21st Century Iconoclasm

Thoughts on the new book Smashing Statues by Erin L. Thompson 

On the night of January 20, 2022, workers in New York City removed an 82-year-old statue of Teddy Roosevelt from its location outside the American Museum of Natural History. The statue depicts the late president mounted heroically on a horse, with a pair of men (one Native American, one African) following dutifully on foot. There’s no doubting the adventuresome Roosevelt’s bona fides regarding the appreciation and preservation of nature, and it’s easy to imagine honoring him for that, but it’s not as easy to imagine a disinterested observer looking at this arrangement of figures nowadays and thinking, “That’s okay.”

It took “only” 23 years from the time critics first complained about the monument’s implicit message of white racial superiority until authorities had it removed. (And to be fair, it’s a safe bet that legions of African-Americans, Native Americans, and enlightened people of every race quietly shook their heads in dismay and tried to ignore it as they enjoyed an otherwise pleasant day at one of America’s most celebrated museums.) The statue will live on, however, “recontextualized” at the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. 

Resolution of the controversy surrounding the Roosevelt statue was relatively painless compared to the fights nationwide over monuments celebrating everyone from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee. America’s increasingly rancorous political and social atmosphere now includes a critical mass of intolerance by progressives of monuments that honor (mostly white, mostly male) figures whose primary claims to fame are inextricable from their roles as slaveowners, insurrectionists, or racists. Equally determined are conservatives who see removal or “recontextualization” of such monuments as erasing history, or insulting their heritage, or political correctness run amok.

All of this, and more, is explored in a new book titled Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments, written by Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime at the City University of New York, and described as “a leading expert on the past, present, and future of public monuments in America.”

Thompson dives deep into several cases, beginning with the toppling, in 1776, of an equestrian statue of King George III in New York City. American patriots, giddy after hearing a public reading of the still-moist Declaration of Independence, rushed into the streets and tore down the lead monument, most of which was melted down to make revolutionary bullets. Of course, the tearing down of this statue did not erase history. We still know a considerable amount about George III and the American Revolution. 

Some historical figures (or historically symbolic figures) should be no-brainers when it comes to decisions about removal. Take Robert E. Lee. Had he not been at the head of an insurrectionist army in a conflict that killed 600,000 Americans in an attempt to save the institution of slavery, he would be a footnote in the history books. Lee would be remembered, when remembered at all, for his tertiary role in the Mexican-American War and for foiling John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Lee’s estate at Arlington would probably be a special events venue or a minor tourist attraction, instead of the hallowed ground for America’s fallen warriors. But for decades, Lee has been celebrated and monumentalized across the South solely and precisely because he was a rebel and a defender of secession. To make matters worse, the erection of monuments to Lee coincides almost exclusively with white supremacist reaction to advances in civil rights for African-Americans. There’s no two ways about it: Lee is celebrated because he was a traitor to the Union, and because his image is intended to intimidate blacks forced to live under the thumb of Jim Crow.

And yet, as Thompson points out, the authorities routinely create Byzantine processes (laws, regulations, commissions, committees) designed to frustrate any attempts to remove such offensive monuments. Alternatively, legislatures often purposefully fail to create any kind of clear removal process, so they can throw up their hands and speciously claim there’s nothing to be done. Even black mayors and lawmakers find themselves in the uncomfortable position of choosing faithfully upholding the law over advocating property damage, no matter how good the intentions. When frustrations reach a boiling point, sometimes the people take matters into their own hands, defacing or toppling statues in imitation of their patriotic forebears in Revolutionary New York City. Thompson doesn’t defend criminal activity outright, but she makes it clear her sympathies lie on the side of those who no longer wish to honor racists and war criminals.

Possibly the most problematic case that Thompson investigates is the Confederate carving on Stone Mountain, Georgia. At 90 by 190 feet, this largest bas-relief sculpture in the world honors Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. To be fair, the sculpture is both beautiful and an impressive artistic feat. I live in metro Atlanta and have visited it many times (not to honor the Confederacy, of course, but rather to admire the natural beauty of the mountain and its surrounding landscape). But there’s just no getting around the insulting and provocative subject matter. And it’s no small irony that three-quarters of the present-day residents of the nearby City of Stone Mountain are African-American. Unfortunately, the Republican-dominated state legislature has carved (pun intended) into law a constellation of protections and prohibitions that guarantee the sculpture can never be removed, altered, or even recontextualized. 

Thompson puts to rest any notion that Stone Mountain is just an honest (if misguided) attempt to honor Southern heritage. She details the inseparable history of the carving with the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan (who announced their rebirth by burning a cross at the summit of the mountain in 1915) and the use of “free,” mostly African-American prison labor to develop the associated park. Many, if not most, of the key players in creating the carving were either members of the KKK or the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Today, the head of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association is a black preacher.

In the end, Thompson offers no easy solutions to problematic memorials, other than a common-sense call to let locals decide who and what they want to honor, and who and what they no longer wish to honor. Although Thompson doesn’t say so, this approach is really the only way forward, but it could lead to continued unintended outcomes; for every Robert E. Lee or Christopher Columbus that comes down in one town, a Barack Obama could go up in another. Or a gold-plated Donald J. Trump. But at least the people will get what they want.

Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments by Erin L. Thompson is available February 8, 2022.

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