Unconditional Surrender: Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Two voices, two opinions.

By David R. Kotok and Kelly Kirschner September 24, 2020

Unconditional Surrender on Sarasota's bayfront

Unconditional Surrender on Sarasota's bayfront

The City of Sarasota is getting ready to move Unconditional Surrender, the controversial “kissing statue” at Bayfront Park, to make room for the construction of the U.S. 41/Gulfstream Avenue roundabout. But whether the statue will be returned to the bayfront or relocated has been a matter of heated debate. We asked two readers with different opinions to make their cases. Let us know what you think.

The Statue Should Stay

Art is in the eye of the beholder; beauty and meaning are subjective. Indifference may be the only sin when it comes to art appreciation.

From my office window, I’ve watched hundreds, perhaps thousands, of folks pose with, kiss in front of, assemble next to, mimic, and otherwise encounter the famous sculpture inspired by an iconic photograph taken to celebrate the end of World War II. The history of that photograph is well known.

My frequent walks along the marina allow me to eavesdrop on visitors to the sculpture. Parents and grandparents explain to children and grandchildren what the sailor’s uniform means. Others who are fashion-conscious point at the seams of the woman’s stockings, and that triggers a conversation about then and now. Many conversations turn serious, tackling current issues regarding the relations between women and men. Some muse on what it might mean to spontaneously kiss a stranger in public, with or without permission.

For me, the sculpture is an inspiring sight. My father was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, in the South Pacific. His ship was hit and split five seams. A nurse helped him with his injuries. My service was with the U.S. Army in the ’60s. Every vet I talk to about the sculpture says reverent things about it. And it has wonderful coordinates as a location for those who want to meet and then visit parts of Sarasota. As one journalist said, “I’ve never loved it as art, but I like it as an attraction and destination. I can’t count how many times I’ve told people to meet me at the kissing statue.”

There is a dramatic comparison, an artistic contrast we can draw, to sharpen this debate. Across the street from Unconditional Surrender is a modern sculpture, twice as high and bright red. It was originally placed there for a temporary period but has become permanent. I see it, too, from my office window. The most notable visitor is an occasional bird perched on top, contributing to its patina. No one kisses in front of it. No one meets there. Rarely is a photo posed or taken. It does not spark conversation. 

So what to remove and what to keep? What to use for the teaching of history or civics or even consent before a kiss? Sculpture can help us learn who we have been, determine who we are, and, most importantly, talk about who and what we want to become. Public art promotes diverse views and encourages civil debate. We should not surrender such treasures. —David R. Kotok, co-founder, chairman of the board and Chief Investment Officer of Cumberland Advisors

The Statue Should Go

In his seminal 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw assigned the title “greatest” to those who served in World War II because they fought not for fame or recognition, but because it was the "right thing to do.” Doing the right thing, for no personal gain—and for WWII veterans, at significant personal risk—is hard. It is what leaders and educators do; they act in ways not driven by surveys, polls, large gifts or angry mobs; rather, by what is right.  

A decade ago, as a member of Sarasota’s City Commission, I did the wrong thing for what seemed like the right reasons, accepting the placement of the Unconditional Surrender statue for a 10-year period on our public bayfront. It seemed that in spite of the unoriginal and probably pirated work that diminished Sarasota’s stature as one of the nation’s most unique arts communities, I acceded to the desire of so many in the community to honor the service and sacrifice of our brave veterans. For them, the statue captures the delight at the coming of peace they saw reflected in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph, VJ Day in Times Square.

It was a false choice then and continues to be one today, as a similar debate starts to line up on the statue’s future in our community. Accepting the donation was the wrong thing to do, because then, as now, Unconditional Surrender does not meet the City of Sarasota’s criteria for public art. The issues are not merely matters of taste and preference, but also of right and wrong. 

When I voted to accept this, the lack of consent between the two individuals depicted in the sculpture was not established fact. That changed when a 2012 book solved the long-running mystery of who the individuals were in that photo. As a father, I do not want my son or daughter to grow up with a 25-foot-tall decontextualized forced kiss as their model of what romantic love and acceptable male-female behavior looks like.

For the last decade, Sarasota’s hands were tied by the loan agreement I signed as mayor after Dr. Larry Thompson of Ringling College (representing the Art Fund of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, which served as a vehicle for Jack Curran’s gift of the funds to purchase the sculpture), worked with sculptor Seward Johnson to sidestep the copyright issues presented by displaying an unlicensed derivative work. Although the sculpture was essentially crafted as a 3-D printout of Eisenstaedt’s indelible image, published by Life magazine, Johnson refused to pay the required licensing fee, and instead claimed that the sculpture was inspired by a public domain photograph of the same pair that only shows their figures from the knees up. Now that ownership of the sculpture has been conferred to the city, these intellectual property risks are heightened, and the current commission has a fiduciary duty to return this sculpture to its creator’s estate.

It seems our national conversation on statues, meaning and messages conveyed to the public and, most importantly, to our children, has never been so intense and thoughtful. At a point in our history when a collective national empathy coalesces, understanding and supporting the removal of decontextualized Confederate soldier statues from public lands as well as affirming a woman’s right to consent, it should be an easy call to make on removing this cheap, unoriginal, pirated, made-in-China piece of kitsch from our shores. If the hue and cry is to honor the service and sacrifice of our greatest generation, I am positive that we have the artistic creativity, originality and philanthropic support in Sarasota to do as much and restore our national reputation as a unique community that celebrates and supports local art and culture. It is the right thing to do, and probably the best way we could honor our greatest generation. —Kelly Kirschner, Sarasota resident and former mayor of the city of Sarasota

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