Yes, the monuments should fall

This article was contributed by Dr Joel McKim, from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA

Writing in the 1930s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously noted that despite their attempted grandeur, there is nothing as invisible as a monument: “They are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.” It’s difficult to reconcile Musil’s observation with what we’ve witnessed from afar over the past week – a nation seemingly ripping itself apart, a statue of Robert E. Lee situated at the centre of the conflict.  Michael Taussig has, more recently, suggested an important adjustment to Musil’s theory arguing that it’s not until a monument is destroyed (or is slated for removal) that it succeeds in drawing our attention. The monument, Taussig reminds us, is often the first symbolic target in times of struggle.  “With defacement,” he writes, “the statue moves from an excess of invisibility to an excess of visibility.”

The confederate statues in America and the dilemma over what do with them became extremely visible this past week. It’s a discussion that has actually been taking place for some time now, with the removal in April and May of a number of monuments in New Orleans (including statues of Lee and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy) being a recent flashpoint. And there are of course many global and historical precedents to this debate, including the removal of racist and imperial icons in South Africa over the past several years and the precarious fate of Soviet-era statuary (see for example the excellent Disgraced Monuments, by our own Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis). Decisions over what to do with symbols of past shame or troubling history also extend to the realm of preservation. Germany and Austria have recently been debating whether several architectural sites connected to the history of National Socialism, including the Nuremberg rally ground and the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, should be preserved, destroyed, or simply left to decay.

Apart from the abhorrent, but hopefully small faction who sees these symbols as worthy of veneration, another argument for keeping confederate monuments in place surfaces frequently from an apparently more benign viewpoint. We’ve all heard some variation of this position expressed over the past several days: “These monuments are an important reminder of our difficult and troubling history.” Or, “These statues help us to educate ourselves about what we have overcome.” Or, “If we destroy the past we will be doomed to repeat it.” While perhaps well meaning, I believe this line of argument is misguided in a number of ways. I think it’s fundamentally mistaken in its understanding of both the social dynamic and cultural history of monuments. Let me explain why.

Firstly, if monuments do have a significant educational purpose (and even this is questionable), it is certainly naïve to think this is the only mode by which they function. Rather than serving as references to the figure or event of the history they depict, public monuments communicate far more about the collective sentiments of our current period and the period in which they were erected. They express, in other words, rather than simply educate. The majority of confederate monuments, as New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu reminds us, were constructed not at the time of the civil war, but long afterwards during moments of resurgence in pro-confederate sentiment and white backlash against black civil rights, such as the Southern Redemption period. They were much less a marker of a tragic, but completed chapter in the nation’s history, than an expression of a renewed commitment to the cultural values of the losing side. Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was completed in 1924 and reflects a period of intense KKK organizing in the area. That these monuments can still function today as rallying points for ethnic nationalists and white supremacists, rather than as neutral transmitters of a distant history, should be self-evident after this week’s events. Could whatever nominal educational value these monuments possess, ever justify the continued emboldening role they play for these groups, or the genuine pain and distress they cause to so many who are forced to encounter them in public space? Ask a member of the black community if they are in need of a statue of Robert E. Lee to teach them about the history and continued impact of slavery and discrimination in America.

The second reason I think anxieties of the “destruction of history” type are misguided is that they don’t adequately recognize the always provisional and malleable nature of monuments and memorials. Far from being permanent or stable markers of history, monuments are perpetually being altered, moved, re-interpreted and reconsidered. They are contentious and contingent objects. The memorial landscape is continually in a process of adaptation. As Kirk Savage claims in his insightful history of the National Mall in Washington, “The history of commemoration is . . . a history of change and transformation.” Even the Lincoln Memorial, the most monumental of American memory sites, is an example of adaptation according to Savage. Its adoption as a symbol for the black civil rights movement occurred despite, rather than because of its intended design – the planners deliberately downplayed Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s protest-oriented projections onto existing statues are another important example of how the struggle to determine a monument’s meaning may continue long after its construction. Some of the most powerful monuments and memorial proposals of the past few decades have incorporated an element of self-destruction or suspicion into their own form. From the Gerz’s monument against fascism that disappears into the earth, to Maya Lin’s deliberately non-monumental Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, to Horst Hoheisel’s proposal to blow up the Brandenburg Gates as a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. In short, public monuments change; their lifespan is not and probably shouldn’t be infinite. We don’t owe them that. The debate and conflict surrounding the removal of confederate monuments is obviously a clear indication that America is also currently undergoing a process of significant change. While the events of the past week have been worrying and sickening, I am heartened by the number of courageous people committed to ensuring that this change is a move forward, rather than a regression.

