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Gilbreth column: What’s the cancel culture actually doing?

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SC Governor's Award for the Arts (copy)

The name of artist Elizabeth O'Neill Verner has been removed from South Carolina's highest honor for the arts. File/S.C. Arts Commission/Provided 

The cancel culture, in its worst manifestation, has become a laughingstock, and its participants are deserving of at least some of the ridicule and mockery levied for unfair treatment of long-deceased targets. As should be plainly apparent to anyone, for people of our time to take the meaningful and significant contributions of certain forebears and reduce them to nothing because those forebears may have merely blended in with some of the unfortunate circumstances of their day amounts to judgmental revisionism at its worst.

Those accomplishments may no longer be acknowledged and fewer people learn of them. If we know less and less about who we are, then ultimately we are left with nothing. It will be as if we’ve had a collective frontal lobotomy, like the one Jack Nicholson’s character had at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And yet that’s what some people want and have no way of knowing what they might have been like had they been a product of an earlier era. And they want it because it gives them a sense of self-satisfaction for doing something “good.” (Emphasis on self-satisfaction instead of selfless-satisfaction.) It begs the question: What are they actually doing?

It’s old news now, but the fact that Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s name was removed from the state’s most prestigious arts award last summer still rubs many people the wrong way, including my friend Laura Wichmann Hipp. Following are her remarks (edited for brevity), on one of Charleston’s most notable “Renaissance” artists.

“Elizabeth O’Neill Verner was born in 1883. In 1983, when I was in my 20s starting my Charleston Tea Party Walking Tour business and a century after the artist was born, the “Flower Ladies” at the Four Corners of Law revered her. This Charleston Renaissance artist was famous in their circles for defending the rights of street vendors like them to the mayor at City Hall.

“She, as then-president of The Garden Club of Charleston, staged the first ‘sit-in.’ The ladies went en masse to see the mayor, who was in a meeting. They waited for him, and when he came out and saw them, he raised his hands and said, ‘I surrender.’ Ms. Verner explained that making the street vendors go through the red tape of getting a business license would be too much. The Flower Ladies didn’t know Elizabeth O’Neill Verner was a famous artist. They thought she was famous for defending their right to sell flowers and baskets on the streets.

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“Ms. Verner paid her subjects to do actual portraits of them. My Flower Lady friend, Albertha Stokes, who sat at the corner of St. Michael’s Alley, walked around the corner with me to the artist’s studio on the corner of Tradd and Church and recognized an earlier generation of Flower Ladies when she was a young girl. She commented on how she could see that respect was mutual. Elizabeth O’Neill Verner did not portray her subjects as caricatures as other famous artists who moved to town did.

“Those who decided to remove this Charleston Renaissance artist’s name from what is now the South Carolina Governor’s Award for the Arts (formerly the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts) know not what they do. They have not benefitted from the continuity of history passed down from generation to generation. Ms. Verner’s daughter, Elizabeth Verner Hamilton, the Charleston poet, took me under her wing to fine tune my knowledge of our history and culture.

“The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Watch out, Dubose Heyward, Ira Gershwin, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, John Carroll Doyle, and others. There may be at least an asterisk headed your way.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.

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