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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Too Many Statues? A Response to Martin Kettle.

As you may know, a few days ago a bronze statue of English suffragist Millicent Fawcett was unveiled in London's Parliament Square. It is the much-celebrated first female statue in this public square of national importance which already features statues of notable historic kings and political figures such as Winston Churchill. And today in The Guardian, Martin Kettle penned an article calling for fewer statues, not more.

Of course he has no objections to commemorating Fawcett, Kettle explains, and proclaims his goodwill toward Tuesday's celebrants. But the thankless job of raining on their parade falls upon his shoulders. To add to the statues in London, he fears, is to fuel an arms race of power and influence that statues represent. What's to stop Trump or Tony Blair from commemorating themselves in statue form to express their power, just as commemorative Reagan fever swept the US a few decades ago as an expression of conservative power? After all, he points out, one need only look at the statues already in Parliament Square to see how conservative they skew-- hardly representative of the legacies of liberalism and labour movements (or the existence of Scotland). To only the most power-hungry of the victors go the spoils. Modern Britain is a pluralistic society, writes Kettle, yet its statues do not-- and indeed cannot-- reflect that. No new statues in Parliament Square, proposes Kettle. What we need is fewer statues-- to remove a few of the real stinkers.

 When I read a news article I always keep in mind that authors rarely get to write their own headlines and bylines, and are under immense pressure to remain topical and grab attention. So I'm willing to look past the article's function as a knee-jerk "Nuh-uhh!" to a feminist achievement, in order to consider the real meat of the article. Look past it, but not ignore it. After all, how fishy is it that the midst of a celebration for a feminist statue just happens to be the moment when Kettle feels enough is enough with the statues-- or at least the point where The Guardian feels the public will be receptive toward that view? Only a few years ago a Gandhi statue was unveiled in Parliament Square, and before that Nelson Mandela. If Kettle is right about London being in the grips of a statue-fever, more are surely to come. Perhaps Kettle could have saved his article for one of them and avoided participating in the spurious phenomenon of declaring that things have Gone Too Far the second women approach equal representation in film, academics and the corporate world. Unless the next few sculptures to go up are also popular and well-deserved, in which case Kettle's entire point would be more challenging to make.

However Kettle makes an excellent point about statues as the inevitable expression of power-hungriness and dominance rather than popular merit or moral courage. Even with all the care modern generations give to commemorating only the worthy in statues, will our values hold up through future generations? Or will they seem as backward and oppressive as centuries past appear to us? At the same time, when one considers 2018 as merely part of an endless ancient cycle of struggle and renewal, why would Kettle imagine the struggle to express dominance would stop with us? Why would our generation stop striving to leave our enduring mark on the world?

While "dominance and power" might conjure images of a feudal warlord, it's surprisingly also an excellent framing of what Millicent Fawcett helped achieve. Suffrage is about power: the power to participate in one's own government and society, to lead, to resist, to excel. It's no mere feel-good "empowerment," as the word is so often overused today, but the very tangible power to move through society as an equal citizen. And while feminists abhor accusations of seeking dominance over men, the fact is that a belief in equality and civil rights must be socially dominant in order for any citizen not to be oppressed. How can a woman access crucial services if the majority of those services subscribe to male supremancy? Fair interactions with police, judges, medical workers, educators and the rest of society would be impossible, and so would be equality.

The presence of a bronze statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliamentary Square is likely more about cementing and defending that dominance for all to see, than about Fawcett herself. To those who support male supremacy, the Fawcett statue is precisely the Trump statue scenario that Kettle fears. Likewise those more radically progressive citizens for whom Fawcett's activism was hopelessly milquetoast are taunted by the more moderate dominance represented by the statue. Under-served pluralism, indeed.

Yet despite nods to "plurality" and "both sides," no British person of any political faction has gone unaffected by what Fawcett helped to achieve. If anything, marking the magnitude of women's suffrage with her sculpture a over century later is too little, too late. Is it really fair to say we need a new approach to public art because statues like hers "emphasize our differences"? Isn't that just a way of erasing history to avoid controversy? Do women really need to be "brought together" with those who deny their equal humanity?