Dr Joel McKim is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies and the Director of the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology. His book Architecture, Media and Memory: Facing Complexity in a Post-9/11 New York is forthcoming in 2018 from Bloomsbury.

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9 thoughts on “Yes, the monuments should fall

  1. Marty

    I think the sad fact is those who want these statues taken down believe that somehow it will improve the lives of people who consider themselves “marginalised”…maybe their energies would be better spent tackling issues such as why there are so many single parent families within some communities, educational achievement, prison population numbers etc…

  2. David Neil

    Sorry, but what drivel! There is a modern trend to somehow have us all pay penance for the perceived sins of our ancestors. In hindsight of course many actions of old make us feel uncomfortable now, but destroying or hiding the symbols of those times is only one step away surely from burning the history books? I concede it may not always be a good idea to retain these symbols in public places, but the loutish behaviour of those in America recently just emphasised that many want to promote the chips they clearly have on their shoulders in any way they can. More modern instances of removing statues of Lenin In Ukraine for example, which I have personally witnessed, can better be justified because the ongoing effect on the current progress, or otherwise, of that society that is still with us, but to call for symbols of a significant mostly now irrelevant era of American history, or for that matter for example the symbols of the British Empire or our involvement in the slave trade, as some have suggested, is a covert attempt to rewrite history, and more likely to result in ‘one view’ of these albeit perhaps, as seen from today’s perspective, alarming events. They are always far more complex than the ‘protestors’ claim. Not the ‘lefty’ views I’d expect coming out of a University of London researcher.

    1. Novoros

      I am sorry, but taking down the statues of Lenin cannot be justified because the Communist Party of USSR did so much for Ukraine like no one else in the history. FYI, they also vandalize the memorials of WW2 heroes and commanders.

      Anyway, I think it is ironic that Ukrainian neo-nazis supported by Obama administration taking down the statues of communist leaders in Ukraine and American alt-left destroying symbols of white supremacy in America. This is what I call cultural exchange.

  3. Tony Ansell

    I am not sure that I support the erection of any monuments as, almost by definition ,they are the symbols of one of the sectors of the establishment. Almost any groups or individuals have good and bad sides. There has been talk about erecting a statue to the suffragette movement, however, in America the movement can be seen as a symbol of racism. US suffragettes wore white when they marched for their right to have a voice in who represented them but were only trying to get the vote for white women. White women obtained the right the vote in the US in August 1920. However, it was not till 1960 that Black women were able to vote. Native women could not vote till 1957 and Latinas could not vote until 1965. Should any monument built in the USA to celebrate the suffragette movement be torn down as it is also a symbol of racist separation?

  4. Mark Till

    I think your comments are completely misguided and to be honest crass. The actions and choices made by historical figures must be considered in the context of the world at the time, not in the prism of a contemporary virtue signalling liberal left wing doctrine.

  5. mtetwa jones

    Funny to see the trolls at work. Sad, interesting and to be seen for what it is.

    What is it about statues that causes them to be built? They are statements, proclamations, and as stated in the article; reminders. It would be simple to round off and spout off a one line phrase that they are “Reminders of struggle, reminders of empire, reminders of the bastions of ideology.” Indeed they are. Similar in ways to the way palaces are built to show the might of the rulers along with the prestige and grandeur that that entails. The Greeks did it, The Romans did it wherever they went. All major civilisations have done it and continue to do so.

