This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Monuments, as Alois Riegl pointed out a century ago, are aids to memory. “In memoriam,” the carvings cry out. Though they are almost always tainted with political ideologies and social values, they can stand on their own as works of art, absorbing meanings over millennia. Many that we continue to treasure were once associated with events and practices antithetical to modern mores and taboos: Greek temples were founded on the altars of animal—and, earlier, human—sacrifice; the pyramids were made by slaves; market crosses may have served as flogging posts. There really are no innocent human artifacts dedicated to remembering human acts, as fact or fiction.
Compare Grant’s Tomb, now standing largely ignored in Riverside Park, New York City, with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., long one of the capital’s most-visited tourist sites. When first erected, the monument to Grant, one of the nation’s most beloved war heroes, was still connected to Civil War veterans and Reconstruction. Hundreds of thousands came to the unveiling, and weekend visitors to the site were legion for the first decades of the 20th century, like the ones who today hang flowers and tributes on “the wall” designed by Maya Lin while she was a student at Yale. It is likely that the modest black wall on the National Mall will suffer the same fate as General Grant’s temple/mausoleum during the next century. That won’t make it any less valuable as a national monument.
The Lincoln Memorial, on the other hand, will never be abandoned or forgotten, and not only because Martin Luther King Jr. gave a famous speech on its steps. Even if Honest Abe is vilified by some historian for a blunder or insensitive act during his lifetime, the building will outlive his memory because it is one of the greatest works from the hands of 20th century artists: Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon. It will continue to accrue rich meanings as new events take place on the Mall or nearby. Its status does not depend on the vicissitudes of history, no matter how fraught the moment.
Civic monuments adorn cities, towns and parks throughout the world, but seemed especially fragile following the end of the Cold War. Effigies of Joseph Stalin were destroyed just hours after the fall of the Soviet Union’s last communist government. Those of Saddam Hussein were also early casualties of the second Gulf War. Leaders with such horrific records of murder and genocide could not be celebrated in any form. But statues of political leaders, warriors, and social reformers are seldom so cut and dried in their status in any society, especially today.
The current controversy over the fate of founding fathers, Confederate war heroes, and colonial conquerors in public places throughout the U.S. is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last. Debate about the nature of memorials and monuments is usually a good thing—that is, when a healthy civic society exists with a common understanding of history and democratic values. Alas, our society is no such thing.
That’s one reason why the outcry about the removal of all sorts of statues, even if laws permit their existence and even promote creation of new ones, is so troubling to those who understand architectural history and value memorials as repositories of collective memory. In the commons, where demonstrators have a first amendment right to free assembly, monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial are the locus of great civic events—events that can change history. Not only do sculptures and buildings dedicated to historical events offer proof of ethnic, local, and national identity for most of our citizens; they are also deep wells of pride, sorrow, hope, and healing when the collective, the body politic, is at one with national values, shared values learned in schools and colleges, and in workplaces. These are the values of citizenship that immigrants proclaim when they are sworn in at ceremonies that many see as the greatest events of their lives.
One highly artful and evocative place in the South illustrates the precarious position of a mayor or governor who may prune statues from individual sites: Monument Avenue, in Richmond, Virginia. The product of a City Beautiful planning scheme that did indeed create a wonderful adornment to the state capital, the avenue has a variety of landscaped areas punctuated by distinguished sculptures by major artists. Unfortunately, virtually all are tainted by associations with the Civil War, because they were installed during the Jim Crow era by leaders intent on celebrating “Southern heritage.” Only a single recent addition depicts an African American: Arthur Ashe. Prior to the recent protests, the mayor of Richmond took a strong stand on getting all Confederate war heroes off the boulevard—Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were prominent. He wasn’t universally praised for doing so. The statues will go to a museum, instructing children and adults about “negative heritage,” as concentration camp museums do in Europe.
The changing meanings associated with individual statues, many of which are rightfully condemned as symbols of racism and oppression, is really not the central issue that we must consider in looking at laws and policies governing civic monuments in this country. Our leaders—mayors and governors, mostly—must come to grips with the legacy of their forebears in individual places, before making the difficult decision of whether to remove civic monuments or risk the controversy of keeping and maintaining them. It is true that most Confederate monuments are a legacy of Jim Crow and cannot remain to remind us of that horrible era. But there are many fine statues of other men and women who saw themselves as patriots, or made significant contributions to our history, that do not belong in the category of traitors to democracy or hard-core racists. These should not be part of the conversation; they have emerged so only because so many of our citizens have little education in either the nuances of their lives and achievements, or the necessity of having monuments in public places to reinforce collective values. Social media and ideological websites, as we know from the 2016 election, hardly offer objective views of the issues in this context. So we are left with a pool of vehement, mainly ignorant, screeds against whomever Internet trolls find abhorrent this week. They are difficult to read, but often seem persuasive to those hurt by George Floyd’s brutal murder and its aftermath of protests.
Many commentators have written eloquently about the crisis of civic polity and political discourse in the post-9/11, post–Cold War, Trump-era arenas that occupy media outlets and debate platforms today. As we who write about the built environment weigh in on these debates, it is important to recognize how fraught any speech may become in such a cauldron of divisive rhetoric. Now is not the time to rewrite laws governing the content and place of monumental sculpture in our public places. Nor is it the time to pass judgment on figures who have remained central to our collective identity in a historical narrative that, though subject to revision, has remained much the same since our nation was founded. Should others be added to the pantheon? Emphatically yes. Their statues are yet to be carved, by artists yet to be recognized. Fons Americanus, Kara Walker’s magnificent Tate London installation, reminded us of the richness of what may lie ahead if we allow time for social assessment and aesthetic criticism to be absorbed by a fragile culture.
Unfortunately, cultural critics on the right of the political spectrum have made blanket statements about the sacred place of monuments, of whatever sort, in common spaces. Just as they skewed the debate in a negative direction when discussing classical architecture (never appropriate as a “national style” in any context), they are dividing architects and critics along similar lines with equally polemical rhetoric to that of more “politically correct” commentators. Offended that sculpture—even in cemeteries—may be defaced a la the “Reign of Terror” after 1789, they have reacted with unusual umbrage at what they see as a mob mentality.
This is another reason why cooler heads, those looking broadly at the place of monuments and memorials in a democracy, must provide reasoned rebuttals to both the right and the left on this subject. The U.S. is already losing credibility as a defender of democratic, republican values throughout the world. It would be unfortunate indeed if we lost ground on an issue that has been such a bellwether for civic art in our country for almost 250 years. We must also guard against new propaganda for “alternate histories” such as the Garden of Heroes recently proposed by Donald Trump. Our nation’s monuments depict a shared history that undergirds the values that have sustained our nation through wars, depressions, and periods of prosperity. We can’t afford to lose them in a pique of frustration over the sins of police, politicians, or protesters. Like saints and martyrs, none of them are perfect, though their marble effigies may seem so.