It shouldn't have been a surprise that a proposal from New York's Public Art Commission for a monument commemorating Women's rights in Central Park would draw criticism. After all, public art by definition is art by committee. Not even input from historians helped. History is also a loaded subject depending on who's interpreting it.

Historical argument

The proposal is for a 15-foot tall, 2-figure bronze statue of Elizabeth C. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as if they were the only activists in the long battle for voting rights. A scroll at their feet lists others in the fight.

But, as Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society put it to The Villager, the proposal honors Stanton and Anthony as champions of universal women’s suffrage, "They were not, they were champions of white Women's suffrage." Both women, he said, valued the concerns of white Protestant women over those of black women. Missing from the monument are women of color like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells.

Three's a crowd

But wouldn't a lineup of all Suffrage activists look mob-like a mob than a monument to triumph? Isn't a need for a metaphor, a hallmark - the stuff of any great statuary? I'm thinking of Michelangelo's "David," which tells the tale of the Biblical boy's fearful duel with the giant Goliath.

You don't see his foe anywhere in the sculpture. You see his vulnerability in his state of undress and his bravery in his staunch stance. Rather than illustrate the Suffrage story with all the dramatis personae, a single, race-less, ageless female figure with a triumphant bearing along with an informative plaque could better honor the movement.

Less is more

According to The Villager, Morris would accept additional figures to be "more inclusive." And he's not the only historian wanting this. A letter to the city from David Levering Lewis along with articles from historians Martha S. Jones and Nell Irving Painter backed Morris' objections up. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem also called for more figures, telling the New York Times in January that the statue "was not enough" and that Stanton and Anthony appeared as if they were "standing on the names of the other women" - as if the others were literally footnotes in history.

Fake news

But Lynn Sherr, a veteran journalist at ABC News, who is a member of the Statue Fund's board of directors disagreed with the allegations of racism. She told Hyperallergic that accusing Anthony and Stanton of racism constitutes "fake history. Their goal was universal suffrage - the right to vote based on citizenship, not race or gender or anything else." Sherr acknowledged that when white supremacy gained strength toward the end of the suffrage campaign, newer leaders made questionable compromises. "To suggest that 20th-century bigotry defined the goals and actions of Stanton and Anthony in the 1800s is glib at best, bad history at worst."

Clearly, creating public art by committee can end up a tower of Babel.