Who comes to this country to see our sculpture? It is not our strong suit, to put it kindly. To an overwhelming extent, our public statues are platitudes in marble, almost always competent and almost never brilliant. We go to Rome to admire the work of Michelangelo and Bernini, but there is only one sculpture that visitors to America want to see—the Statue of Liberty—and it is French. But suddenly sculpture has come to matter, as it never did at any other moment in American history.
The death of George Floyd on May 25 provided the spark, but the tinder was already stacked. The American public had been growing increasingly restive over how the Confederacy was celebrated in the public spaces of the American South. It was one thing to mourn the Civil War dead, quite another to glorify the Confederacy on public land. Moreover, some of the most provocative monuments had been raised in the 1920s during the national Ku Klux Klan revival, and could be regarded as instruments of racial intimidation. Most inflammatory was Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a mighty 1.5-mile axis punctuated with equestrian statues of Confederate generals and culminating in a swaggering bronze of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1996, in an effort to make the avenue less incendiary, the city added a statue of Arthur Ashe, the Richmond-born black tennis champion. The gesture was ludicrous.
The unease accelerated after the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, followed by several other high-profile killings with racial implications. Confederate memorials became the flash points of protests, and in some cities they were removed. In 2017, Baltimore ousted Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, while both New Orleans and Memphis rid themselves of their Jefferson Davis memorials. (A civilian leader who went down in defeat, Davis could not be depicted on horseback or beneath a triumphal arch and so proved amusingly easy to pluck off his pedestal.) Other cities were still mulling over their own monuments when events were wrenched from their hands on May 25.
Within days, the first Confederate statues came tumbling down. After a few were violently toppled, most of the rest were ordered removed by local government, inevitably on the grounds that it was necessary to preserve public safety—a convenient rationalization that let them sidestep questions of historical significance, aesthetic merit, or even legal ownership. On June 3, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam decreed that all Confederate memorials had to be removed from Monument Avenue. Within days, they vanished except for the equestrian statue of Lee, which sits on land deeded to the state on condition that it “affectionately protect” the memorial. (It is currently under litigation.)
But where to put the now-homeless memorials? To reinstall them in cemeteries, as has been proposed, hardly protects them. Memorials have been toppled in cemeteries in Maryland, North Carolina, and Oregon. An unusually poignant one was pried apart on the order of Indianapolis Mayor Hogsett, who called it “a painful reminder of our state’s horrific embrace of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago”; in fact, the monument was erected by the federal government to mark the mass grave of some 1,600 Confederate prisoners who had died in a Union prison camp. Nor are museums likely to offer them sanctuary. Most will languish in municipal warehouses and, as is the way of the world, at some distant date, they will turn out to be missing.
And so, what had been bruited about for decades in courts, legislatures, and newspapers was accomplished in a matter of weeks. The South was now purged root and branch of its 150-year history of commemorating the Confederacy. A generation ago, it might have ended right there and, given time, brought reconciliation. But the statue-toppling had acquired a momentum of its own. In Northern states, where Confederate memorials were thin on the ground, protestors made do with statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Scott Key, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and even Frederick Douglass. To have fought against the Confederacy and defeated it provided no special exemption: the Ulysses S. Grant memorial in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was mutilated. In California, a favorite target was Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who established the line of 18th-century missions that shape the map of the state to this day. But none of these earned the opprobrium accorded to Christopher Columbus.
The first to fall was in Richmond, whose Columbus statue was not on Monument Avenue but in a city park, because the city fathers who allowed its placement in their burg did not want a foreign-born Catholic among their generals. Since the beginning of June, at least 34 Columbus memorials in major cities across the country have been destroyed or slated for removal, even that of Columbus, Ohio. This will come as a surprise only to those who do not know the modern academy, where Columbus is regarded as a historical villain, the bringer of genocide and slavery.
The furious tempo with which city after city has expunged major civic monuments has no parallel in American history. Even during the convulsions of the late 1960s, when American flags were burned and federal buildings bombed, the statues were left alone. Nor does recent European history show anything similar; Germany and Russia could selectively expel the symbols of their murderous dictators without systematically dismantling the rest of their civic history. To find an event that comes close in its rapidity and comprehensiveness, one has to go back to the 16th century and the iconoclastic fury of 1566. This was the Beeldenstorm (Dutch for “image storm”), when mobs stormed Catholic churches to smash their statues, altarpieces, and tabernacles, leaving behind the whitewashed and barren churches that are the visual manifestation of Dutch Calvinism.
The parallels with today’s image storm are striking—the same instantaneous leaping from city to city, the same jumbled motives. The official justification five centuries back was that the sculpted saints in Catholic churches violated the Second Commandment’s injunction against making graven images. But in theological terms, that was inside baseball; much more potent was the nationalist resentment smoldering against Spain (it then ruled the Low Countries), which was closely identified with the Catholic hierarchy. In 1566 as in 2020, ideas gave the justification, but politics provided the fury.
