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Wednesday, April 2,2014

The real story of Sparty

In response to those upset about this week’s cover of City Pulse

by Andy Balaskovitz

Wednesday, April 2 — A few City Pulse readers (or perhaps people just passing by newsstands) are upset over this week’s cover of Michigan State University’s mascot, Sparty, depicted as the Three Wise Monkeys.


On it, Sparty is the symbol of the university when it comes to a much more serious issue than mascots: The ongoing under-reported crime of sexual assault on campus, as Todd Heywood reports in this week's cover story.


Erin Astolfi Blank writes on Facebook: As a woman I can appreciate the notion that we are safest when every one communicates when bad things happen- that we support each other when something is going on. I feel you chose the wrong face to encourage this. I believe using a public relations ambassador like Sparty in this manner is in poor taste. The truth may sting about MSU being investigated but there is no need to pull in a goodwill character to make your point.”


And Chris Ernest, who identified himself as someone who wore the Sparty outfit: “SPARTY does about 400 events a year...from hospital visits to parades to games to charities, SPARTY has done it all … I find this amazingly gross and irresponsible … Why not use the block S?? A picture of the school? Why use the image of SPARTY as a way to use the hear no evil, see no evil bullshit!! If it is indeed a problem which it apparently is, I feel sorry to whoever this has happened to, BUT....to use this image is grossly inappropriate!!! We meaning the men and the women of the SPARTY program have worked our asses off to make sure the school is proud of what we do in and out of the suit!!! It's absolutely insane that your little paper did this. This is sooooo bush league!!!”


If anything, comments along these lines show how much needs to be done to raise awareness on this issue affecting campuses nationwide. But rather than debate what the mascot means to the community, we leave you with a 2002 City Pulse cover story about Sparty’s history. It’s an illuminating read about the original artist of the statue, Leonard D. Jungwirth, who was educated in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party.




By DANIEL STURM


He is without question the most popular figure on Michigan State University's campus: the Spartan, better known as "Sparty," a three-ton, 11-foot-high colossus. You can find his face on cups, sweatshirts and jackets, and meet him in person as a full-bodied mascot at MSU celebrations and football games. Since he was erected in 1945, university officials proudly call him the largest freestanding ceramic figure in the world. Today, green-and-white clad students guard Sparty through the night on the eve of the MSU-UM game, and devoted alumni praise him with religious fervor.


At first glance, the stone-faced MSU symbol impressed me as a Rambo-like warrior, with oversized muscles and a shocking emptiness of expression. Hadn't ancient Sparta been a state system, which intentionally raised children as war machines? And weren't the Spartans reputed as intellectually and artistically barren, since they limited reading and writing to an absolute minimum? Strangely, Sparty reminded me of the artwork of Nazi Germany, back when "Aryan" race body aesthetics were celebrated. Where did this guy come from?


The Spartan ideal gained favor in 1858, when Sen. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the author of the Land Grant Act that created in MSU, promised to make Michigan schools like those of ancient Sparta, whose "graduates would know how to sustain American institutions with American vigor." But Spartan warriors had to wait, since the Michigan Agricultural College primarily trained farmers. At the turn of the century, students rallied to slogans such as "Ye can't fool the Farmers, by heck," or "There'll be a hot time, on the old farm tonight."


When the school became Michigan State College in 1925, students wanted a nickname other than "Aggies" or "Farmers." They held a formal contest, to which entries such as "Fawns," "Pioneers," "Statesmen," and even "Bearcats" (in honor of "the Stutz," an automobile coveted by students) were submitted. Although "Michigan Staters" won the prize, it was too long for headlines and lacked the right zing for the sports page. So George Alderton of the State Journal and Dale Stafford of the Capitol News dug through the rejected entries and chose Perry J. Fremont's submission: "Spartans." Within a few days The State News embraced the new name, and within a year "The Gods of Sparta" was the water carnival theme at the university. The MSU "Fight Song," written by cheerleader F. I. Lankey in 1906, was revised from "Their specialty is farming, but those farmers play football," to "Their specialty is winning, and those Spartans play good ball."


