I am fascinated by the debate around Confederate monuments. (Anti-racist, anti-white supremacist action is, of course, paramount. I’ll return to that in a follow-up post.) Here are some reasons I’m fascinated with the dialogue around monuments.
We are having a national conversation about public art.
Usually, art and artists are on the margins of society. It’s rare when art or issues around art are widely discussed by the mainstream.
Most Americans have never studied visual criticism, art history, or public art. They may have never made art, cast sculpture, or considered the role of public art. Some people even think they hate art and talking about it (“I like art that speaks for itself”). It’s very interesting to see so many Americans having strong opinions about monuments right now.
Monuments are an unlikely lightning rod.
I probably pass a dozen historical statues every week and rarely take notice of them. I take it for granted that they valorize dead white men. They don’t relate to me and they don’t appeal to me; I often find realism and portraiture visually boring. These statues mimic classical Greco-Roman style; they’re elevated on high plinths. This creates hierarchical assertions of power. I’d rather see democratic spaces that are flexible and responsive to local communities and contemporary concerns.
Statues of historical figures mostly convey significance. As didactic tools, their efficacy is limited. They lack the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that makes history compelling and relevant.
For white supremacists and anti-racists/anti-facists/Black Lives Matter activists (activists for racial justice), Confederate monuments are a battleground for a dialogue about race in America. It’s interesting that much larger, and more intangible cultural and political forces—ongoing systemic and institutional racism, of which police brutality has become increasingly visible and publicized due to digital technologies, and Trump’s fear-mongering nostalgia and xenophobia inflaming a base precarious due to neoliberalism and deindustrialization—are manifesting in a dialogue about relatively boring public art.
It is also fascinating how these sculptures have existed for decades, but their meanings have become heightened via political climate, political will, and people’s organizing.
What I learned in art school
It’s easy to ridicule the impracticality of art school. But ideas and skills I learned in art school inform how I understand monuments, which I find especially helpful right now.
- Monuments are subjective. Via critical visual studies, one may deconstruct what is shown (i.e., a depiction of an idealized general, emphasizing honor and bravery, in a neoclassical style that lends prestige and timelessness) and what is not shown (i.e., the horrors of war, the people affected by war, slavery, and racial injustice).
- Monuments serve agendas. Monuments are very expensive, heavy, space-taking tools for memory. That memory is crafted by the powerful. Many of the contested monuments were created in the Jim Crow era. They depict Robert E. Lee, but the contexts of their creations suggest that they memorialize a past when white power and privilege were legally and violently enforced.
- Monuments are contestable. Everything is up for debate. Meaning relies on context, and context is variable. In fact, one of the most indisputable arguments for removing a Confederate statue is bad context to begin with (e.g., Lee’s connection to NOLA was insignificant, thus the statue was out of place anyway). And nothing is permanent. Only a small proportion of art is preserved. Museums regularly acquire and de-accession artworks. Preservation is subject to re-evaluation. (Though monuments aspire to look like they have stood since time-immemorial, societies decide if they’re going to maintain them, power-wash the pigeon poop, fix or ignore oxidation, patch erosion of the plinths, etc.) Monuments are parts of cities, and cities are layers—palimpsests that are constantly rewritten. Displaced monuments tell stories too.
Artists helped spark this debate.
Wynton Marsalis played a pivotal role in the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans. Artists can have political power. This is an important example of how artists make change by writing an op-ed and speaking to public officials.
What makes good public art?
Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local is a fantastic book for thinking about place and place-related art. She actually says that little public art is actually public—much is private because of whose interests it serves. She defines public art as
“accessible art of any species that cares about, challenges, involves, consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting the community and environment.”
“a public art exists in the hearts, minds, ideologies, and educations of its audience, as well as in their physical, sensuous experiences.”
She also poses these questions:
Who defines public?
What defines a public space?
What kind of art occupies it best?
How does and can an art in the public realm communicate these ideas about place?
What are the responsibilities of a public artwork to the place, and to those who live there?
I like how this resonates with Marsalis’ proposal:
We should transform the current Lee Circle into an inviting space that celebrates the communal intentions of the international community that helped us survive Katrina. This place would fill the heart of our city with something uplifting for us all and for all times.
The removal of Confederate statues provides some opportunities to be more creative and generative.
Where should the sculptures go?
- We could create a space like Memento Park in Budapest, a Communist statue graveyard for contemplation on dictatorship.
- A museum of slavery or about the legacy of slavery. The presence there of displaced monuments would add dimension to how memorialization is ongoing.
- Perhaps the bronze could be recycled into a sculpture that is more interesting, compelling, modern, and progressive. It could become a public park element like a fountain, bench, or shade that welcomes all.
- Perhaps the statues can be chopped up into small pieces that are distributed as mementos of a successful anti-racist people’s movement. (I am aware of the gruesome resonances of this.)
What to do with an empty plinth?
I really like the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Originally meant to house a sculpture that was never made due to lack of funding, the empty plinth became a city-run platform for rotating public art commissions.
Of these, my favorite is Antony Gormley’s “One and Other.” The empty plinth became a stage for 2,400 UK residents to occupy as they liked, one at a time, for one hour at a time, for 100 days and nights. It’s a breath of fresh air to see living, diverse, wacky, everyday citizens use a place of prestige in a public space. Here’s a great video.