What to do About the Men in Stone

Joseph Haynes debates the complex issue of statue toppling, looking both to history and the future to consider the potential costs of this practice

The creation of statues has been practiced by human beings as early in our history as 40,000 B.C.E. It was circa this date in Germany that a person carved the first statue into existence – an upright lion-man sculpted out of mammoth ivory by a flintstone knife. Since then, human beings have innovated a myriad of ways to chip, whittle and forge their statues into being. Our obsession with statues has led to their mass-production, resulting in museums stuffed full of the things – not to mention gift shops even selling originals for competitive prices. Such influence do we believe these objects have over us that at numerous points throughout human history the powers that be have regulated statues. Indeed, foundational to the Judeo-Christian faith is the monopolisation of iconography – “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” – for even the ancients understood that by controlling our idols they controlled our minds.

More glaringly abundant are the statues that still live around us today in our public spaces, adorning our squares, streets and thoroughfares. And once again, many are trying to regulate them, either by removing them or blatantly destroying them. Such controversies have these bronze busts and stony statures caused that their futures have been brought to the very front of the culture war, begging the question, what shall we do about the men in stone? This question is certainly worth answering – which I will attempt to do. However, only answering this question is not unpacking the issue in its entirety. Politics has turned these statues into just another talking point of the culture war when really we should also step back from the debate and realise what they reflect about our changing relationships with art, history and the public spaces that house these effigies.

When the controversy over statues such as Churchill’s, Cook’s and Columbus’ was brought to the forefront of the news cycle earlier this year my mind jumped to one statue no one else was talking about. A fictional one – Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’. In his story, one of Wilde’s lessons is that we do not appreciate what public art gives us until it’s too late. Indeed, the opulent statue of the Prince, after giving away the jewellery encrusted into his golden frame to the sick and poor of his village by night, is no longer considered beautiful by the town’s people. They become ashamed of the statue, believing that it does not reflect their community and does not bring glory to their town square. Thus, the town council tear him down, unknowing of the service he provided many, before then erecting statues of themselves in his place.

By taking the statues down, the general public simply loses another opportunity to ask these questions

I think this quite brilliantly metaphorises the road we’re going down by hastily removing some of our statues – like Wilde’s villagers, we see only the negatives that these monuments portray. We see only the regretful aspects of our history that these statues represent while not simultaneously understanding the important role these statues serve in allowing us to know our history in the first place. Of course, I’m not literally saying that, like the Prince, the statues feed the sick and disadvantaged, in fact, many people the statues represent took away far more jewels than they gave out; Cecil Rhodes comes to mind – but this isn’t the point. The point is that they could make our lives intellectually richer and more emotionally understanding if we used them to stimulate the big questions about history, art and the use of public spaces like we should. By taking the statues down, the general public simply loses another opportunity to ask these questions.

There has been an expected scepticism and reaction against the tearing down of statues throughout the West. Some have likened it to the iconoclasm of the Reformation, or even Maoism in Communist China. These criticisms are bold, but they certainly touch on something truthful. Indeed, there is certainly a religious, almost fanatical element to the way some statues are being removed. When we saw videos of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol being hurled into the sea by a cheering mob, many were reminded of the Puritans of Cromwell’s England smashing “false idols”.

This brings us to eminent art historian Simon Schama’s opinion on the matter. In his article in the Financial Times, titled ‘History is better served by putting the Men in Stone in museums’, Schama attempts to plicate our fears that the removal of statues we’re witnessing is a sort of New Age iconoclasm by saying it is all part of healthy historical debate and is merely the changes of our times. He relates the recent removal of statues in the West to scenes of Lenin’s statues being taken down in 90s Russia as its population was finally freed from the yoke of totalitarianism. Perhaps this is correct. But his comparison to the fall of the USSR seems fairly cherrypicked, for to one person the fall of a statue appears as liberation whereas to another it is the destruction of important cultural symbolism. In other words, substitute Schama’s example of statues being taken down after the fall of the Soviet Union with Maoist Red Guard ripping down any symbol of the ‘old China’ in the Cultural Revolution, and the substance of his argument is violently reversed.

By throwing them in museums we also risk severing our connection to the histories the statues represent

Examining the title of Schama’s article I am inclined to ask; do we really reap the rewards of history by consigning statues to museums? Rhodes Scholar Ntokozo Qwabe justifies his belief that we should put them in museums by stating that we gain little educationally by having the statues out in the open. “I don’t see Oxford students standing outside Oriel [College] and asking [questions about] that statue…” he stated at the Oxford Union’s debate on whether Cecil Rhodes’ statue should fall. This seems logical at first, but I think Qwabe is ultimately missing the point. When people say the statues are a part of history and are an educational tool, they are not literally saying the that the average citizen is expected to take notes on them. Rather, they are saying that by having these statues in historically saturated spaces, such as the ancient town squares of Europe, the gothic enclaves of heritage buildings, and even the colonial thoroughfares of Sydney, they become not just a part of the physical architecture around us, but give us a poignant sense of history and provide us with another mechanism to unpack our past so that we might better understand it. Ultimately, it is effective use of space.

