11 June 2020

Some Thoughts on Monuments

Art certainly doesn’t need to be pure. But public statues invite public admiration, and if we can no longer admire them, it’s right to wonder if they should remain.

— Bendor Grosvenor, PhD, art historian, and presenter, The Art Detectives, on BBC4

So monuments have been having their moment in the news this week. Well, to be honest, they've been having their decade.

And not in a good way.

More in this kind of way:

Yep, that's a pic of a statue of Iraqi "strongman" Saddam Hussein toppling, shortly after Hussein himself was toppled from power way back in 2003. But in reality it could have been any of hundreds of "great" men (and it's nearly always men, the likes of Evita Peron notwithstanding.) whose day of reckoning eventually came: Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Hitler. Mussolini. The list of the leaders of failed regimes, brought low by their own hubris and overreach.

And close on their heels: the monuments they erected, testaments of their enduring power. So many of the iconic moments surrounding the end of a regime involve the destruction of the talismanic physical testaments of that regime's power. It's a cycle as old as human history, and has been memorialized time and again by great artists, such as the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his immortal poem Ozymandias:

Percy Bysshe Shelley
  I met a traveller from an antique land,
  Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
  Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
  Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
  And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
  Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
  Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
  The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
  And on the pedestal, these words appear:
  My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
  Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
  Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
  The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The point, of course, being, that all such sacrifices on the altar of human vanity are doomed to eventually come crashing down.
Of course it goes without saying that where there's a rule, there's an exception. And not surprisingly, with the way Americans tend to view themselves as an exceptional people, the exception I'm thinking of to this particular rule is definitely an American one.

So let's talk about all of these Confederate monuments arrayed throughout (but not limited to) the American South. You know, the ones we've seen recently being pulled from their pediments by protesters, when they're not being removed by public workers at the order of local municipalities or state governments.

The ones that were mass-produced for profit not in the South, but in New England. Heads special ordered and matched to a previously cast body, either standing, or mounted on horseback. Losers of a brutal war which left over half-a-million Americans dead, memorialized over a thirty year period, beginning a generation after the end of that war. And all as part of a largely successful, long-running attempt to stave off many of the long-term impacts of that war: a movement romanticized as preserving the memory of a glorious "Lost Cause."

...and Ron Reagan too!?!
Whoever said, "The winners write the history,"never read anything by the likes of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning Historian Douglas Southall Freeman. The defeated secessionists of the American South might have lost the war, but for over a century afterward, they and their spiritual descendants worked diligently at winning the peace. And they got terrific press for it.

Think Gone With The Wind, or Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn playing future Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart, in the top-grossing 1940 western, Santa Fe Trail. Or go back further, to (Southerner) D.W. Griffith's ground-breaking 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, the first film shown in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson: Southern-born and raised, progressive in most things save race relations, single-handedly responsible for reversing the racial integration of the federal bureaucracy which had been carried out by his predecessors.

Not like they were trying to hide anything.
The film was truly innovative in its approach (first use of close-ups, a musical soundtrack, and "a cast of thousands") and utterly antediluvian in its subject matter. Based on a novel called The Clansman: a Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (And you can guess how the Klan comes across in that one.) by a former Baptist minister and life-long bigot named Thomas Dixon, Jr., the film paints the Klan as the Good Guys, preserving the virtue of their swooning (and utterly helpless) women by wresting them from the clutches of a number of ridiculously drawn racial stereotypes of underintelligent, overly sexual blacks played by white actors in black face.

So, you know. Pretty much an early example of spin-doctoring, in service of white-washing (pun very much intended) the despicable practice of lynching.

This is the background against which the statues currently being pulled down or placed in storage across this country were financed, constructed, shipped, mounted, raised and dedicated. Art as propaganda, in service of a monstrous composite lie: the notion that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery (it was), that the South didn't really lose (it did), and that society did not need to change in order to reflect the status of newly-freed former slaves.

As a nation we are still wrestling with that last part. And the conversations being sparked by the current round of protests are long overdue. Either we as a people will address the wounds inflicted by the vile practice of slavery and the on-going systemic oppression which sprung up in its wake, or we may well find ourselves in the same position as the great and powerful Ozymandias.

Feet of the Colossus of Ramesses II, Ramesseum, Luxor (Thebes) Egypt, the Ozymandias of Shelley's poem.


  1. A timely reminder that propaganda is nothing new- it just takes different forms.

  2. Amen, Brian!
    The brutal truths of slavery, "reconstruction", Jim Crow, and the new Jim Crow have haunted and are haunting this country, and will continue to do so until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness in an everlasting stream. And along the way, a lot of monuments must come down.

  3. Yes. Well done. If y'all wanna look back at my post of 26 May 2017 "Monuments to a Terrible Past," I talked about the confederate monuments in New Orleans and received a lot of flak from family and friends (many of my family and friends are neo-confederates). I also saw a dramatic decrease in my book sales on Amazon.com. Guess I had a lot of readers who disagreed with me. Such is life. You can imagine the reaction when I say, "Black Lives Matter."

  4. Good points. One of the most successful post-Civil War propagandists was John Newman Edwards, the newspaper publisher who lionized (and lying-ized) the multiple murderer Jesse James. He inspired print, poetry, and song, turn James from a cowardly criminal into a heroic figure.

  5. Today I considered a different take on the subject. Minutes before reading your article, I was following British news where statues of public figures are being removed including Lord Baden-Powell, OM, GCMG, GCVO, KCB, KStJ, DL, famed army officer and founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. He now stands accused of homophobia and racism.

    The same news feed announced the now-grown child actors in the Harry Potter series turned firehose vitriol on JK Rowling, accusing her of transphobia. I don’t know if Rowling is transphobic, but I bet the actresses would be waitressing today if it weren’t for the author’s work. Rowling’s writings have given a lot of pleasure to the world as has Baden-Powell.

    People have feet of clay. Especially those who criticize the footwear of others. It seems some are so dead-set to advance their own superiority, they delight in trashing once-great figures. What if Rowling isn’t prejudiced? How much pain does the accusation cause?

    The opposite side of the coin could be symbolized by Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in (sigh) where else, but Florida, Jacksonville to be precise. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave owner, a Confederate Cavalry General, and subsequently a founder and leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The school is majority black.

    Not so long ago, Fox News crowed about the school board refusing to change the school’s name. The quoted the school’s first principal and board member defending Forrest as a “good man” and saying, “I am thrilled to death that the school board voted it down.”

    Only six years ago, the board finally agreed to change its name. Why the hell did it take so damn long? Never mind, I know that answer.

  6. Leigh. After Nicholls High School in New Orleans, a school named after Francis T. Nicholls, former confederate general and governor, became a school of predominately black students, the name was changed to Frederick Douglass High School over loud opposition of alumni and some politicians. But it was changed. Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, remains Nicholls State. Governor Nicholls Street in the New Orleans French Quarter has not been changed. It use to be called Hospital Street. Since the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from Lee Circle, the name of the circle has not been changed yet. There are many suggestions. It was originally named Tivoli Circle.


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