Kiss Off, Sailor

Under The Hood


Sarasota’s long technicolor nightmare may soon be over.

The Public Art Committee offered a glimmer of hope this week that the the time may have come for Seward Johnson’s ode to copyright infringement, “Unconditional Surrender.” Beloved by tourists and hated by self-respecting artists, the kissing Sailor long loomed over Downtown, a visual manifestation of the conflict between Sarasota’s dueling image as tourist trap or cultural destination.

Since its arrival as part of the Season of Sculpture and through a stunningly loud debate over a conditional loan giving the beast its traffic jam-inducing space on the Tamiami Trail, this piece of pop art inspired conflict. On the one side, there stand those who believe this community an inspired one, with graduates of Ringling College of Art and Design painting murals and positioning street art that leads the mind through dynamic adventure and self-reflection. On the other side are those who check into beach motels and wonder what it costs to bring the in-room paintings home.

I guess one must acknowledge a third lobby that in fact tipped the scales in Sarasota 10 years ago. Veterans, by virtue of the artwork including a uniformed sailor I suppose, filled Sarasota City Commission chambers in 2010 with soldiers who heard dismay about the tastefulness of Johnson’s work as a slight against America. If non sequitur lines of debate are your thing, it’s worth loading video of the old meetings. I promise you if any city issue can cut through the coming Trump-vs-Biden noise this Fall, this is it.

Today the greatest threat to the statue’s sculpture may be the post-#MeToo desire to dismantle any image of a man making an unwanted advance on a woman. This line of reasoning always struck me as risky as it consumes the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photo that inspired this work (more on that later). But hey, if it works.

But in hopes the VFW set doesn’t once again overtake a debate about public art, let me explain a few ways this statue offends not only the visual sensibility of Sarasota’s cultural soul but the integrity of artistic expression itself.

Johnson, heir to a corporate fortune, long contended this picture wasn’t actually inspired by the famed “V-J Day in Times Square” but a similar shot taken by a military photographer (and thus part of the public domain). Since the Eisenstaedt shot appeared first in Life Magazine, Time Warner holds the rights. This statue’s presence in the city long brought legal exposure to local government. Fun fact, Johnson’s foundation at one point wanted as a condition to the statue’s loan for Sarasota to commit to helping defend against such lawsuits; the Commission thankfully balked at that even while embracing this oversized pinata.

Also, this 3-D recreation in no way appears refined. For something based on photographs of human beings, Unconditional Surrender boasts as much understanding of the human body as a chocolate Easter Bunny displays about the anatomy of a rabbit.

It’s also a high maintenance toy, made of aluminum and living in a tropical environment. The dangerous placement literally caused auto accidents, sometimes with vehicles barging straight into it.

But to me the worst sin of all remains a total lack sense of place around this work, despite now serving as the most high-profile sculpture in the city. It reimagines a moment in Times Square, where a smaller version once stood, and depicts figures with no connection to Sarasota. Some note the David statue in the city seal represents a replica (always more an argument for a new seal if you ask me), but at least that mimics a work in John Ringling’s collection as he set up Sarasota’s most famous estate. Johnson’s piece is a mass-produced, non-moving action figure, with other pieces in the product line standing in Key West, San Diego, Michigan, Belgium and Rome.

Honestly, Sarasota deserves better. Legendary artists from Jack Cartlidge to Syd Solomon to Craig Rubadoux to Adele Romanski claim ties to the region. Wouldn’t it be grand if work reflective of such greatness adorned our postcards and the backgrounds of Instagram snaps?

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ MEDIA.


Photo courtesy Visit Sarasota County

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