Weighing In On Statues

The current noise and activity around our apartheid and colonial statues is very interesting and brings a number of things squarely under a dazzling, retina-cauterizing spotlight. Where do I stand on it? I don’t stand anywhere really. I, mostly, see both sides of the debate and have a third view. Such is my wont. 

I’ll start with the third view first. These statues, or most of them, are stunningly valuable as pure works of art and creation. Forget their reason for commission or their subject and just view them as art. Yes, yes, I know, you can’t set those things aside. Still, abandon your dualistic thinking, display a modicum of intelligence and see the statues as art. 

Why do I say this and does it has relevance to the contemporary debate? Yes, and yes. The statues have an intrinsic value. I’ve discussed their value as works of art but there is the less tangible value (not that artistic value is terribly tangible) that has sparked the current circumstance. It’s all about value and values. 

On one side of the road stands those for whom the statues represent something specific. Specific heroes of their history. Oom Paul, Rhodes, Murray, whoever else. The works have both value and represent a set of values. On the other side stand a group to whom the statues are less specific in nature. They don’t care about the person immortalized in bronze. They care about their throwback to a time of the loss of their humanity. They have a problem with the values they represent. Is it that simple? I think that it is. We have a shared history. We don’t take turns. Your history is my history. I just see it differently. 

When one considers the value of historical objectification I think the there is quite a marked fork in the road. Buildings, for instance, constructed to symbolize or aggrandize certain powers of the day are much more easily prized for their functional value. This gives them a greater shot at post revolution longevity. Their form may represent the cultural values of the day but their function is easily changed to suit contemporary needs. Think of our parliamentary buildings, schools, etc. or, perhaps as a great example, the layers on Temple Mount resulting from millennia of occupation and re occupation by different religions. Use, adapt and reuse. 

Certainly, when these structures become repurposed symbols are immediately removed. We’ve done this with colonial flags in our country many times in our history. I think that the right wing forgets this. They have done this as they freed themselves from oppression. (It saddens me that they are so poor at learning from their own history.)

It’s not just here, either. I have vivid images of statues of the founding fathers of the USSR coming down. Sadam Husain. Pol Pot. Gadaffi. But Rhodes should be different? I think not. (Because our revolution was relatively peaceful, negotiated and because the revolutionaries largely capitulated in negotiation doesn’t mean that there was no revolution. Let that sink in.) Still, unless destroyed in battle the buildings in which these objects were housed were retained. 

While buildings reflect a certain cultural style they somewhat lose their symbolic value when their occupants change. They get appropriated and may even stand as a symbol of victory by the contemporary incumbent. History is, after all, written in the pen of the victor. 

Journeying down the road on the other prong of the fork the difference is significant. Statues, unlike most buildings, are very specific symbols. They represent the specific values and achievements of the people that they celebrate. This is a problem. They are a celebration of that historical figure; a grateful or venerated recognition of their contribution to history. A lot of this contribution isn’t very pretty. A lot more of it is downright ugly. You choose which is which. 

History and celebration. Those words are a problem. Let me try to explain this by pointing out an extreme example. 

Hitler and the Nazis contributed massively to the historical path of modern European (and world) history. They redefined borders both in Europe and the Middle East. They changed demographics. They essentially established the USA as a world power and provided the conflict required for the precipitation of the Cold War. They provided the need to establish the United Nations. In his time Hitler was venerated, celebrated and almost worshiped. Fact. 

Imagine disembarking from an airplane in Germany to be greeted by a statue of Hitler?  But he’s a historical figure and you can’t change history by pulling down statues is what so many people tell me lately. No, you can’t. But, for heaven’s sakes, you don’t need the reminder do you?  Have some empathy, some humanity, some tolerance, some common sense. 

Such is the nature of our statue debate. 

Do these statues represent something of value to certain of our countrymen? Yes. Some of these values are entirely unwholesome in contemporary society. Still, they exist. Did some of these people contribute positively to this country? Yes, in a way they did. Not consistently for all of its inhabitants, but there is some level of contribution. I don’t want to open this can of worms because my typing finger grows wary, but there has to be some level of positive contribution. At whose expense is the issue. 

What values do these statues represent to other of our countrymen? I don’t know really. I could venture an opinion but it doesn’t really matter. What should be common cause is that they represent a time in our history when we were not equal under law and the disbursement of privilege. And therein lies the rub. It’s the reminder that hurts. The reminder that we still celebrate these people by placing their likenesses in prominent areas. It must be painful. 

So how do we balance this three-armed scale? On one arm of the scale we have their value as objects. On another we have their value as historical artifacts. On the third we have their value as reminders of a time where the values of the people being celebrated resulted in much pain. Not an easy balance to achieve. 

I think that my solution isn’t that onerous. Move these statues to somewhere where they can be objectified as items of history. A museum. When we see ancient god effigies in museums we do not kneel to pray or to offer sacrifice. We view them for what they, appreciate the workmanship required to create them and shuffle past. 

History constantly writes itself. Everything changes. Let go or be dragged. 

The king is dead. Long live the king. 


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