In the middle of the World War II, sculptor Leonard D. Jungwirth, an MSU assistant professor, decided to create a statue of "The Spartan." Jungwirth was born in Detroit in 1903, the son of an Austrian wood-carver and modeler who had immigrated to America in 1882. His mother was born in Germany. And he studied in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler.


It remains unclear why Jungwirth sacrificed three years of his spare time to create Sparty without receiving any apparent compensation. According to the MSU Library of Arts archives, the Spartan was a gift of the class of 1942. The statue was dedicated to the public on June 9, 1945, just four weeks after the victory over Nazi Germany. At the ceremony, the MSU Fight Song was sung and President John Hannah gave a short speech: "In the years ahead, this Spartan Warrior in this beautiful and proper setting will become one of the distinguished marks of this campus that all students and visitors will associate with this college and this campus. It is a real pleasure for me to congratulate Mr. Jungwirth for his fine work, and to accept and dedicate formally this Spartan Warrior as a proper exemplification of the youth and spirit of Michigan State College."


Jungwirth's oldest daughter, Sandra Ayers, who lives in DeWitt, said that her father hadn't been a big sports fan. She also remembers that he didn't believe the statue was his greatest work of art. He often told her, "I hope I don't get to be known as the creator of Sparty when I die." But when he died in 1963, that is exactly what happened. Ayers believes her father's stay in Germany from 1929 to 1933 had an influence on his artwork. He'd told her about running into SA troops and about the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, whom he'd seen on two occasions. She told City Pulse about a Nazi knife he'd brought back from Germany. "He told me it had dried blood on it, but I don't know if it did. I guess it was rusty."


In 1929, Jungwirth attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Nine years earlier Adolf Hitler had founded the Nazi party in Munich's Hofbr'uhaus. As Jungwirth arrived, they had just started to rally in the city, which they would later call "Capital of the Movement." They campaigned intensely, adopting the slogan "Munich Must Again Become the Hope of Germany," to win the municipal elections in December. Two thousand paramilitary troops marched through the city during one campaign. The party also mounted 20 rallies in Munich beer halls, with Hitler scurrying from rally to rally.


The streets had become a stage for violent political confrontation when 29-year old Jungwirth visited the home of his family. Was he excited to see this new German fascist leader, like many of his generation? Whatever his reaction, he must have realized the Munich Academy was not the same as it had been 20 years before, when it had nurtured geniuses such as Vassily Kandinsky, Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee and Franz Marc. After WWI, the Academy had quickly lost respect, as nationalist bigotry turned a central European metropolis into a center of fascist propaganda.


The Academy of Fine Arts was located in Schwabing, the old bohemian quarter that Hitler favored, and where disgruntled artists joined students, teachers, civil servants, and white-collar workers in placing their faith in the failed painter from Austria. Although the Academy building was badly damaged in a bomb attack during WWII, a catalog of the 1932 Munich Art Exhibition lists two sculptures under Leonard Jungwirth's name, including "Die B'uerin" (wood) and "Pieta" (plaster).


A 1996 MSU exhibition about Sparty and the Figurative Tradition in Sculpture acknowledges that "Jungwirth's Munich years may have been significant in the development of his idea of 'The Spartan.'" The exhibit pointed out that Jungwirth probably visited Munich's famous museums, where major works of Greek and Roman sculpture -some of them athletes and warriors - were on display. However, it failed to mention the transformation of Munich during that time into an open-air museum of National Socialism or what influence that might have had on Jungwirth. This important background is not mentioned in any MSU brochures or publications.


By the 1940s, the realistic style was largely out of favor outside of Germany. But the idealized figure of "The Spartan," sleek and impersonal, was similar to sculptures of Jungwirth's German contemporaries, such as Josef Thorak and Arno Breker. The latter created two 10-feet-8-inch-high statues for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin -"Zehnk'mpfer" ("Decathlete") and "Siegerin" ("Winner").


