August 03, 2020

Empty Pedestals, Monumental Culture

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

A non-trivial aspect of the wave of protests over the last few months has been focused on public monuments.

The Theodore Roosevelt statue at the National History Museum will be replaced because of its representation of racism and colonialism. Controversial former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo’s statue has been removed. Statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other confederates are being removed on Richmond’s Monument Ave. Christopher Columbus statues are also being brought down in several states. This movement didn’t start weeks ago, however. The University of Texas Austin campus removed its statues of Jefferson Davis and Woodrow Wilson in 2016.

When people are dying, and being arrested, and all in the middle of a global pandemic, why have these actions generated so much attention?

Well, monuments, like religion, are the way a society tells the story about itself, and that will always be contentious.

Monuments are not the only way a community does this, of course. W. Lloyd Warner, a sociologist and anthropologist (as well as a Durkheimian and one of Erving Goffman’s mentors) took the example of one town’s historical parade—Newburyport, Massachusetts—to say that these kinds of events are how people “collectively state what they believe themselves to be” and, to understand them is to understand “the inner world of those involved and the present beliefs and values of the collectivity” (1959:101).

Sculptures can be powerful social commentary. Think, for example, of Kristen Visbal’s ”Fearless Girl,” standing in the face of the Wall Street Charging Bull. (The bull sculpture was, in fact, illegally placed there by the sculptor.) Sculptures can also be pranks with a cause, like this one of a tourist being attacked by wolves or this one of a Staten Island Ferry being dragged underwater by a giant octopus. Sculptor Do Ho Suh has one piece called “Public Figures,” which is an empty plinth supported by hundreds of little bronze figures underneath it—a possible critique of the “great man” view of history. The Walrus called it the “anti-monument.”

Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities, writes that nations build their collective memories through censuses, maps, and museums. The nation, for Anderson, is a “imagined political community” (p.6). He begins his argument with an example of a kind of monument: the tombs of unknown soldiers. Tombs, like all monuments and sculptures, are imagery materialized through bronze or stone, and “museumized” (1992: 182). Monuments are one (clearly imperfect) way to connect the nation through shared imagery.

Monuments and sculptures are public objects, placed in public spaces, and in different ways, they represent dominant cultural values, which makes them the objects of valorization and critique. Public culture is always contestable.

Monumental culture is significant because, over time, it loses its context and it is awarded a certain amount of legitimacy that comes from its de-contextualization. They can even become sacred. This is, in part, what Historian Eric Hobsbawm called ”The Invention of Tradition.” Who is that sculpture supposed to be? Oh, they must have been important!

And monuments are symbols that can mean many things. In her study of confederate monuments and their relationship to contemporary poverty, sociologist Heather O’Connell finds that, “counties with Confederate monuments – specifically monuments inscribed with rhetoric glorifying either the soldiers as ‘heroes’ or the cause as ‘pure’ – have higher than expected levels of black–white poverty inequality.” She also finds that this occurs more strongly in counties that historically had lower concentrations of enslaved peoples (2018: 460)

How these monuments reflect our present reminds me of a quote sociologist Barry Schwartz uses in his study of the commemoration of George Washington, by George H. Mead: “Every conception of the past is construed from the standpoint of the new problems of today” (1929: 353). Representations of our nation’s history are widely contestable, but contestable on the terms of our present. Take, for example, critiques of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-ethnic depiction of Washington, Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson, as hip, rapping dudes, rather than as the slave owners and adulterers they really were.

Warner, in analyzing the Newburyport parade, noted how parts of the parade “put in and left out, selected and rejected” and who “had the power to choose the [significant] symbols” (1959: 225). Warner noted that understanding symbolic culture like parades is a way to connect “the inner world of those involved and the present beliefs and values of the collectivity” (ibid.) Similarly, it is just as important to understand where our national and cultural monuments come from.

History is highly edited. Why can’t we expect our concrete representations of it to be edited as well?

The history of confederate monuments, for example, should be part of this discussion. The controversy over what to do with them is an important reminder that what we think of as our shared history is actually a social construction. These monuments were constructed with a very political agenda. The United Daughters of the Confederacy were particularly active in 1900-1920, well after the Civil War, of course, and then had another spike of activity in the 1950s and 1960s. There are, according to the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, over 1,500 confederate symbols, including 700 statues and monuments that are on public property, and on 10 military bases. (See timelines and maps here. And, here’s a great essay about Richmond’s Monument Ave., as told by two Southern historians, one white, one Black.)

And now, the monuments are coming down, as are other long-standing symbols of the confederacy. The confederate flag is being removed from state imagery, and a July 2020 defense bill with “broad bipartisan support” includes a provision to rename military bases named for confederate leaders. (These are not only issues for the US, of course. The statue of British slave trader Edward Colston was dumped into the bay and then replaced by a Black Lives Matter statue. And Georgians in the former Soviet Union struggled with collective memory in taking down a statue of Stalin.)

What are the processes through which we rethink pieces of our shared public culture? Some of these statues are being pulled down by crowds, others (like the Roosevelt statue and those in Richmond) are being done via a deliberative process. Where can social movements play a role?

What should be done now? On the one hand, in response to these actions the current president says that he wants to establish a national statutory park of “American heroes.” But there are also architectural and urban design responses that tackle collective culture from a decidedly different ethical position. What seems for certain, however, is that few want to engage what Schwartz, Zerubavel and Barnett call a “collective amnesia” (1986) over our shared history.


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Taking down the confederate statues is still a better way to shape what is important in US history to me. They should be replaced with all races of women who contributed to American history.

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