There is another parallel. Just as the Netherlandish nobility watched the destruction of 1566 and did nothing to stop it, likewise with the mayors and governors of 2020. The actions of Tim Walz, governor of Minnesota, were typical. On June 10, he was given advance notice that the statue of Columbus in front of the state capitol would be toppled in two hours, and he dispatched the state police, who then stood by passively as it was flung to the ground. Later he issued a toothless statement excusing the destruction even as he condemned it (“many Minnesotans look at that statue and see a legacy of genocide.”) He also spoke without irony of the need “to create a more inclusive state” even as this customary symbol of Italian-American identity was hauled off.
Other mayors winked at protestors, saying, in effect, “Come and get it.” When citizens of Baltimore asked that its Columbus memorial be protected, the mayor’s spokesman sniffed that the police “are principally concerned with the preservation of life. . . . Everything else falls secondary to that, including statues.” Of course, as the last months have shown, one cannot effectively protect life without maintaining public order. The statue was toppled, beheaded, and flung into the Inner Harbor.
It would seem that James Q. Wilson’s broken-windows theory applies to statues as well; if one tacitly accepts the destruction of one, others will follow. In fact, only five of the 34 fateful Columbus memorials were actually destroyed by protestors; the vast majority were condemned by city governments. In late July, Chicago’s major, Lori Lightfoot, removed two of them without warning overnight.
Herein lies a paradox. Polls consistently show that Americans oppose statue-toppling; even with Confederate monuments, until recently, opinion was narrowly split. But most of our civic monuments are located in cities, and most of these are under Democratic Party rule. Urban America today is largely populated by highly liberal whites, blacks, and first- or second-generation immigrants. None of these groups identifies with the subjects of most of these statues. And while a big-city mayor might feel vestigial affection for the traditional symbols of his neighborhood, he is not likely to offend any of his major constituents. So far, none has done so.
On the contrary, they react with conspicuous hostility when neighborhoods try to preserve their memorials. Philadelphia Mayor Kenney, for example, was outraged that heavily Italian South Philadelphia would dare to form a cordon around their Columbus statue “to ‘protect’ it from perceived threats.” In fact, his office explained, they were the actual aggressors because their “action drew protestors for whom the statue is a painful reminder of Columbus’s legacy.” According to this topsy-turvy logic, to defend a statue is to instigate.
The consequence is that America has woken up to the curious fact that the portion of the population that is most hostile to these traditional emblems of our civic life, or is at best indifferent, is in custody of them.
We can hardly expect politicians, terrified by what seemed to be revolutionary winds, to make a principled stand for something so musty as an item of statuary. Their collective capitulation was to be expected. Far more distressing have been the actions of historians, curators, and critics, whom we expect to speak knowledgeably about the history and significance of memorials. They are the stewards and gatekeepers of our historical memory and, unlike politicians, have the freedom to think in longer units than two- and four-year terms. Under the circumstances, their conduct has been shameful.
An odd aspect of the battle over statues is that rarely is a word said about their aesthetic quality. To be sure, most of the discarded statuary was of middling quality, but so is most art. Yet there were exceptions. The bronze Thomas Jefferson destroyed in Portland was by Karl Bitter, the gifted Vienna-born sculptor. And the Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, now riding alone, was by one of Paris’s leading sculptors, the brilliant Antonin Mercié. But neither has the quality and meaning of the extraordinary memorial to Theodore Roosevelt before the American Natural History Museum in New York City.
The colossal bronze depicts a mounted Teddy Roosevelt between two guides, one an American Indian and the other a black African, striding boldly ahead. Unlike virtually every other statue of an American president, he wears neither a formal suit nor a Roman toga but is dressed like a cowboy. This was no affectation, for Roosevelt spent a substantial portion of his life in the American West, where we find the most enduring legacy of his presidency: the 230 million acres of public land he put under protection, including the Grand Canyon and five national parks. No American president has done more for the cause of conservation, or was a more ardent environmentalist (to use the contemporary term), than Roosevelt. It is fitting that his most prominent memorial is before a museum dedicated to the study of nature.
But all of this counts as nothing to the museum, whose administrators have taken the hierarchical relationship between Roosevelt, who sits on horseback while his guides walk, to be a manifestation of white supremacy. It is now to be flicked away as if it were an effigy of Jefferson Davis. But this is to read a complex allegorical sculpture as if it were a crude propaganda poster. Roosevelt’s guides are not included in the composition to show their subservience but rather as symbolism of the continents with which he was most associated as a conservationist. They represent, as the sculptor explained, “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.”