The National Socialist standards for art were based upon 19th century popular taste for idealized figures, writes the art historian George Moose in his 1987 essay, "Beauty without Sensuality." The beauty of the Greek youths - lithe and supple, muscular and harmonious - lay in their nakedness. The Nazis considered certain kinds of nakedness, including people with war injuries, physical handicaps, or in the process of lovemaking, "degenerate" and banned from exhibitions. The Nazis also encouraged physical training, and "here the problem of nudity arose once more," Moose wrote. "The skin had to be hairless, smooth, and bronzed. The body had become an abstract symbol of Aryan beauty, as it was in Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Olympic Games. This idea of 'sensuality' was transcended by an idealization of ancient Greek form, and figures that could be worshipped, but neither desired nor loved," concludes Moose.


Jungwirth might have been at least unwittingly influenced by this style. Sparty stands, invincible, at the intersection of Kalamazoo Street and Red Cedar and Chestnut roads, a figure to be worshipped, but neither desired nor loved.


Moose writes that depicting beauty with sensuality presents a danger to society because it symbolizes a revolt against respectability as a principle of unity and order.


During the first half of the 20th century, many artists managed to create figures that were unlike impersonal nudes like "The Spartan." Ernst Barlach, who like Jungwirth started out with woodcarvings, created The 1927 G'strow War Memorial, which showed a life-sized human figure with the peacefully stylized visage depicting beauty with sensuality by showing grieving figures and pathetic souls. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Barlach wrote: "My little boat is sinking fast. The louder the Heils roar, instead of cheering and raising my arms in Roman attitudes, the more I pull my hat down over my eyes."


Jungwirth's other artwork shows a more compassionate and mature interpretation of human form. Between 1937 to 1940, he completed a large granite sculpture at Belle Isle in Detroit, "Father Gabriel Richard." His local work includes four carvings based on the Paul Bunyan legend and a "Diana of the Chase" on the second floor of the Student Union. Six ceramic reliefs are in Landon Hall, and work is also located in Alumni Memorial Chapel and Van Hoosen Hall. Jungwirth created the city seal reliefs for the exterior of Lansing City Hall, Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing and "The Three Bears" for the Willow Street School in Lansing.


I wonder what message "The Spartan" sends out today. In October 1989, the sculpture was rededicated after a yearlong face-lift. A university marching band played "The Fight Song," and onlookers raised their fists, yelling, "Fight!" Vince Vandenburg, a member of the committee to Save Our Sparty (S.O.S.), which raised $100,000 in donations for the statue's renovation, said: "Sparty is God, he represents MSU, athletics and progress. Sparty is MSU."


Hannah, who served as president from 1941 until 1969, said Sparty harkens back to the glorious past of ancient Greece and with its renovation the statue can uphold the "Spartan image of obedience, endurance and discipline."


The myth of Spartan boys who loved their motherland, fought bravely and died without fear simply presents a powerful saga for a university sports team. In fact, Sparty is a descendant of the Spartan King Leonidas, who together with all 300 warriors died in the Battle of Thermopylae, 480 B.C. Forty years after his death, his remains were returned to Sparta and annual games were held around his monument.


Sports aside, this link to National Socialist artwork is a serious matter that should be acknowledged in Sparty's biography. Students should learn critical thinking skills that enable them to reflect on the act of sacrificing one's life for heroic deeds. In one of his last dictations, on Feb. 6, 1945, Hitler compared Germany's fate with that of Leonidas' Spartans: "And if, in spite of everything, the Fates have decreed that we should once more in the course of our history be crushed by forces superior to our own, then let us go down with our heads high and secure in the knowledge that the honor of the German people remains without blemish. A desperate fight remains for all time a shining example. Let us remember Leonidas and his 300 Spartans!"


MSU is considering replacing Sparty with a $50,000 bronze version and moving the original, which was just restored, indoors to preserve it. This might be a good time for the university to take a moment to reflect on the troubled historical context of its mascot. Censoring the influence of the Third Reich on art is a dangerous act. "They deliberately played up to the image the rest of the world had of them while being secretly amused at it," wrote J.F. Lazenby in his study of the Spartan Army (1985). "This may be what Aristophanes meant when he described them as fond of poking fun at strangers, and is not this the point of the famous story of the barbarian king who on finding the Spartan black broth not to his taste, was blandly informed that he had first to bathe in the Eurotas to appreciate it?"

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