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|
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.
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!?!|
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.|
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.|