That sculptor was James Earle Fraser, whose name is usually left out of discussions of the memorial. And yet he is the creator of America’s most sublime coin, the Indian Head nickel. Wanting to devise a coin that was distinctly American, he placed a Native American chief on the recto and an American bison on the flip side. This was in 1913, a time when it seemed possible that both were headed toward extinction, and it gave the coin its tragic dignity. To be sure, it spoke of conquest but also magnanimity, one of the nobler traits in the Western art tradition that goes back to the ancient images of the Dying Gaul, which always stressed their humanity. (One looks in vain for any sign of empathy in the vanquished foes of Mesopotamian art, who are impaled, skinned, and beheaded without pity.)
A similar tragic ambiguity is at play in the Roosevelt Memorial, but ambiguity sits uneasily with American audiences and always has. For the first century following 1620 and beyond, there was very little visual art in the American colonies. After all, the Puritans who settled New England and gave us our first universities were the theological successors of the Calvinist image-destroyers of 1566. Their principal cultural experience was the religious sermon, which invariably ended with a firm moral. When painting and sculpture did come, they tended to be read as illustrated sermons, something that imparted a clear lesson. Literal-minded Americans with little experience of reading allegory, or the idea that a work of art might convey multiple meanings, will naturally struggle with something like the Roosevelt Memorial, with all its overtones of idealism and tragedy.
It is hardly surprising that someone like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who we can surmise has never looked at a sculpture in his life for more than five seconds, would condemn it because “it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior.” But it is distressing that one of the country’s most prominent art critics would agree.
This was Holland Cotter, the senior New York Times art critic, whose essay of June 24 probably represents the low point in the recent public discussion of memorials. Instead of a more nuanced and subtle reading, he dismissed the Roosevelt statue as another “heroic white man on top of the world”—just the sort of ill-informed, judgment-at-first-glance superficial reading of art that prominent critics are meant to challenge. But even more appalling was Cotter’s take on the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s masterpiece and one of the finest moments in American art. Colonel Shaw was the commander of the first all-black regiment of the Union army, which was used as cannon fodder in the assault on Fort Wagner, at Charleston, South Carolina, and annihilated. Gould was famously buried with his black soldiers.
Saint-Gaudens depicted Shaw on horseback, among his marching soldiers, in a colossal bas-relief. The rhythmic repetition of their bayonets, backpacks, and marching boots turns their march into a mournful procession. The angel looming above tells us that they have died and are marching into glory and eternity. It could not be more moving. But not for Cotter: “The visuals here say ‘white supremacist.’” This verdict he bases on a catalogue of offenses: “the racially hierarchical composition, the single-name dedication, the suggestion of the Union army’s enforced segregation.” He is wrong in every respect. The composition was not racially but militarily hierarchical. To suggest that it endorsed segregation is to miss the point: Shaw gave his life trying to prove that the black man was equally able as a fighting man, and his insistence that his soldiers receive equal pay was essential in the battle for the ultimate integration of the military.
As for dehumanizing Shaw’s black soldiers, on the contrary—they form a gallery of extraordinary realistic portraits, modeled from life by Saint-Gaudens in his New York studio, each head different and expressing deep human sympathy. By contrast, Shaw’s bland idealized portrait is the least interesting thing about the sculpture. A critic with good will might have pointed that out.
Good will, however, is in short supply during a witch hunt. And historians and critics who might have lent their knowledge of art and of history to the discussion have fallen silent or given encouragement to the statue-topplers. (One professor of archaeology posted on her blog technical advice on how to topple a monument.) Underpinning all of this is a pernicious assumption that any public work of art that might cause emotional distress must be swept from the landscape. For the moment, that supposed distress is chiefly caused by putative symbols of white supremacy. But that is a criterion to which there is no limiting principle. If one believes that the United States is essentially a racist enterprise and has been from the beginning, which the New York Times puts in 1619, then any historical luminary might be viewed as guilty unless proven innocent. It is a relatively simple matter to find a remark that present standards would deem unacceptable, since no one in the 19th century spoke according to the standards of the 21st, which did not yet exist.
It is this logic that has now been turned against Walt Whitman—by any standard one of the most progressive figures of his century—who now seems likely to lose his statue in his hometown of Camden, New Jersey. But if subjective emotional distress is the standard by which public art must be judged, then virtually anything can be eliminated once viewers have been encouraged to feel anguish. For example, what about Philip Johnson, the celebrated modern architect who we now know to have been an active Nazi sympathizer, and who was even in Poland during the German invasion in September 1939 (something that you would think would be a career-killer). Are his buildings to be demolished, or are the many works he donated to the Museum of Modern Art to be disposed of?
Taken to its logical conclusion, the criterion of emotional distress would insist that all monuments must be stripped from our squares, leaving it a civic padded cell, where all is soft and buffered, and where we house the insane.
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