But when Kettle sets up a false division between banal statues and public sculpture with more artistic merit, I beg to differ. Sure, statues often fall victim to the bland yet offensive bad taste of art-by-committee, simply because so much money and municipal posturing are involved. But so does much of high-profile public art. Are we really going to weigh the social value of Trafalgar Square's giant bronze thumbs-up against the hard-boiled civic blandness of the Fawcett statue? To what end? When I think of a great statue I think of a sculpture that is also a great work of art. The Einstein memorial in Washington, DC., comes to mind: an expressively lumpy hulk luxuriating in his quiet, intimate hideaway, as inviting and accessible as he is lost in thought. Or the lesser known elegant bronze punks of Berlin, forever occupying the steps of a local government building in their aesthetically marvelous simplicity, relatable yet eternal. Or Rodin's lyrical memorial to the Burghers of Calais. Unlike art-by-committee, great statues like these don't give the public what it wants so much as give the public what it didn't yet know it wanted. They teach and connect because they're visually expressive as sculptures. What we need are more of these. Not less.

With his call for public art instead of statues, I think Kettle is also too quick to dismiss the cultural value people continue to place on statues. Most folks don't have the money or clout to influence what gets cast in bronze for the town square. But if the popularity of Madame Toussad's is any indication, statues still matter to people. Hardly any vacation or weekend downtown is complete without a selfie with the local statue, especially if it's physically accessible. Popular bronzes of Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Hendrix demonstrate that people still want to see their generation's heroes celebrated as statues. Sales are strong for pricey handcrafted figurines of fictional characters. Since Planet of the Apes, films have relied on the pure shock value of the beloved Statue of Liberty getting damaged. The playful Italian film Garibaldi's Lovers shows life with public statues in a warmer light.

But what I'm especially surprised Kettle neglected to mention, given its topical relevance, is the current movement to remove offensive statues in the US. Protesters recently toppled a statue commemorating Confederate soldiers in front of the Durham County Courthouse which had originally been erected in the 1920s heyday of the KKK. Police had greased it up with cooking oil to prevent protesters from climbing on it, but following the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally and murder, the statue met its end, appropriately enough, when protesters managed to fasten it in a noose. Meanwhile in New York City a statue of Dr. J Marion Sims, the "Father of Gynecology," is no more. Enough New Yorkers found it untenable to glorify a man who experimented on and tortured enslaved women in the name of medicine, that they successfully petitioned for its removal. Many traditionally celebrated figures who contributed to Native American genocide or who were among the most egregious proponents of slavery are also up for removal. There's a tradition of toppling statues-- Hussein in Iraq and Stalin in the former Soviet Bloc come to mind-- and the US is having its moment.

While on the surface a tendency to topple bronzes may support Kettle's call for fewer statues, in fact I think it shows just how deeply connected people remain to these sculptures and the symbolic power they represent. I don't see this moment as the moment when we all calm down and, for the first time ever, stop struggling for visibility in the town square, stop caring so much about statues, stop striving to adjust the public displays of power to something that more accurately reflects our lives and times.

The "arms race" that I see happening is really a different sort, a race between nonspecific public art and specific statues. That is, between sculptures commemorating enormous groups or ideas versus individual heroes. The lure and moving power of less specific, more abstract sculptures is undeniable. Take for example Käthe Kollwitz's powerful Mother and Son (Pietá) in a Berlin memorial to all victims of war and tyranny. Or Yinko Shonibare's new abstract "Wind Sculpture" in New York exploring migration, the African diaspora, and the American mixing of cultures. I'm glad to share a world with these sculptures. But the case for celebrating individual heroes is becoming ever more difficult-- and not for lack of unsung inspiring people. The idea of the Hero is increasingly removed from reality, placed into superhero movies, sci fi, fantasy, or even the distant past. Today's "badass" female character exists in mythical realms, has supernatural powers, does violent things that would be illegal and impossible in our real world. Never does her world threaten to intersect with reality. In our increasingly bureaucratic, anonymous world the idea of a real-world hero-- indeed, that individual people just like us can make a difference-- threatens to disappear.

A miscellaneous handful of Kettle's points still stick in my craw. If the 1970s unveiling of a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliamentary Square was "inevitable," why is it still so surprising (through no fault of Kettle's) to commemorate those who won liberty for literally half of all citizens? Why does Kettle approve of the US policy of waiting over 50 years after a president's term to commemorate him in statue, yet considers the Fawcett statue an imprudent (though honorable) move over a century after she made her mark? And finally: what, exactly, is so horrible about having an abundance of statues?

1 comment:

joy said...

This piece is thought-provoking in so many different directions. It is chockfull of observations that could be expanded into stimulating essays on their own. Thank you.