Statues have become controversial and important symbols. But why do we see them as important to begin with?
What is the meaning of a statue?
It is a question that every generation has grappled with. It is a question that historians and politicians alike have always been obsessed with. And, recently, the topic has been flung into the center of public discourse by protest movements around the world.
To many observers, the new obsession with statues may seem both sudden and arbitrary. After all, many of the statues that modern movements debate and tear down had been standing for decades unassailed.
The now-famous statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, UK, had stood for 125 years before protestors threw it into the city harbor. The statue of confederate president Jefferson Davis stood from 1907 to 2020. Even the iconic Theodore Roosevelt statue at the entrance to the Natural History Museum in New York had stood since 1940 until the museum decided to remove it.
Part of why these long-standing statues have become flashpoints of controversy is, of course, the demonstrations and cultural upheaval in the US and across the globe after American police killed George Floyd. Many protests and riots have seen statues torn down or vandalized, while in some cases, counter-protestors have rallied around the statues to defend them.
Yet this only answers the basics. What are the meanings of these statues to begin with? Why do statues have so much meaning to protestors and counter-protestors alike? These questions are much more difficult to answer, but are also critical to understanding the cultural and political movements we see today.
Monuments as historical remembrance
A common view of monumental art is that it represents the history of a culture. Therefore, maintaining these statues is crucial for our collective memory. Sophia A. Nelson, a Black American author in an article for NBC, says that statues should not be torn down — even those who honor american confederates.
Nelson says that the racism and threats she has lived through did not stem from the confederate statues and monuments on her former university campus, or in the city around her. Instead, she points the finger at the ignorance and biases of people as a far more important threat to tackle.
“They didn’t like having black classmates because they had racist hearts. They honored racial prejudice. They harbored cultural bias. That, my friends, is what we must work toward eradicating. And we won’t do it by hiding from our racist, slave owning, segregated past,” she wrote.
Looking at the question from this point of view, monuments to historical figures and events, controversial or otherwise, facilitate constructive dialogue. The presence of statues in such public and meaningful places forces this dialogue to occur and expand, while tearing them down only hides or avoids discussing a checkered past. Setting up new exhibits or plaques to discuss this history could be more beneficial.
The view that destroying statues also destroys or ‘runs from’ history, however, has rarely been listened to. The destruction of monuments has been common in the past, even if the phenomena has been absent from many Western nations in the last century. As recently as the 1960s, a statue of the British King George in Kenya was removed after the country gained independence. In the 1990s, many statues of former communist leaders like Lenin and Stalin were removed or defaced, with more coming down since.
Professor Mohamed Chtatou of the University of Mohammed V in Rabat argued,“The events we have seen in recent days are not new. Both ancient and recent history has often witnessed acts of vandalism and even destruction of memorial objects, generally for reasons of denial of their legitimacy by a section of the population. This is even more evident when these objects of a symbolic nature are placed in public view.”
To Chtatou, statues being torn down is an essential fixture in the rewriting of historical narratives and historical facts. It denies the narrative or values of those who erected the monument, and makes a statement about our values in the present.
The statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond is just one example. It was put up several decades after the civil war, like many other confederate statues. The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, said that the statue, and others like it, upheld a falsified narrative that honored the confederate fight for states rights, while ignoring the major factor of slavery that pushed the civil war to begin. His decision to take it down represents a step towards reconciliation and inclusion of the southern Black community.
The grey area: Founders and slavers
As Chtatou argues, tearing down statues can be a powerful statement against a figure’s past actions, or against the system they supported. It simultaneously makes a powerful statement about our modern morality.
However, many of the figures the protestors are decrying are complex, both in their values and their cultural significance today. Henry Olson, a columnist for the Washington Post, writes that the statues of American founding fathers are being torn down with a disregard for their complex stories and good deeds.
He says that, while many of the founding fathers owned slaves or paved the way for later imperialism, they also enshrined the principle that ‘all men are created equal,’ a principle that made the abolition of slavery inevitable and feuled the quest for further racial justice. They established an independent republic, whose representative government was designed to be amended. And despite its flaws, it slowly extended this representation to more and more of the Americans under it.
“Modern Western civilization and its revolutionary ideals… have allowed for the peaceful, pan-racial democracies protesters say they want. The West’s ideals of universal freedom and human equality permit it to reform itself peacefully and extend the reality of freedom to fit the reality of human diversity. We take a multiethnic, free state for granted, but no such thing had ever existed before modern times. That is the achievement that statues to people such as Washington and Grant honor, an achievement that makes today’s protesters possible,” Olson writes.
