Edward Berenson


On his book The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story

Cover Interview of May 06, 2012

In a nutshell

The Statue of Liberty tells the story of America’s most beloved icon, the symbol, we like to think, of our openness to the world.  But how many Americans know that Lady Liberty had essentially nothing to do with immigration when she first went up?  That xenophobes used the statue as a symbol before pro-immigration forces did?  That Emma Lazarus’s poem about the “Huddled Masses,” written in 1883, remained little known until the 1930s?  The Statue of Liberty is at once familiar and unknown, commonplace and full of surprises.

The statue is surprising in part because its meaning has changed from one generation to the next.  Ever since the first images appeared in the mid-1870s, even before construction in Paris had begun, the colossus of New York Harbor has been an open figurative screen, a massive sculpted form onto which an endless variety of ideas, values, intentions, and emotions could be projected.  It has come to signify both liberty and subjection, immigration and xenophobia, the lure of America and its dangerous shoals, the dangers of terrorism and the resilience of New York City and the United States in the wake of 9/11.

Our extremely fluid understanding of what the statue says comes from three of its essential qualities: abstractness, artistic banality, and colossal size.

Its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, intended the Statue of Liberty to last many decades, even centuries, and wanted it to express a general, universal theme.  He thus gave it a classical form, one that had endured since ancient times.  He kept it abstract and allegorical rather having it represent a particular individual or historical event.  Except for the barely-visible “July 4, 1776” inscribed on its tablet, the Statue of Liberty doesn’t even overtly refer to the United States.

Like its abstractness, the Statue of Liberty’s artistic banality—its conservatism of form—is related to its need to survive political and cultural change.  Bartholdi himself admitted that his statue “cannot be considered as a very great work of art.”  But its neutral neoclassicism allowed it to elude passionate aesthetic attack and gave it the potential to represent a great many different things.

Finally, the statue’s colossal size and strategic location guaranteed that it would continue to draw attention and thus retain the ability to encourage people to confer meaning on it, whether for political, social, or commercial purposes.