Thursday, August 6, 2020

Monumental Changes

As an artist and educator who teaches both art and art history, I have been closely observing the recent removals of statues and monuments across the United States over the past couple  months. I certainly have formed opinions about this. I may currently live in the South, but I resided in states much further north for most of my life. Some of the culture of the South has been baffling to me. It is not uncommon for me to see large pickup trucks, with full-sized Confederate flags streaming from them, driving around my neighborhood. This has always been disconcerting and somewhat sickening.

I recently asked a friend on social media—who also teaches art history and lives in the South—what he thought should be done with the statues of Confederate soldiers/leaders that are slated to be removed from Statuary Hall in the Capitol; he emphatically proclaimed that he hoped they would be destroyed. I get it. I certainly understand the sentiments that have led protestors to pull down Confederate statuary around the county as the Black Lives Matter movement has surged in the days since the killing of George Floyd. The removal, often violently, of monuments of oppressors has a long history.

When studying ancient art, the first period following prehistoric art periods is often the ancient cultures of the Middle East. The artifacts from these cultures are thousands of years old and the fact that any of them still exist is amazing. Often archaeologists have found the sculpted heads of ancient rulers with the eyes gouged out, separated from the bodies of the statues. Whether the ruler was oppressive or not, the leader who conquered would typically have statues of the former ruler destroyed. In fact, they would behead the statue (which was probably the same fate as the person it represented) as a symbol of his defeat and the end to his power. The bodies of the statues, if they were bronze, would just get melted down to become something else. And we are left with an assortment of blinded, deposed rulers. But those heads were kept as a sign to any would-be upstart who sought to challenge the new power—a powerful symbol.

During the Protestant Reformation a similar thing happened when the iconoclasts revolted against the cult of saints evident within Catholic churches and cathedrals. Taking the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images quite literally, the iconoclasts toppled carved statues of saints (as well as Christ and Mary) and even beheaded them in the same fashion as earlier cultures. Even the toppling of statues of Communist leaders at the end of the Cold War, in more recent decades, shows that this concept is a fundamental human reaction.

What seems to be new is a specific mania associated with statue removal. I would expect that some of the statues that have come down in 2020 were passed, day in and day out, by some of the folks who pulled them down—maybe even for years—without a second thought. Statues of lesser known figures often go unnoticed and the histories of the figures are unknown but to a handful of people. When they are suddenly demonized and destroyed by mobs it can be a shock to the collective system. From an artist’s point of view it hurts a little when anything that took so long to produce is destroyed so swiftly, whether or not I agree with what the monument stands for or represents to others.

Now, I am not saying that Confederate statues need to remain on prominent public display. They probably need to be considered on a case-by-case basis by the local municipalities with a clear plan for their removal in place. I understand that some locales do not have leaders who will willingly do this, but I applaud the ones who have understood the harmful impact of these objects on their constituents and have taken preemptive actions. Yet, we have not been satisfied with only the removal of Confederate statues and symbols. An ever increasing side eye is being given to monuments of figures who, at one time at least, seemed to be on the correct side of history.

The removal of the Emancipation Memorial (AKA Freedman’s Memorial) from public display in Boston is a prime example. Evidently the reading of the intent of this sculpture has transformed over the years. Created mainly with funds from former slaves, it likely originally reminded early viewers of the release from shackles of so many Americans, as well as the recent assassination of the leader who worked to put an end to their slavery. In light of decades of Critical Theory debate, it now elicits feelings of subjugation to some. It did fare better than the nearby statue of Christopher Columbus which got the guillotine days before.

Another U.S. presidential monument, also recently removed, was the equestrian monument of Teddy Roosevelt at the entrance to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Two male figures of a native African and native American walking alongside the horse also brought charges of subjugation and white supremacy. Roosevelt is seen by many as the father of modern conservationism, and the national parks are indebted to him. Yet, the statue is gone. So where are we? Where do we go from this moment of so much shifting and changing?

