The Broken Phallus of Harvard Yard

Sophie Gonick

The only thing more surprising than the rapid erection of a nine-foot tall snow phallus in Harvard Yard last week was its even-quicker demise. Soon after it was completed, a group of self-appointed phallus-breakers knocked the ice-encrusted sculpture to bits. The destruction of the phallus was clearly a cowardly act of vandalism. But what were the motives of the phallus breakers? That’s a much harder nut to crack.

Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers. For example, why did the enormous phallus—which had life-like veins, a urethral bulge, and a sizeable scrotum—elicit such iconoclastic fanaticism? And how could students who are normally so respectful of public art forms and self-expression react so violently to a harmless ice-covered phallus in their midst?

Such questions are especially troubling given the long and distinguished history of phallic imagery in art. The greatest poets of ancient Greece, for example, used the phallus liberally. In Aristophanes’ comedy “Acharnians,” the protagonist Dikaiopolis holds a religious procession with a model phallus and sings a bawdy song called the phallikon in Greek. He instructs his slave to hold a “phallus-pole” up stiff and straight and sings an ode to the “midnight rambler and carouser.” The phallus procession was a celebration of a peace treaty that Dikaiopolis had personally arranged with the enemy Spartans. In “Lysistrata,” another comedy by Aristophanes, the women of Athens go on a sex strike to force their men to give up a ruinous war. Soon, the soldiers can no longer fight because of their chronically-swollen members. Since the phallus is a symbol of peace in both cases, the violence of the phallus-breakers is especially ironic.

For many cultures including the ancient Greeks, the phallus is a positive symbol. For example, the phallus is a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva and often is found in temples dedicated to the god. A man with an erect phallus was a common portrayal of the ancient Egyptian god Min, showing that the Greeks were not alone in their positive associations with the tumescent male appendage.

Perhaps the phallus-breakers of Harvard Yard were reacting with bourgeois conventionality in labeling challenging art as subversive. Or maybe they were acting on some radical women’s liberation agenda that requires the destruction of visible symbols of male virility.

The phallus’ detractors might point to its large-size life-like features to label it not art, but an obscene symbol of male excess. The phallus might be threatening as a reminder of the subjugation of women by the hard-hearted, monolithic patriarchy. These objections are baseless. Although the builders of the snow phallus likely took pleasure in the sheer physical presence of the work, this pleasure does not invalidate the artistic merits of the sculpture. Moreover, public expressions such as the phallus should be debated, not destroyed. The next time a phallus goes up in the Yard, the phallus breakers should keep their hands off.

—Jonathan H. Esensten is an executive editor.