The trouble with lazy sculptors is they never carve a niche for themselves.
Even the more diligent ones tend to get forgotten, hiding their works in plain sight to be treated, mostly, as just more irritating street furniture to bump into when you’re looking at your phone. London is stuffed full of a statues but we rarely see them. It’s only thanks to a publicity hungry rolling art exhibition that any of us are aware that there is an empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. But how many of us could actually picture or name any of the other three plinth occupiers?
I’m an admirer of gargoyles and other horrors that peek out from buildings but I walked past Oriel College in Oxford for three years and never noticed Cecil Rhodes lurking there until it was pointed out by the #RhodesMustFall campaign.
Does this old public art really still glorify the shitty deeds of past war criminals and genocidal millionaires, if their simulacrum are so easily, like daytime telly programmes, mistaken for décor? Or is it time to recognise that as our memes change so should our statues?
At the moment the fourth plinth features David Shrigley’s Really Good: a relatively tiny hand with a massive thumbs up, the de facto photo-op hand gesture favoured by Trump. With a title that sounds as if it sprang straight from his little rose bud lips, every time I see the sculpture it makes me a little nauseous. I can’t wait for it to be pulled down and as a career iconoclast I feel I should enthusiastically support the pulling down of statues, the literal definition of iconoclasm. And yet… not only are ISIL doing a nice line in iconoclasm in places like Palmyra, I can’t help feeling that these statue topplers are missing a point.
“How about Thomas Jefferson?” Trump asked a press conference in what he believed would be a reductio ad absurdum “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue?” But it’s not so far from inconceivable as his speech post-it makers thought.
Thomas Jefferson, founding father and author of America’s Declaration of Independence, was also a sound Palladian architect. He was so proud of the University he helped design, he had the trees knocked down between his Monticello estate, on a hill several miles away, and the
university buildings so he could admire his handiwork from his terrace. Indeed, so becoming is the University of Virginia that, along with Monticello, it has been designated UNESCO’s first and only collegiate World Heritage Site. The actual builders, and tree clearers, were, of course, slaves and the city that grew around the university is Charlottesville.
Near the centre of Charlottesville is a park created to house the equestrian statue of Confederate General Lee. For decades this was a perch for pigeons but, after “Black Lives Matter” was daubed on the statue in protest to the statue’s glorification of Confederate values, which included slavery, its removal was approved by the Charlottesville council. Suddenly the statue took on new relevance as a static flashpoint for the focus of the Ku Klux Klan, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, White Supremacists, AntiFa and Unite the Right which, holding protests and counter protests, last month ended in fatalities.
Unlike Lee, Jefferson did own slaves but he didn’t actively fight for the right to enslave so perhaps his statues might stand a little longer. The Lee statue, like many Confederate statuary, was erected in the early 20th century perhaps less to glorify but to give credence to local families caught in the war that tore America in two, that pitted brother against brother. The war was not entirely about slave owning which was always a privileged business. The vast majority of confederate soldiers who actually fought and died would have never owned a slave, they just believed they should have a right to and thus the natural superiority of their own race.
So now the debate is whether we should respect the past for having a different point of view or if, in a changing world, our public art should reflect it. Of course it would be ridiculous to get rid of everything that offends us. Libraries are full of nasty works remembering nasty people. But then you have to seek those out if you are so minded. Statues in public areas do take more of a burden. Even if I really wouldn’t want to live in a world where Hitler was forgotten, would I welcome a statue of him? He already seems to be in a video installation on endless loop on the History Channel and one of the most disturbing things I have experienced in an art gallery was approaching from the back the apparent angelic figure of a boy, in a corner on his knees praying, only to peak around to the front to discover it was Adolf Hitler (by Maurizio Cattelan).
So the question is whether statues simply remember or do they glorify? And if they cannot help but glorify should we even keep our war memorials?
The Kiss sculptor Rodin faced this problem with his work The Burghers of Calais. The statue was commissioned to commemorate the ordinary men of Calais who had martyred themselves by volunteering as hostages to Edward III to stop his siege of the city. Rodin was intent on not glorifying these men. He wanted viewers to understand how ordinary they were, not heroes. So Rodin not only cast his group life size he realised that it wasn’t the statue which would elevate these men, it was the pedestal. He demanded that they have no pedestal so people could walk amongst the group of men as equals. The Calaisians wouldn’t dream of this and promptly stuck it on a pedestal and, further, sold a cast to the English which proudly sits outside parliament… on a pedestal.
Maybe Rodin was right. It’s not the statues. Perhaps the statues are, on the whole, just a physical memory of what was important, or financed, in another time. They are memories of distant propaganda, or as we now call it, Fake News. What, we should really be concentrating on, what actually should be falling, is their pedestals.