For instance, if you were an academic attempting to make a point about the large and shameful part that racism has played in the histories of Britain and her colonies, than you may find you do your argument a disservice by removing the very cultural symbols that props it up. By putting statues in museums less people will actually see them, eroding their power as historical symbols and further relegating them to the world of the academic elite where their significance is taught by people with degrees rather than observed by the ordinary person. Would we feel the need to have a nationwide dialogue that attempts to uncover the truth about Rhodes, Cook and Columbus if their statues were not around us today? Perhaps we would. But I don’t think people would feel as inclined to pay attention and I think that dialogue would largely take place behind the walls of gated institutions, not in our forums of public debate. By throwing them in museums we also risk severing our connection to the histories the statues represent, which if anything will obscure the historical narratives which they propagate, namely, that our society has been and in many ways still is sculpted by historically accepted views about race which we now deem reprehensible.

Enter a trip I made three years ago to Berlin. If, like me, you go to Berlin’s Marx-Engels-Forum you will find an eleven-foot tall statue of Marx and Engels erected in 1986 under the East German regime, a country whose secret police were responsible for the imprisonment of 250,000 of its own citizens – of which many were tortured and killed. Clearly, there is justification for the numerous demands to take down the statue. However, having stood in the shade of these ominous, lifeless bronze figures, I can soundly say that I don’t think the true reality of the terrifying, murderous and inhumane government that these statues propped up would have sunk in had they been behind a red velvet rope in an airconditioned museum chamber. The visceral fear one experiences gazing upon the statues can only be achieved in the open space in which they were erected, with the Orwellian architecture of their surrounds complementing the truly gruesome picture that this era of Germany’s history has in the minds of the millions who experienced it and still experience its impacts.

Even gazing upon Oliver Cromwell’s statue in Whitehall, London, I as an Irish Catholic – someone who is meant to despise Cromwell for the horrors he committed against the Irish – was glad to see that his influence upon British history is still being exposed in the open and not hidden in the walls of the British Museum. If we want to understand the past, we are going to have to let a certain amount of its symbols remain outdoors, so its memory is preserved. And while perhaps we can let the grand total of statues be thinned out to make room for new artistic contributions to the public spaces in our society, we nonetheless must let a large proportion stay. Just as how we leave an amount of heritage buildings as we make space for new edifices, we too must allow our public spaces to be littered with fragments of the past, no matter how offensive they may be, if we are to have an holistic understanding of it.

Let us create even more mechanisms for our youth to unravel the persistent mystery that is the past

This gets at the way we can use statues and public spaces to find solutions to this problem. The way we make progress is not by knocking statues down, but by putting more up. Let us commemorate the much-maligned aspects of our history by putting statues up of the extraordinary individuals who shaped it and have not yet been memorialised. Let us create even more mechanisms for our youth to unravel the persistent mystery that is the past.

Stepping back and looking at the debate as a whole, we gain an incredible insight into the climate of our society. When we see the videos of statues being pulled down, of government authorities bending to the will of protesters and photos of these monuments strewn with graffiti, we should understand what these events reveal about us. They represent a major turning point in our thinking around how we interpret art and history. Indeed, they reveal the degree of importance we place upon that that is symbolic and subliminal. On language, images and even the most subtle body language. They reveal that we are not confident in one’s ability to think freely, rather that we believe art, history and the other abstract domains in many ways control us rather than exist for us. Similar moments have been witnessed throughout many points in human history, few have turned out well.

Recent events reflect that we have become incredibly polarised as a society, to the point where political groups are so certain they are morally right that they are willing to break the law if it means removing, or protecting, statues they have strong opinions about. We live in a society where many, especially the young, do not put their faith in individuals to decide for themselves how they interpret the history and art present in the public spaces around them. We live in a society where many think our actions, and inactions, inadvertently reinforce oppressive structures, and that therefore we must be told how to act rather than be left to our own devices. We must realise that if we allow ourselves to be prescribed interpretations of statues by the loudest voices, we risk losing one of humanity’s greatest traits: the ability to appreciate art in a nuanced way that does not aim to destroy or replace it, but simply tries to understand what it says about society.

Joseph is currently completing his gap year, pursuing all things literary. He plans to study Arts/Law at the University of Melbourne.

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