Commentary: Public Monuments – Beyond Charlottesville

Robert E Lee statue at Lee Circle New Orleans removed. Infrogmation of New Orleans from New Orleans. 19 May 2017, 14:55

Since the startling events of August 12th in Charlottesville, VA, the future of public monuments to the Confederacy has become a matter of national debate in the United States. Cities across America have recently removed or covered over statues commemorating Confederate leaders and soldiers, as well as controversial figures such as Justice Roger Taney, who authored the 1857 decision in the Dredd Scott case.

Some city leaders have cited concerns over the potential for clashes of the kind that took place in Charlottesville to support their decision to take down these statues and memorials. Certain monuments have even been removed in the early hours of the morning, by work crews wearing masks and protective gear. These precautions have been taken in recognition of the real power these statues wield as potential rallying points for the kind of far-right groups who rioted in Charlottesville. Even when they do not function as flashpoints for violence, the statues’ continued presence in our cities bespeaks the nation’s failure to address another, less concrete legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction: the endurance of racism in America. Though they may not have had these connotations when they were first erected, at present they function as active, politically powerful pawns in American culture, not harmless, static historical artifacts. The sudden rise to the headlines of these oft overlooked memorials to a long-past war also provides an opportunity for debate over the role that public monuments play in shaping our understanding of our nation’s past and present.

Art has long been celebrated for its capacity to speak by and for itself, even when deprived of its original historical or physical context. The current controversy over the Confederate monuments is driven in large part over public disagreement over what, exactly, these statues have to say to modern Americans. Whether they are inert curiosities, worthy of preserving for their historical interest, or dangerous symbols of modern prejudice, or somewhere in between, depends largely upon the perspective and beliefs of the person looking at them.

It is difficult to understand what members of the fringe groups who rioted on August 12th saw when they looked at that statue of General Lee in a city park. Probably, it was some mixture of respect for the man, pleasure at seeing their private admiration mirrored in an imposing monument, and satisfaction with the national endorsement of his beliefs which the statue’s presence on public ground suggests. On the other hand, to the casual onlooker, who does not recognize the person represented, the statue may simply be a nice, dynamic equestrian statue or a handsome bronze figure, and a pleasant addition to any park or plaza.

For many other Americans, the statue might seem to endorse the beliefs of modern hate groups such as the KKK. Members of the KKK and similar groups participated in the Charlottesville protest, confirming for some the correlation between Confederate memorials and modern violence. From this standpoint, the statues’ removal is a long-overdue symbolic rejection of both historical and modern prejudices.

It could be argued that the removal of the statues constitutes an assault on our communal memory, even a sort of iconoclastic historical denialism. Out of sight, out of mind, some fear. To those who take this view, the statues are important as evocations of a pivotal time in our nation’s history, as well as, in the case of more anonymous memorials to the Confederate dead, reminders of the costs of civil conflict, and the price that was paid by both sides for our national unity. If we remove these statues, some ask, what is to prevent us from removing their stories from our memories as well?

These fears, however, are probably groundless. To take an image of Robert E. Lee or ‘Stonewall’ Jackson out of a public space is not to erase them from history. America is not the Roman Empire, and no one is seeking to resurrect the damnatio memoriae. The decision not to celebrate a historical figure is not to be confused with the attempt to forget them, or their actions. On the contrary; taking down these statues may protect the true historical narrative from distortion.

The aura of respectability that surrounds a statue of Robert E. Lee in a public, city-run park belies the fact that he fought against the United States Army, and in part to preserve the institution of slavery in the South – an institution that, though admitted in the original Constitution, is fundamentally opposed to everything that America hopes to stand for today. History will be remembered, and all the better, once the delusive monuments are removed from their current positions of (symbolic) power and authority.

As a form of cultural property, the monuments, distressing as they are, have a place in our history, and in our national conversation. Although in their present positions they may be impediments, not aids, to progress, there are alternatives to nocturnal removal and outright destruction which are worth considering – for they offer opportunities not only for neutralizing the negative aspects of Confederate public monuments, but of turning them to good purposes.

In a way, the current wave of removals is a continuation of (long over-due) actions taken in 2015, in the wake of the murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That year, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its state capitol, and other government buildings and private businesses followed suit. The South Carolina Secessionist Party now holds an annual event at the Statehouse, protesting the removal of the flag by hoisting a temporary one of their own. Members of a local branch of a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice gather at the site on the same day to demonstrate their opposition to the Secessionists. This kind of public back-and-forth is a valuable and necessary element of life in a democracy. A Confederate flag, or a Confederate monument, can function as a convenient focus for discussion of less-easily deconstructed aspects of slavery’s lingering legacy. The utility of public monuments as invitations to dialogue about the controversial figures and history they represent is one reasonable argument against their outright destruction.

As many of them were erected long after the Confederacy had been defeated, they are educational examples of the slow pace of cultural change. Military victories may be decisive, but ideological conflicts are more prolonged, indeed interminable affairs. Post-war Confederate monuments can serve as reminders of the past, and of how far we have still to go.

America is not the first nation to be burdened with monuments to a part of its history that people would rather decry than commemorate. For some potential alternatives, we can look to the example set by nations in the former Soviet Union.

