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Our Own Corruptible Natures:
Racism and Slavery in Public Art

In the wake of the Charlottesville riots, the discussion around public art – who its for, and what ideas its meant to impart on its subjects – has been cracked wide open. Nadia Hadid investigates our long history of venerating problematic figures, and why American Civil War "heroes" will always be incendiary in public spaces. 

WORDS – Nadia Hadid
11.09.2017

When we memorialise figures from history, casting them in bronze or stone, we launch them into the public sphere. These monuments stand watch over our towns and cities. They are often celebrations of our triumphs in battle, scientific achievement, evolutionary, societal, or political change. They become synonymous with our identity, either as a testament to who we are now, or how far we have come. In its simplest form, public art is for public consumption; it is a commentary on both ourselves and the space we live in, creating a dialogue between the artist, the observer, and their environment. With this in mind, there has been much debate in recent months, over whether or not the many statues memorialising Confederate generals from the American Civil War constitute public art, and whether this ought to grant them immunity from our scrutiny and criticism. 

Charlottesville's Robert E Lee monument has stood in Lee Park in Charlottesville's County Courthouse District since 1924. Lee led the Confederate army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War in the 1800s, a war which the Confederacy ultimately lost and resulted in him surrendering his entire army over to Ulysses S Grant in 1865. It's curious that the right to glorify and celebrate this man, and his regional counterparts, seems so intrinsic to the national pride of so many Americans. In fact, this particular memorial has been the subject of countless council meetings, Race Monuments & Public Spaces Commission panels, court ordered injunctions, and three separate protest rallies organised by; Richard Spencer, the KKK and, most recently, Unite the Right which sadly claimed the life of Heather Hayer and injured a further 19 people in a related terrorist attack last month.

The debate around these memorials, thus far, has been such a bitter and polarising exchange. On one hand, there are those who feel that veterans who fought to defend the wealth of the South ought to be memorialised, and that removing these statues is an erasure of America's history. On the other, there are those who question the validity of these men as war heroes when they took up arms against their own government and fought a war in favour of slavery. The American Civil Liberties Union has spoken out about the issue, stating: “Monuments are built to honour history. Black Americans are not honoured by Confederate monuments... The people these monuments honour may have been brave, fought tirelessly, and laid down their life, but they did it for the right to own humans.”

However controversial or divisive, Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson's  or *insert name of general who fought for their right to own people* politics were, if their memorials were pieces of public art, would we not be duty bound to remove ourselves from their morally questionable politics and find value in what monuments like this have to offer? After all, we are able to extend this benevolent and discerning eye to the study of antiquity. Many cultures including Ancient Greece and Rome have violent, bloody pasts laced with long, complex histories of slavery, sexism, casual paedophilia, and gross inequality.

Plato and Aristotle, for example, were some of the greatest philosophical minds in the world, and both were enthusiastic advocates of slavery. In fact, in Politics, Aristotle argues that slavery is completely natural and that we are all born as either slaves or masters: "From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule." He genuinely believed those who were born 'slaves' lacked the ability to think critically for themselves and therefore needed masters to tell them exactly what to do. Similarly, Plato described the superior ruling and having more than the inferior as, true justice. Of course, today we reject these ridiculous views on slavery, and categories of human for that matter, but we are able to separate these outmoded ideas from the rest of Plato and Aristotle's respective philosophies and recognise the contributions they make to the ancient philosophic narrative as a whole.

So, why does this become difficult when we consider Charlottesville?

The answer to this question lies in intention and purpose, namely, why these figures were memorialised in sculpture and what the purpose was of doing so. I suspect there would be little issue if they were merely telling us the story of America's past or Charlottesville's local history. Sadly, the reality is rather more nefarious.Professor E Frances White from the Gallatin School of Individual Study and Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU offers some valuable insight here. She believes that memorialising any agents of the Confederacy is morally objectionable because their objectives were to safeguard and spread slavery.

Glory: Shaw and the Black Soldiers of the Massachusetts, Tony Fischer

Confederate monuments, according to White, "helped create a dominant narrative about the U.S. Civil War that obscured the role of slavery in the rebellion. The reason that white supremacists wanted to take control of the governing narrative was to replace their slavery-based economy and social structure with racial segregation and Jim Crow.

White racists built myths of white male superiority that was represented by Confederate statues; at the same time it was important to them to portray black people as inferior and unable to govern themselves. It is ironic that the South lost the war but they have dominated the way that history was told".

These memorial statues, Dr White clarifies, were actually strategically built in the late 19th and early 20th century as mechanisms "designed to terrify black people and to insure that they did not rebel against this imposition of Jim Crow. Those statues were visible reminders of who was in control of the government, the social structure, and the economy.  They also worked hand-in-hand with lynching and the carceral state. Black people have always known that those statues were designed to intimidate them and to look like innocent memorials to an evil past." 