These leaders owned slaves and pushed for imperialist policy. However, they also drafted legislation and advanced the principles of civil rights, liberty, and eventual equality. These are the same principles and legal traditions that social justice movements are aiming to fulfill in the modern day.
What does tearing down their statues say? Is it a protest against past slavery and imperialism, or a protest against the principles that these leaders enshrined, a “denial of their legitimacy,” as Chtatou says?
Is tearing down these statues inevitable in order to deny the checkered parts of these leaders’ pasts? Or is constructive dialogue and additions for these statues a better way to reflect their complexity?
The artist vs the audience
When considering if a statue should be torn down, many people point to who created the statue, and why it was put up in the first place, and what meaning was intended. Others point to how our contemporary society interprets the statue, often involving how marginalized groups or modern morality reflect on these monuments.
A study from the International Journal of Semiotics elaborates on this contrast between creator and culture. A good example of this contrast is seen with the debate over socialist-era monuments in former communist countries.
Statues and monuments are built to remind people of important figures or events. However, political elites usually have more power over urban planning, therefore use monuments for their political purposes. “Political elites use monuments to represent their dominant worldviews in space. Consequently, monuments represent selective historical narratives focusing only on events and identities that are comfortable for political elites.
This is particularly evident in the post-socialist city [Tamm 2013]. During transition, political elites in post-socialist countries established new monuments to celebrate the kinds of ideals they wanted citizens to strive toward,” the study explains.
In former communist countries, the political elite has tried to remove many communist monuments during transition and under their current regimes. However, it resulted in heated debate, controversy, and conflict. The tension reveals that monuments are not just urban decor or statements by the elite, they are often important cornerstones of cultural identity and historical identity.
This controversy and debate over monuments, both new and old, shows that the designers and elites cannot fully control how their monuments are interpreted by the people. It shows that, over time, monuments “can be used, reworked and reinterpreted in ways that are different from, or indeed contradictory to, the intentions of those who had them installed,” the study adds.
Conflict and conversation
The study does not, however, decide whether the designer’s intentions or the people’s interpretations are more powerful in the meaning of a statue. Instead, it opts to observe the contrast of these two factors as a conversation: “Semiotics analyzes the meanings of monuments as the results of a “multi party communication” between the different interpretative communities.”
This interplay ties into the debates over statues of leaders with checkered histories of slave ownership or imperialism, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. In these debates, it is not simply the intent of the monuments’ creators that is counted for, but also the different communities that interpret these statues in very disparate ways.
The modern statue
The fact that there are many ‘interpretative communities’ for these leaders and statues makes a definitive meaning hard to find. It also helps explain the current conflict of meaning surrounding some of these statues, as each group battles to apply its own meaning.
There are those who apply a meaning based on history — either as symbols of collective memory, or as symbols in their destruction over time.
There are those who apply a meaning based on a major character flaw, others who apply meanings based on the positives.
There are those who apply the same meaning as the creators, others who go with whatever view society chooses.
And, there are those who want to apply a meaning based on all these nuances at once.
There is no simple solution to how we should define statues. But the conversation between all our different interpretative communities is happening in real time. And, if we understand all these different meanings that people apply to statues, and where these meanings originate, perhaps the cultural conversation on these monuments can have a more comprehensive conclusion.
This conversation is not limited to the statues of the past. Looking forward, there may be a broader shift in the cultural meanings of new statues to talk about.
In a study from the University of Minnesota, Mario Carpo points out that most public installations in the last century have been memorials — which serve as remembrance for tragedies, disasters, or fallen historical leaders — instead of monuments, which serve more to glorify a historical figure and promote national pride.
However, in the last decade, new statues across Europe and Asia have trended back towards monumentation instead of memorialization. To Carpo, this shift back to the construction of monuments shows national pride and glorification becoming the focus of our public installations and symbols once again, with the new Statue of Unity in India being a prime example.
There is already a wide range of interpretative communities and controversies over our past monuments to national or historical pride — so this renewed push for monumentation seems guaranteed to cause tension in our societies.
This trend of new monuments to national pride, says Carpo, coincides with a “frenzy of nationalistic discourse in Europe.” With statues from the past becoming the political and cultural flashpoints in how we view history, these new statues are set to become flashpoints for our view of the future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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