Woman and man visiting Socialist dictatorial figures and art at Memento Statue Park, Budapest, Hungary, Eastern Europe.

Model released woman and man visiting Socialist dictatorial figures and art at Memento Statue Park, Budapest, Hungary, Eastern Europe

The years of domination by the Soviet Union left many visible marks on the countries on the East side of the Iron Curtain. Not least among these are the hundreds of statues erected in public spaces, celebrating at-best controversial leaders such as Stalin and Lenin. For decades, in cities across the former USSR, these Soviet monuments have been toppled or quietly dismantled, as those nations grew away from their past, and looked to a future defined by other values, and other parts of their histories.

Some of these statues have had truly curious fates. One massive Czechoslovakian statue of Lenin was erected in 1988, quietly removed to a junkyard in 1989 in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, and soon after purchased by an American teacher, who put the statue up in Freemont, a self-consciously quirky neighborhood in Seattle. It is now more-or-less an unofficial venue for public artistic and political statements. Its hands are frequently painted red, to recall the millions who died under Communist regimes; it has also been disguised as John Lennon, presented by a nearby Mexican restaurant with an oversized taco to hold in one larger-than-life hand, and is annually dressed in drag at the time of Seattle’s Pride parade.

The light-hearted humor with which the Lenin statue has been appropriated by Seattleites may be more reflective of their privileged distance from the darker parts of the history of Communism in Eastern Europe, than of the utility of such statues as sites for reflection and public conversation. However, at least one figure with more immediate relevance to American history has in recent weeks received a similar treatment. On September 12th, someone daubed red paint on the hands of a statue of Christopher Columbus in New York’s Central Park, and painted the words “hate will not be tolerated,” on its pedestal. The politicized vandalism of Columbus’ image only underscores the importance of public monuments as venues for public outcry, conversation, and education. Whether those dialogues should take place in a park, a museum, or in front of an empty or re-dedicated plinth, is the question now facing America’s cities.

The notion that less-than-perfectly-respectful public interactions with controversial statues can be a form of national therapy, is supported by an exemplary public park in Hungary, called Memento Park. The park, first opened in 1993, is an outdoor venue housing more than one hundred major monuments from the nation’s Communist years (1949-1989), as well as a Trabant car from East Germany, and a montage movie made from the training films used by the Hungarian secret police. The park has become a popular tourist attraction. Its webpage proudly displays a selection of the photos taken by visitors to the park, many of them locals, showing them miming, climbing on, and otherwise making light of these relics of historical trauma. Rather than be confronted every day with the symbols of the past, still standing on their accustomed pedestals and apparently reigning over the present, Hungarians can choose to visit the park, recall their history, both good and bad, and rejoice in the ongoing process of national recovery which the assemblage of neutralized monuments represents.

Jacksonville’s City Council president, Anna Lopez Brosche, recently suggested that her city’s Confederate statues be relocated to a museum. The proposal has echoes of Hungary’s solution, and could prove a useful option. Such a museum would need to be sensitively curated, however, to avoid mythologizing the Confederate cause or even – as Ákos Eleőd, the architect of Hungary’s Memento Park, warned – repeating the error by propounding a too propagandistic alternative message. Appropriately framed by informative texts, these statues could become useful teaching tools, helping us to shape a more historically-conscious America.

It might not be feasible to expect every Confederate statue to be relocated to a local museum. However, an alternative to removal exists: strategic relabeling and the provision of historical information at problematic monument sites. An example of this strategy for reframing controversial monuments can be found in the historic Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

An obelisk dating from 1868 stands in the center of the Plaza. Inscriptions on its base dedicate it both to the soldiers who died in battle with ‘rebels’ in 1862, as well as ‘in the various battles with Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.’ Formerly, this latter phrase in fact commemorated ‘various battles with savage Indians,’ but the adjective was chiseled out some time after 1973. A modern plaque, positioned directly in front of the visibly altered, formerly offensive dedication, explains that the original wording was composed “near the close of a period of intense strife,” and reflects the lingering internecine tensions of the late nineteenth century. “Attitudes change,” the sign concludes, “and prejudices hopefully dissolve.” Treatments such as this not only demonstrate those changed attitudes: they help to bring them about.

Simply worded placards, noting the far from esteemed position that Confederate leaders hold in our present understanding of history could do much to nullify the unsettling illusion of acceptance and even admiration which their statues, in their current positions, now suggest. As for the more general memorial monuments to the Confederate army’s dead, they could be paired with thoughtful plaques like the one positioned before the Santa Fe monument, acknowledging our own repudiation of their cause without disrespecting the dead, who may have fought for a host of reasons unrelated to their side’s aims of perpetuating slavery and shattering the Union.

A final note: the current US president has voiced concerns that the statues’ removal denudes public spaces of works of art whose beauty will “never able to be comparably replaced!” If he is genuinely anxious about the shortage of public art in America’s cities, perhaps our president might consider commissioning American artists to provide genuinely beautiful works of contemporary art to take the monuments’ place. The current administration would do well to revise its intentions to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, and add beauty to our public spaces through generous NEA grants for public sculpture. This way, we may end up with more American cultural property worth protecting.


Mariam Hale wrote from the University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. The views expressed in the Commentary above are solely those of the author and are neither endorsed nor expressed by or on behalf of CCP.


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