E. Winter Tashlin

Lessons From 'Light Dispelling Darkness' [PTAS]

Filed By E. Winter Tashlin | October 04, 2014 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: fountain, industry, Inequality, Light Dispelling Darkness, poverty, progress, PTAS, roosevelt park, science, sculpture, technology, Waylande Gregory, WPA

I wrestled with what photo to use for today's PTAS before finally settling on this detail from "Light Dispelling Darkness," a 1938 WPA-funded sculpture fountain in Roosevelt Park in Edison, New Jersey.

Artist Waylande Gregory's sculpture is a noble work, intended to show the power of human achievement and knowledge to rid the world of the great darknesses of human experience, such as war, pestilence, greed, and death.

The seventy-six years since its creation have not been kind to "Light Dispelling Darkness". The fragile terracotta figures have weathered badly, with layers of peeling paint, broken pieces, and the marks of a poorly-executed "restoration" effort granting the figures of darkness, a sinisterness that I imagine was missing in the original conception for the piece.

But then, those years haven't been so kind to the central concept either, have they?

To be clear, science and knowledge have certainly alleviated great suffering, at least in the wealthy First World. Advanced medicines and revolutions in medical technology have made dramatic impacts on quality of life; jet engines shrunk the scale of the world and opened up unimagined opportunities for exploration and recreation; digital technology and telecommunication created virtual communities that could span the globe; and though the sculpture's early years saw some of the century's greatest racial injustices in the United States, by the new millennium some true progress had been made in the cause of social equality for minority populations.

Yet to modern eyes, the driving theme of the sculpture is cloyingly naïve.

For starters, the aforementioned achievements benefited a small percentage of the world's populace, leaving billions of people toiling in all-too-familiar back-breaking and soul-crushing poverty. Beyond that though, we now know that the world that "Light Dispelling Darkness" envisioned was one lived on credit.

The new Packard in the driveway, the shining DC-10 at the end of the jetway, and the latest model iPhone in your pocket are all loans borrowed against a world of fast depleting resources and a climatological engine racing out of control. Yes, industry and technology have the power to lift people out of the mire of disease and poverty, but it also can lay waste to our world and reinforce a caste system resting on a bedrock of financial inequality.

Knowledge, science, and industry have many things to offer us, both great and terrible, just as they did in when Waylande Gregory first crafted the sculpture. Even now, "Light Dispelling Darkness" is rather awesome to behold, and we shouldn't ignore the hopeful vision it conveyed. However, its sad state today has its own lesson to teach: as we move forward, we should be asking of every new idea and technology, "how's this going to hold up over time?"

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