bookmark_borderEvaluating various options on statues (part 3)

A recent Boston Globe article discusses historians’ opinions in favor of and against removing statues of controversial historical figures. This is a category that includes not only Confederate leaders but in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement has come to include founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as well.

Catherine Allgor, the President of the Massachusetts Historical Society, argued that it is appropriate to take down statues of the founding fathers if they do not fit the values held by most people today. “What were the questions and the issues that these monuments were an answer to?” she asked. “And then you have to say, is it useful for us?… Maybe the answer is we don’t put up statues to people because the problem with people is they’re very complicated. We’re asked to venerate and adore this person, but this person is a person. There is good stuff and bad stuff.”

But in my opinion, this is exactly why we should have statues of people and why these statues should not be removed, even if the majority of people today dislike them. Historical figures are complicated, with good stuff and bad, and that is part of why I love history and why I love statues. I love learning about people from the past and discovering their quirks and eccentricities, their good points and bad points. It is entirely appropriate to have statues of important people from the past, even if they were deeply flawed and even if the majority of people today consider them bad! The existence of a statue in a public place does not necessarily mean people are being asked to venerate and adore the person (and no historical figure is going to be venerated and adored by everyone); it just means that those who do venerate and adore the person have an awesome statue to enjoy. Because everyone admires different historical figures, it’s important for cities and towns to display a wide variety of statues so that everyone, and not just those who share the views of the majority, can find a statue that they like and admire. To completely give up on having statues of historical figures, just because these people were not perfect, is not the answer.

I also think that Allgor is overcomplicating things. Monuments do not need to be an answer to any question or issue. Perhaps they simply signify that the sculptor, or the person or organization that commissioned the statue, thought that the historical figure was cool. What’s wrong with that? Nor do monuments need to be useful, per se, to people today. Monuments are inherently valuable as historical artifacts and works of art. That is reason enough for them to be left in place. A city’s statues are part of its character and its identity, and a community that tears down monuments and builds new ones based on what is popular in the moment is a community without any character or identity.

Robert Allison, a professor of American history at Suffolk University, expressed different sentiments. “The Founders are always fair game for reassessment,” he said. “But that is not what is happening now. We are watching a concerted effort to remove history, not to reinterpret it… It does seem we have reached a moment where we want to remove historical figures because they do not live up to our high standards.”

I completely agree with these observations. Instead of thoughtfully considering the good and bad points of various historical figures, too many of today’s protesters are aggressively and mindlessly destroying statues for the sake of destroying statues. Their automatic response to any depiction of a white person in old-fashioned clothing seems to be to tear it down and burn it, regardless of the story behind the statue or even the identity of the person it depicts. For example, mobs in Madison, Wisconsin tore apart a statue of Union soldier and abolitionist Hans Christian Heg as well as a statue called Forward, which was a tribute to women’s suffrage. There is no logical reason why either statue would be objectionable to the Black Lives Matter movement; the barbaric mobs must have just seen a Civil War soldier and a woman in an ancient Greek style robe, and decided to destroy them.

Allison suggested building new statues, for example to abolitionists Lewis Hayden, Harriet Hayden, and Prince Hall, as opposed to destroying existing ones. And he pointed out that if the current trend of anti-statue violence continues, the only statue that will be left in Boston is the statue of a pear in Everett Square.

This is spot-on. And who knows, perhaps someone who hates pears will come along and deem the pear statue offensive as well. After all, mobs in Portland, Oregon set that city’s elk statue on fire, demonstrating that not even statues without political or ideological associations are safe.

Miranda ADEkoje, who is writing a play about Crispus Attucks, suggested that society “put these figures in a Museum of Painful History. What will we put back in place of these statues? Fill that space with a balm of equity and empowerment.”

I’m not sure what type of art this balm of equity and empowerment would be. But, as is often the case with people who advocate removing statues, this statement ignores the rights and feelings of people with opposing views. To those who like Robert E. Lee, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus, the removal of these statues inflicts tremendous harm and pain. To take away something that people cherish, because it is disliked by whatever group happens to hold the most political power, is the opposite of equity and empowerment. No replacement could possibly be adequate to heal the wounds of those whose favorite statues have been torn down in the name of political correctness.

Limiting statues to those historical figures admired by everyone will result in no statues except, possibly, for a giant piece of fruit. And only allowing monuments to those historical figures approved of by the majority of people is no better. This will result in statues constantly being torn down and replaced and is unfair to those with minority views, who will be deprived of the chance to visit and admire statues of their favorite historical figures. Leave statues be, and add more if some groups are not adequately represented.

bookmark_borderEvaluating various options on statues

As statues are unjustly being criticized and removed all across the country, there are various ideas for what should be done with those statues deemed unfit for public display.

For example, an article by Murray Whyte in last Sunday’s Boston Globe asks, “Toppled by a historical reckoning, should statues to our past be locked away or put on view elsewhere to decay in an act of public neglect?” The toppled monuments discussed in the article include not just statues of historical figures disliked by the politically-correct crowd, such as Confederate leaders and European explorers, but also works of art that depict minorities in ways that some people find offensive, such as the statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History in New York, flanked by a black man and a Native American man, a statue in Boston depicting a newly freed slave kneeling before Abraham Lincoln, a statue of a Native American outside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and even Boston’s 54th Regiment Memorial, which honors the first African-American volunteer infantry unit in the Civil War (some people don’t like that it shows Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was white, on horseback, with the rest of the soldiers marching on foot).

