thought to be a three-year window for copyright infringement claims.

Those perceived statutory time limits on stolen statuary were as vaporous as Seward Johnson's claims of sole creation, and Time, Inc.'s successor company, The Meredith Corporation, could sue the city at any point until 2041 when the copyright term expires to recover damages from the ongoing willful copyright-infringement Sarasota encourages Intstagram-happy tourists to engage in when duping them into reenacting a non-consensual act as an expression of mutual affection.

From the moment Unconditional Surrender first washed ashore, the statue has been controversial and created an undercurrent in the community, a cultural war between those who wish to see the frightening figurine planted here in perpetuity, and those who consider it inappropriate for installation as public art in the city, especially on our beautiful bayfront.

Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitsch-son?

An American Dream - Manufactured in China

Johnson’s work has been slammed by Princeton art professor  Sam Hunter as the worst sort of kitsch. Critic Robert Hughes described his sculptures as chocolate-box rubbish.

Kitsch is a term applied to art and design that is perceived as naïve imitation, gratuitous, or of banal taste.

Art critic Jason Kelly described Johnson’s work as middlebrow at best, reactionary at worst, and his everyman and everywoman burst forth with saccharine sentimentality. They are not America singing or a body electric. They are stock characters from a catalogue. It’s a play at populism that’s as empty as the faux-gold plated glamour of Trump Tower.

According to Wikipedia, kitsch provides immediate nostalgic gratification based on contrived sentiment. It functions through ‘reminiscence’, which sacrifices the intensity of experience for a conscious or fabricated sense of continuity. Yearnings and recollections of the past are inevitably inaccurate, but that matters not when it comes to the false memories conjured by kitsch.

In The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience scholar Celeste Olalquiaga explains: Incapable of tolerating the intensity of the moment, reminiscence selects and consolidates an event’s acceptable parts into a memory perceived as complete. This reconstructed experience is frozen as an emblem of itself, becoming a cultural fossil.

In short, kitsch is an exercise in selective memory, and technicolor white-washing of messy lived moments and deep moral lessons. A local Navy veteran explained his continued fondness for the statue, despite now knowing the truth of what it depicts, as “it’s a myth – like George Washington and the cherry tree or Paul Bunyan and his over-sized ox.” And for him, it can be that…

…But the young rape victim, re-traumatized by the sight of consenting couples assuming the looming statue’s assault posture, does not share his false memories. For that reason, if no other, it is high past time for those who seek to honor The Greatest Generation to do the right thing as they were famed for doing, and return this manufactured memorabilia to the estate of its maker.

Against Her Will

The Body Language of Non-Consent

Needing neither the visceral confirmation provided by the young girl's reaction to the statue, nor the sleuthing of the part-time detectives and full-time apologists who penned the male-gazerific Kissing Sailor paean, Sarasota longtime paramour of a Navy admiral, historian, author, artist, and community leader Kafi Benz has persisted in trying to educate the public about the incident valorized in Johnson's deceptive statue since 2005.

Listen to the 2009 WSLR Interview with Kafi Benz

SAVE OUR BAY FRONT sees the forceful action depicted in the Unconditional Surrender statue as not being reciprocated and therefore, considers it an inappropriate symbol to showcase in a community that prides itself on social and civil equality and, which discourages violence.

Some view the Unconditional Surrender statue as a romantic image and regard it with nostalgia as a part of Americana, transposed from the original iconic “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph that the statue copies. For some, this iconic photograph simply represents the joy felt on V-J Day and thus no effort is made to understand it, much less the message it delivers on another level.

In our efforts to make our reasons clear, SAVE OUR BAY FRONT located, purchased, and presented a copy of the contact strip of all four shots Alfred Eisenstaedt took of the two people in Times Square on August 14, 1945. Take a look at the series. The body language revealed in this series speaks volumes about what really was happening.

We at SAVE OUR BAY FRONT-and many others who have commented in blogs and letters to the editor-feel quite differently, seeing this as a violent act, noting that this woman was been held in a headlock against her will and thrown off balance for a significant amount of time. Given the movement of the bystanders shown in the series, it certainly was not a fleeting moment.

The four sequential images of the scene confirm the attempts of the woman to resist the actions imposed upon her by what is called an uninhibited sailor and must be interpreted as being against her will. Only one of the images was published in Life magazine and it carries a caption that notes her struggle to keep her skirt down and a grip on her purse. It merely hints at her lack of willingness, alluded to in the text on the opposite page as a lack of inclination. Looking at all four images shows her attempts to push the man away in two of the frames.

Scrutinizing the photographs reveals how her fisted left hand went from pushing him away to struggling to keep her dress down and back again desperately trying to push the sailor away. Her right hand remained as a fist between them in all four exposures. He had a strong grip on this petite woman, however, and being much larger than she was, he practically bent her over with his hand, which spanned her waist, immobilizing her. The body language shows that he was not letting go of her-although she resisted and struggled to free herself.

The reality of the situation in these four photographs it is not at all romantic. This is a far cry from the images of joyous celebration seen in other photographs of that day.

Here is what the residents of Sarasota wrote to the City Commission in 2009 about the proposed loan of this statue by a then-secret donor...