In June of 2020, in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd and the spark of unrest against police violence and brutality against marginalized American citizens, I felt bolstered and energized, living through a classic regime-changing scene: the toppling of statues that represented the old world order throughout the country. It was such a poignant, encompassing and physical encapsulation of the rallying cry “no justice, no peace.” There was no justice and so there would be no peace. We would pull them all down and we would stay in the streets. Enough was enough. We were talkin’ bout a revolution.
Three short (long?) months later, our momentum has slowed. It’s a movement, not a moment, and it makes sense to scale back the pace slightly to ensure that it’s a sustainable one. (I accept the possibility that this statement is naive, but we don’t have much of a choice besides optimism.) But as an art historian, I take the daily melange of visuals assaulting our eyeballs seriously and I’m interested that our news feeds and our museum panels aren’t lingering longer on these perceptible stand-ins for hate. Are museums and arts professionals still talking about what to do about statues?
When the conversation surfaced in 2017 after the stomach-churning Unite the Right Rally , amidst public outcry that problematic public art come down, many historians argued that Confederate monuments should be contextualized in a museum space or even with newly commissioned arts pieces positioned strategically nearby. As an interpreter, I believed in this strategy. I believe that context and explanation are everything. I believe in the carefully cultivated skill of guiding the conversation in such a way that the viewer arrives at the conclusion on their own. If you remove the object, you remove the opportunity for discussion and discovery. And importantly, America got into a lot of our current messes by pretending we weren’t built on genocide and slavery in the first place – how could we remove evidence of our history and think we would be better off? This interview with MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Titus Kaphar guided my philosophy. Kaphar has built his career on confronting and disrupting the racist legacy of art history. I don’t think much of yes/no and right/wrong binaries. I latched onto Kaphar’s assertion that “we have this sort of binary conversation about keeping these sculptures up or taking them down. And I actually think that that binary conversation is problematic.” Kaphar goes on to say that we should be engaging the artists of our time to create work that confronts problematic public art. Cerebrally this makes the most sense to me. To be honest, it pains me to lose that opportunity for truth and dialogue but: the statues should all come down.
The conversation is about more than just Confederate monuments, but they illustrate how public sculpture can contort our perception of our world so well. In a January 10, 2019 talk at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, American Studies professor Dr. Erika Doss discussed reckoning with problematic public art. (If you’re very interested in this topic, I recommend watching the entire talk as it gives a full, broad account of the issue.)
This graph from the Southern Poverty Law Center illustrates why symbols of the Confederacy, whether statues or the flag, are not symbols of pride and patriotism, but of hate. Most were erected during times of heated racial strife, such as the 1890’s-1920’s. Our linear textbook understanding of American history would have us believe that all people believed the Confederacy deserved to honor it’s legacy when the statues were installed, but this was not the case then any more than it is now. As Dr. Doss notes in the 2019 lecture, “protests today are not just the products of current consciousness against racism. These protests are concurrent with the response at the unveiling of the statues.” She outlines a number of examples of Confederate monuments that were unveiled in the 1880’s-1910’s that were vandalized and continue to be vandalized today. It’s kind of like everything isn’t new all the time, isn’t it?
I should have been smart enough to know that racist statues were always racist. But again, that linear march toward progress, as well as the idea that racist = bad person, these are difficult to unlearn. Doss’s historical framing really helps us to understand that we aren’t living in some brand-new era of consciousness, necessarily. We live in a fortunate collision of progress and constant surveillance.
Confederate monuments are a useful case study because the Confederacy existed for a finite amount of time, making it easier to discern when markers were erected to harken back to a bygone era. There are other types of problematic public sculpture in America that represent inhumane circumstances that have gone on and continue to go on for too long, with messier timelines and borders of containment. The case that got my attention was the statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The Museum ultimately decided to remove the statue all together this year following initial suggestions to merely remove the two figures – one Indigenous, one African – flanking Roosevelt. Unlike a lot of sculptures of Confederate generals or random likenesses of Columbus, I knew the name of the artist. James Earle Fraser’s most well-known work is one you’ve probably seen in some iteration or other: End of the Trail.
When you’re trying to teach young learners a less-biased history of the United States through the objects in your art museum collection, you work with what you got, even when what you got really isn’t it. End of the Trail is one of those artworks that gets worked into school tours in which the objective is to impart onto elementary schoolchildren that even though this sculpture is making it look like Native Americans didn’t make it out of the early 20th century…they did! And then you hold up some contemporary photographs of modern-day living indigenous people and talk about continuation and perseverance of culture. (I know, dude. Our curators need to throw us some bones.) The Teddy Roosevelt decision made me take a second look at the Fraser, though I’d already been cursing its presence as a literal backdrop in a museum film and speaker series – would our indigenous guests feel an empowered sense of a middle finger, sitting in front of it? Would they find the humor in it? Or would they simply be horrified and insulted? It was easy to justify the need for the literal representation for school tour programs – especially since as educators and interpreters, remember, we were creating opportunity for learning and discovery.
But after the Roosevelt sculpture came down, I realized that no matter what, our sensory reaction to an object gets there before our brains process the context. Bronze sculptures carry a material permanence that other art forms don’t – especially when they surpass life-size and tower over us in public spaces.
Sure, context would give a fuller picture of the darkest and most shameful moments in our nation’s history when Confederate statues were erected as a reminder of white supremacy and indigenous people were pushed so close to the brink of extinction that artists literally thought they were capturing their last moments. But – that’s the stuff of graduate seminars, not a stroll through a museum or public park. And more importantly – where do we draw the line against glorifying these darkest moments? We get to chart our course. Monuments feel permanent, but culture is fluid. Monuments and memorials help shape our perception of social order. Doss notes in the Mia lecture that historically, the toppling of monuments is linked to the toppling of the conditions. Monuments – and building namesakes, and posters in classrooms, and etc. – help us make sense of our world, and our national identity.
Of course, we don’t want to forget the history and doom ourselves to repeat it. But as a wise stranger on the internet once said, Satan is an important part of Christianity, but if you walked into a church and saw a bunch of devil imagery, you would probably question who exactly was being worshipped.