The most objectionable of the options mentioned in the article is to round up the unwanted statues and put them in a park where they will be left to decay. This is what happened in Lithuania and other eastern European countries as they gained independence from the Soviet Union and also in India after it won its independence from Britain. To leave beautiful, historic statues to gradually fall apart and rot is not a suitable option, in my opinion. This is disrespectful to the people depicted in the statues, as well as to the artists who painstakingly sculpted them. I would hope that even people who dislike certain statues would recognize that historical, irreplaceable works of art should not be left to be destroyed by the elements, with no one maintaining or taking care of them.

Another option discussed in the article is to give statues and other works of art to museums. This would at least allow the statues to be displayed and appreciated, although in a less prominent place than a city street or public park. Those who like the statues could still visit them, those who are interested in history could learn about them, and those who hate them could simply avoid the gallery where they are located. But it is unclear whether or not museums would be willing to accept statues that society considers undesirable. “Museums are not the dumpster for racist art,” said Jami Powell, associate curator of Indigenous art at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. “It costs money to store and care for these things. Those are resources being taken from other opportunities.”

The possibility of adding explanatory signage, either while leaving the statues at their original sites or as part of moving them to museums, is also mentioned in the article. This signage can be physical or virtual. In Boston, for example, the Friends of the Public Garden have created an app that displays stories and information related to public monuments such as that of Colonel Shaw and the 54th Regiment. This organization has also installed interpretive signage near the monument while it is being restored (a planned restoration project by the way, not a result of vandalism by protesters).

The article also mentions the possibility of leaving statues in place, but building additional statues to provide balance. For example, a massive bronze statue of a black man wearing a hoodie and dreadlocks, in a heroic pose on horseback, was installed on Monument Ave in Richmond last year. “I think that the best thing to do is to respond to them with more statues,” its creator, Kehinde Wiley, said of the Confederate monuments that until recently dominated that street. “What I’m saying is, the answer to negative speech is more speech, positive speech.”

What struck me about this article is that the option of doing nothing and simply allowing the statues to exist is not even mentioned. It is assumed that the statues are bad. For example, Whyte characterizes the calls to take down statues as “necessary conversations.” When explaining that most statues that have been removed are currently in storage, he writes, “for now, it’s enough that the monuments are gone.” The possibility is not even mentioned that people might consider it a bad thing for the monuments to be gone; it is just assumed that making them gone is everyone’s goal. Nor is it acknowledged that to some people, Confederate monuments are not “negative speech” but positive! The article briefly mentions the lawsuit against the removal of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue and the fact that defenders of such statues consider them to be heritage, but it derisively puts the word “heritage” in quotes. Efforts to halt statues’ removal are treated as impediments to achieving the desired outcome, not as actions taken by actual people with feelings, thoughts, and opinions who are trying to achieve their goal of preserving the statues.

Jami Powell, the museum curator, is quoted as saying: “I think that people have known for a really long time that these things needed to happen. There’s been this wave of support that I think demonstrates that public institutions don’t need to be fearful of doing the right thing.” Did it ever occur to her that to some people, removing magnificent statues is not the right thing, but the wrong thing? To say that people “have known for a really long time that these things needed to happen” presumes the truth of what Powell is trying to prove, namely that our society ought to get rid of all art that is not considered politically correct by today’s standards. But some people strongly disagree with this contention.

In my opinion, the best option is the one not acknowledged in the article: letting statues be, regardless of whether or not they meet the politically-correct crowd’s standards of acceptability. Let’s repair the statues that have been vandalized, put back those that have been taken down, and guard them to make sure no one harms them again. What is wrong with that? If governments insist on removing statues from from public streets and parks, which they should not, the statues should be relocated to places where they will be lovingly cared for and appreciated. This could mean a museum, a library, a cemetery, or a site owned by a private organization or individual. Adding more statues to increase racial and gender diversity is not a bad thing, but it is important to note that ideological diversity is equally important, if not more so. For this reason, the existence of Confederate statues is crucial. The ideology of authoritarianism and government power won in the Civil War and is dominant today in terms of public opinion and government policy, so it is particularly important for the sake of diversity to ensure that the values of rebelliousness and states’ rights are represented in our country’s public art.

One criticism of monuments in the article that I found particularly interesting is the fact that they are static as opposed to dynamic. In Whyte’s words, the problem with statues is “exactly their immutability in a world in constant flux.” Powell, the museum curator at Dartmouth, said, “that’s the thing about traditional monuments – they don’t really allow us that space for growth.” And another curator quoted in the article, Jen Mergel, expressed criticism of “single statements to last in perpetuity.” In my opinion, these things are precisely what make statues and monuments so awesome. Statues are supposed to be immutable and to last in perpetuity. They are not supposed to grow or change. When I look at a beautiful statue, I feel a connection to the past. Seeing magnificent monuments of generals, explorers, presidents, and other leaders makes me feel connected to these historical figures. The present is always changing, from clothing styles to music to social norms to government policies. The ideologies and values that are popular today are no more likely to be correct than those popular hundreds of years ago or those that will be popular hundreds of years in the future. That’s why it is so important to have some things in the world that do not change. It is a beautiful thing to know that no matter how much the world changes, monuments to heroes from long ago, wearing the clothing of their time periods and representing a wide variety of ideologies and values, will always be there. But now, because of some people’s intolerant actions, lovers of history both today and in the future will be deprived forever of the monuments that we cherish. To alter or obliterate statues in order to conform to the predominant values of the present completely defeats their purpose.