    There was once some persons I’d overheard having discussions about social issues. Issues ranging from class to ethnicity, economics and so on. If I hadn’t been so caught up with my own studies I would have very much liked to have joined in. I saw them several times but the last time I did was once when one was having an outburst: “Why is it that all black people think that I have to owe them something because of colonialism!?” It was a smaller group than usual, they were all white European, and they then noticed I was there. I wasn’t part of their group. It became a rather awkward moment. The group remained silent, no eye contact, I did what I had to in the union bar and went about my business. I wanted to say something to make them feel at ease, but that moment got lost. I had to get on with my business. I remember thinking, what twaddle- that must be a person that doesn’t interact much with black people, or somehow tends to invite comments that make that person feel that way, or… perhaps those comments are the ones that that person hears when in the company of black people

    From what I know about history, in a very simple way, reparations are often imposed on the initiators war. It doesn’t always work; look at the rise of the Nazi party before the second world war. A simple case to look at is the payments made to the resettling of European Jews in Israel following the atrocities in that war. What do I know about what black people think? A survey would have to be carried out to give you or anybody any real figures to deal with. Reading a few articles won’t tell you what people really think.

    What would the questions be? Do you think the countries of the Great Western powers or the former slave holders should owe something to those who ended up being colonised or enslaved? Should it be the current governments? What about the people? It seems so long ago but here is a thing to consider. The 1800s could have been a millenia away when I was a child, but then I realise my great grandfather on one side of my family was born in the 1860s or 1870s. My great great grandfather would have been around at the time that slavery was still legal, when humans could be treated like ‘cattle’ because that was the law. I know one of my parents saw the effects of colonialism first hand. Some countries had it worse than others. I lived next to one, And my mother refused to take us to another because of those rules of law. Imagine being separated from your family because they have a different law defined ethnicity from yours.

    Not being able to move into an area or town is bad enough with class issues, but there is always the possibility of social mobility. The concept of working to be able to get such an accommodation is not completely foreign, one can choose to not mix with that lot because “they are a bit pretentious with airs for my liking” or “A bit rough aren’t they?” It is a simple choice. When the law dictates where and when you can and cannot because of your ethnicity, it isn’t such a simple choice. Look at South Africa during the Apartheid years. Look at the lovely South with them Jim Crow laws. Look at the Chinese Exclusion Act.

    Children never choose their parents. Children never choose their country of birth. Those adults with education almost invariably choose to impart these things onto their children. Imagine being barred from the ‘finest’ institutions, for several generations. Imagine being barred from interactions with other peoples. For some people it is by choice, maybe economic, but it is a choice that can supported in the courts that uphold laws of the land. Imagine not being part of that. Imagine if you held a child and you didn’t have the wherewithal to provide that : not because of your choice, but the laws of the land do not allow that because of your ethnicity. Ironic that they would be the same ethnicities barred from positions in society, yet still be required to serve in the armed forces. Of course the Nazis wouldn’t have dreamed of using Jewish soldiers, but as slave labour, perfect. I’ve recently learned from the wonderful internet that there had been black confederates… I will stay mute on that. Even black soldiers in the Union side were in the segregated 54th regiment. These were the laws of the land. If one were to think the Civil War was the decisive clincher for the fate of black people in the US, a bit more digging would be required.

    Not being a historian, I learned about ’40 Acres and a mule’ by watching Spike Lee Movies. It is interesting to note that black people in America weren’t legally citizens until 1868. I’ll stop there, but I do remember spending a period of my youth and even adult life pondering this question: Why didn’t black people in the US achieve more after the civil war? I know a lot of black people who don’t know anything about that time period. Jim Crow Laws. KKK. Lynchings were real events, not as big as the fireworks at Battersea park for Guy Fawkes, but for the ‘colored’ folk it probably felt like. Try putting that in your family album. The powerful Southerners, who would have lost labour that belonged to them, still retained office and even became presidents. Even if they didn’t explicitly believe that negroes were inferior, they would have had pressure from those who did. They were used to it, it was their way of thinking that justified a creation of their own little world. You pass it into law and it becomes so. Folk who would have never considered it before might start forming their own ideas about why it is so. Generation upon generation. Generation upon generation of those who fit in with the right crowd, generation upon generation of those who would not.

