Have you noticed how much controversy has arisen around statues and other public works of art? People are defacing some statues, removing some altogether, and there are protests against the protests. The “save the statues” factions are strong. They argue that the statues are historical and should remain. We cannot pretend our history didn’t happen.
But that is exactly what we have been doing for over 200 years now. We have statues of confederate soldiers, known slave owners, well-documented killers of Native American Indians. But where are the statues of Harriet Tubman and other brave Black and native American Indian souls who risked torture and death if caught?
Where are the auction block statues, with plaques marking the spot where human beings were bought and sold? Why aren’t there art installations at every documented lynching site?
The historical value of a statue of a Confederate general on horseback must be considered alongside other factors. What is it like for a Black person, perhaps a descendant of slaves, to walk by a statue of Robert E. Lee on a daily basis? What is the psychological effect of a child growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, a city in which every other street is named after a hero of the Confederacy?
Who could we be celebrating instead? Who is missing from our public places that would more accurately depict history? How about some women for starters? (The city of Boston has 64 statues, of which seven are of women.)
I do wonder about the efficacy of removing offensive art from public view. Recently I learned in the New York Times that “at least 114 Confederate symbols were removed in the years after a white supremacist killed nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C., according to a 2019 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
That shooting happened in 2015. Did the removal of these statues make a difference for Ahmaud Arbery? Or George Floyd?
Art historian Erin L Thompson (she is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City) was interviewed about statues and here is an interesting fact to know and tell:
“As an art historian I know that destruction is the norm and preservation is the rare exception. We have as humans been making monuments to glorify people and ideas since we started making art, and since we started making statues, other people have started tearing them down. There are statues from the ancient Near East of Assyrian kings that have curses carved on them that say ‘he who knocks down my statue, let him be in pain for the rest of his life,’ that sort of thing. And so we know from those, that one strategy of rebellion was knocking down a statue in 2700 B.C.”
Professor Thompson made another important observation in the same article:
“A couple of journalists in 2018 did an amazing investigation for Smithsonian magazine and found that in the previous 10 years, taxpayers had spent at least $40 million preserving Confederate monuments and sites.”
That is a lot of money that could be used for much more urgent and pressing problems. There are children going hungry. There are little kids who could benefit from attending nursery or preschool.
These issues that arise at the intersection of art and historical records are complicated, and I urge us all to see the many shades of gray inherent in this controversy, as well as so many other justice related issues. Nothing is black and white. The world is filled with color! Let’s see all of them.
The Rev. Susan Moran is minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Rockport.