These monuments were erected to satisfy political aims and were primarily used to oppress and control people of colour. When African Americans were fighting to end segregation, despite the dissolution of slavery long ago, Robert E Lee went up in the town square, by the courthouse, sending them a very clear message; don't get any ideas, we fought to keep slavery here. During this struggle, these statues were placed in public spaces as a smack down, a stark, sobering reminder that these states fought against the rights of black people and they wanted to keep it that way. They were – wholly and completely – a political statement. We are seeing them weaponised once again by the alt-right, because they were always meant to be weapons. Once we understand the motivation behind these monuments and the role they played, and continue to play, in the subjugation of people of colour, they seem utterly indefensible. But lines have been drawn in the sand, and no one's budging. 

J Henry was born and raised in Texas and attended the peace rally in Dallas last month. Although Texas came into the Civil War a little later, he describes his education about it and attitudes towards the Confederacy, in his experience, across the South. "I remember when I was growing up, it was presented to me that the Civil War was about slavery. The North wanted to abolish slavery, the South did not. Once the Civil War was over and the North won, the slaves were freed and… happy ending."

He describes growing up around a great deal of absolutes in logic; serving your country is the most honourable thing you can do for your family, memorials were simply to honour good men, if someone was important enough to be in your history book, they were important enough to have a memorial named after them. There was an implicit trust in your country knowing what was best for you, but also that you were lucky to be growing up in one of the best countries on earth.

For people who never move beyond this thinking, a public outcry calling into question the abysmal decision making of their forefathers feels like an erasure of their history. It feels wholly un-American. Henry describes the current climate in America as incredibly two sided, "There is such a dichotomy; you are either liberal or conservative, you are either democrat or republican, you are either from the North or from the South, you're either pro-Trump or anti-Trump. We have created this culture where you're either on one side or the other side and there is really very little room for comprise or a grey area; which makes it very difficult to have conversations where there is any common ground. So, when we start talking about these monuments, someone always loses."

Henry confesses that as a white person growing up in the South, he never had to think about these monuments before, but when he saw Nazis and KKK members marching on Charlottesville, his perspective changed completely. During the peace rally in Dallas, Henry recalls the speaker explaining that this particular statue of Robert E Lee stood directly across the street from where a black man was famously lynched and dragged through the streets by a rope until he died. Its placement was entirely deliberate and wholly provocative. He also recalls a news report of a lady in Charleston, who addressed the camera with the following: "It doesn't matter what you say the statue is for, we look over there, and that's one of the masters looking down on us. He is in a place of importance, he is on a pedestal. He has a statue made of him, to look down on me.”

African-American soldiers at Dutch Gap, Virginia, WikiCommons

He adds, "Black people are feeling suppressed daily when they walk by these monuments, when they drive by them on their way to work. It is a constant reminder that they are less than. Still. The fact that they haven't gone around and torn down all these monuments themselves is amazing to me."

How can art unify and inspire in one sense, and yet cause so much pain and revulsion with another stroke? Perhaps because, in this instance, by their own nature these statues seek to disrupt the evolutionary process, they aren’t a snapshot into the past, they are bridge to a path never taken. One that fractures our progression and harks back to how it should have been, had these men had their way. The fact that this has remained unchallenged for so long is a testament to the level of inequality we are dealing with. It is deeply embedded, it is entrenched. What is it that these figures represent? Perhaps, and what was clearly demonstrated by the alt right presence in Charlottesville on 12th August, it isn't a history long forgotten, but a dangerous ideology that has been percolating all along. Something that very much lives on and is staring us right in the face (or hiding in a gazebo near you).

Perhaps this notion kept alive is what prevents us from viewing these statues through the lens of historicalisation; and what makes the pain of viewing them in our communities again now so barbed. Because erecting monuments that stand on the shoulders of oppression isn't for the public, it does not serve them in any beneficial way. And it certainly isn't art. It is simply a reminder of a sinister past that haunts us still. A past that subjugated an entire race of people and erased their ethnic identity without a second thought; and its presence here, unchallenged, not only condones that past, but it emboldens those who seek to glorify this oppression and use it to justify their toxic rhetoric.

Perhaps then, there is an opportunity here that neither seeks to tear down and erase, nor revere and worship blindly. If we want these monuments to serve the public they absolutely can do so, in a museum. With context and dialogue around the exact situation we're in currently, all the wrong turns that brought us here, and how it's now clear that the Civil Rights Movement is far from over. Public art can also be a provocation, prompting us to examine our own corruptible nature and cast a critical eye on how certain things came to be and how we might make sure they don't happen again. In the words of my dear friend, "If we just tear them down and they go in a dumpster, then we've learned nothing".

Header image: Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemtery in Arlington, Virginia. WikiCommons

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