Kissing Controversy

This sculpture, based on a famous photograph, led to heated public debate

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But in the case of one artist, some critics disagree. American artist J. Seward Johnson is known for his sculptures inspired by famous paintings and photographs. One of these works—a supersized sculpture based on a 1945 photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse at the end of World War II—is causing debate in San Diego. Supporters praise the 25-foot-tall work, Unconditional Surrender, for its depiction of a moment in American history. Critics say it is unoriginal because it doesn’t significantly change the intent of the original photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995), V-J Day, 1945. Times Square. ©Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Johnson fabricated the original work with foam and urethane. The artist installed it in 2007 and it became a popular attraction. After several years of exposure to the elements, the work began to deteriorate. So Johnson created a bronze version to replace it. 

The city’s Commission for Arts and Culture voted against installing the bronze version, arguing that the work lacked artistic merit. Many artists appropriate, or borrow, from existing art. But critics say that by changing only the scale and medium, Johnson hasn’t changed the work significantly enough for it to be considered original. “It’s a really bad piece of public art. It’s an appropriated 3-D copy of a photograph,” says Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. 

Despite the critics’ opinions, public support for the artwork won out. In 2012, the USS Midway Museum raised more than $1 million to have the bronze version installed. Museum official Scott McGaugh says that given San Diego’s rich military history, the sculpture made sense. “We saw it as an appropriate memorial.”

Since the bronze sculpture’s installation, it has continued to be popular with the public, but unpopular with art critics. “I’ve seen school buses stop by there, as well as tour buses. They take their photos and off they go.” McGaugh says. But art critics argue that the piece just isn’t good art. “[Johnson] is a complete hack as an artist,” Davies counters. “[His work] often appeals to folks who are impressed by the size . . . and find the sentiment accessible.” 

What do you think? When it comes to public art, is popular opinion more important than what art critics think?

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