Number one. These are cosmetics to a certain degree. You could remove every monument of every questionable figure—and guess what? they all are because we are fallible human beings. You could even replace them all with deserving African American or Native American figures.

The only problem is that you haven’t changed anyone’s heart or anyone’s mind. Taking down a statue, as a municipal government or as an act of protest, feels good and feels righteous for a moment, but has anything really changed?

Number two. Where do these statues go from here? Many museums do not want them, even if they are of great technical quality or by important artists, because they are now tainted. Are they now condemned to be stuck in a warehouse somewhere, next to Indiana Jones’ famed lost Ark?

Number three. Is there a way to move past this moment that is truly healing and transformative for all?

I think there are some positive steps that can be taken. One of the easiest steps is contextualization. For the remaining monuments which are typically under the care of a municipality, it is much cheaper to contextualize a statue than remove it. I do think think some statues need to be taken down, but the Lincoln and Roosevelt statues could have been recontextualized long ago. Historical societies and cities all over are making walking tours guided by smart phone apps. The locations include QR codes that can be scanned on a phone for additional information and videos about the buildings or monuments. These can easily be created to tell the good, the bad, and the ugly about any figure represented. In the case of these monuments these materials could cover how the works were perceived when they were first erected and how views have changed over time. Even when works are removed this would be an excellent, interactive way to recontextualize them in a new setting.

For the removed and disgraced works… what is their fate? These are still someone’s relative. Families might take some for their private estates, but more and more, even the families are dissociating themselves from the moral failings of their ancestors. That takes us back to the beginning, to ancient times. If Confederate generals were truly the losers of a war then should not their statues bear the same fate as the ancient Middle Eastern rulers (and for the moment I’m not even considering the fact that they were often made several decades after the Civil War as tools of the Jim Crow era)? So, like my friend stated, they might just be destroyed. However, let’s think about how the statues were used in the ancient times. They were altered (beheaded) and a portion was kept to show the regime change.

We are living in a time when many deeply desire regime change. I’m not just talking about government leaders. People want society to change. People want institutions to change. But deep down, people want hearts and minds to change. That does not and can not happen with just policy. It may start there, but there is no switch we can flip to make people act (and feel) differently overnight. It takes time.

One of the most powerful tools for change is art. Some of these monuments were created (intentionally or not) to keep the status quo, but art can start revolutions—not only in governments but in hearts. My vision for the disgraced and hidden monuments, the beheaded Christopher Columbuses of our day, is that they be resurrected. The disembodied head might be a reminder that for centuries we held onto a tale that was murkier than just a jingle (in the year of 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue). The head testifies to that. It testifies to the craftsmanship of an artist who believed in that tale, and didn’t question it. But the body of that statue… perhaps it can be reborn into a new tribute.

Is it too much to ask the cities and museums that question the appropriateness of these objects to do more than just remove them? If a city wants to remove a statue of Columbus because of its offense to native peoples then why should they not offer the material (bronze, marble, etc.) to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC? Could not a contemporary native artist use that material to create a new work in response? Who loses in this scenario? The artist gets material with which to create. The museum gets a new artwork. The Italian-American Bostonians who treasured that statue could still at least visit the head, but they would also have the opportunity to see an artwork that could perhaps open their hearts and minds to a broader view of the past. Something that would put them in another’s shoes.

The same could be done with Confederate statuary and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There are so many inventive contemporary artists out there who could create stunning, thought provoking works if just given the materials and the chance. And these are just a couple museums. There are plenty of art museums who would likely not desire a Confederate monument, but would relish the chance to have new, reborn work by an artist of color. Let’s face it. When these statues and monuments are removed, we are not going to see them again. If they are going into a deep freeze to never be displayed again—even with recontextualization—then they should be resurrected into something new, something that acknowledges the past, the present and the future.

America is an imperfect experiment. This is my call to artists, museums, local governments, and philanthropists to work toward making their mark on this MORE perfect union.

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