    I know people who have gone to visit as tourists, Aushwitz, and Hiroshima. Monuments for something that has happened before. Hiroshima is still a functioning city. The site below where the detonation occurred is a monument. I aim to visit this site before I get too old. Aushwitz scares me but I know I should go too, perhaps if I have children and they are old enough to understand. As a child I remember visiting a former Slave plantation where they showed the shackles slaves had to wear, the neck ring with the bars that stuck out from the sides to stop slaves from sleeping. As children we laughed and played slaves and slavemasters, we stopped very quickly when they asked us if we would like to try them. They warned us that it wasn’t nice. But were curious and naive. Some of us had to be held up because it was so unnervingly heavy- and it felt dangerous. We couldn’t believe that a person could withstand that weight and pain for any period of time. But very graciously the lady tour guide held it around her neck and showed us how she could pick up a bucket, some tools. She didn’t keep it on for long and she did emphasise that not all masters used it but many did. It was a known and feared deterrant or in some cases usual business. Exact numbers are difficult to come by because as property who needs to record that treatment?… I’d seen the pictures, I’d read the books, nothing had prepared me for that.

    It is interesting to note that for the emacipation of slaves of the British empire, it was the slave holders who were compensated. I remember being shocked because I had thought that (naively), the law had been passed and eventually people accepted it as such. No slave owner was willing to give up their slave(s) on humanitarian grounds. Maybe they did and their personal motives just weren’t recorded. Interesting because it was a huge affair, bigger in magnitude than the recent government payouts to the banks. Further reason why the Southerners refused to play along with the Union. They weren’t going to be compensated for the loss of their property.

    Should monuments be taken down? There there, they exist. They can be useful as reminders, in the right context. Just like Auschwitz isn’t kept there for it’s original purpose. The Hiroshima bomb drop site isn’t kept that way because they couldn’t replace and build better, a reminder for future generations, and for persons coming from far away lands to see and learn.

    If trade between groups of people is unbalanced profitable only for one side this is not necessarily always a bad thing. Some trade is like that. If it is deliberately kept unbalanced then it is on the grounds of if not empathy and compassion, then at least a sense that keeping happy neighbours makes happy neighbourhoods should prevail. The days of pioneering and driving injuns off the trail for vast tracts of fertile lands are long gone. There is no more Yukon, ( until somebody finds it). Humans need to learn how to live with each other, if not for their own selfish gain, then for the coming generations.

    Sense of belonging allows people to behave like they belong. Look at rebellious teenagers. Look at ill treated slaves held in captivity when they find out they can be free. Look at Peasants, and merchants having to pay more taxes than deemed fair. Look at people who only read one paper and never question what they see in front of them.

    From the uneducated souls to the powerful, if these deep seated hatreds one sided views about who is superior or who has god given rights aren’t questioned aren’t challenged then the status quo is maintained. It isn’t easy to answer those questions. but here are a few answers.

    Should White people feel guilty for Colonialism and Slavery. No. They didn’t do it. Unless they harbour secret desires to start it again?
    Should descendants of slaves be remunerated? Complex: Who would pay it? Which colonies are we talking about? Under the laws of the time of course not! But the same could be said of the Jews under the Nazi regime.
    Should former colonies be remunerated? From my knowledge deals were struck at the time, different for each colony. Years would be needed to go through that information.
    Should former colonies that were also slave plantations be remunerated. Well, they have no mighty navies, No mighty armies, why should anyone listen? — A symbolic gesture could be a nice thing to do. At least some kind of acknowledgment. Some effort to uncover what actually happened to the fruits of that labour. The Germans did it with the Namibians, and with the Jews. It could build nicer relationships and so on. The British did not always have the mighty navy they have been known to have.

    I believe in nice. It makes life so much nicer.

  6. Brian

    Wow, the trolls are definitely out. Too bad none of them seem to have actually read the post, which is eloquent and thoughtful.


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