We Don’t Have to Like Them. We Just Need to Understand Them.

Good commentary on historic statues in a way that understands the differences between historical figures, their contexts, and the need for case-by-case consideration of whether to remove or relocate:

Some sights are so searing that you can’t unsee them. And, like it or not, you end up seeing the world through them. Reality hasn’t changed; you have, which makes you want to change reality. Right now.

That pretty much describes the cause-and-effect physics surrounding the release, on May 25, of the cellphone video of George Floyd pinned to the ground and having the life squeezed out of him, second by second, by a Minneapolis policeman.

In the protests that followed, white supremacist images of all kinds — Confederate memorials, statues of slave-owners, tributes to colonizers — have come under attack. Some have been destroyed; others forklifted into storage; still others left in place to await an uncertain fate.

More recently, the anti-monument movement appears to be spreading beyond a focused demand for racial justice. Earlier this week in Madison, Wis., protesters toppled a statue of Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist who died trying to end slavery.

Among a number of racially charged images in New York City, one of the most contested, the equestrian statue of Theodore Rooseveltat the entrance the American Museum of Natural History, has finally had its day of reckoning. Last week the museum itself asked the city for permission to remove the statue, and got the O.K.

In a press statement, the museum was careful to explain the reason behind its request for removal. Roosevelt himself — whose father was a founder of the museum — was not the main problem. The monument’s optics were.

Roosevelt is a complicated historical figure, an unstable ethical compound of bad and good. As an ardent conservationist, he put vast stretches of American land under federal protection, but took much of that land from Native Americans. He was internationalist in his thinking, but largely because he considered the resources of the world, particularly parts of the world with dark-skinned populations, to be ripe for the taking.

A Smithsonian Institution website describes him bluntly as “a racist whose beliefs reflected those of the elite of his day. Roosevelt thought African Americans to be inferior to white citizens.”

But even if you didn’t know any of this, one look at the monument tells you that it’s a problem, one that no extenuating information can make right.

Twenty-four feet tall, including an eight-foot high base, the 1940 sculpture by James Earle Fraser depicts Roosevelt, armed with pistols and perched on a spirited charger. Below him, walking on either side of the horse, their heads reaching barely higher than its back, are two other male figures, one Native American, one African, both in “native” attire. Each carries a rifle. Are they meant to be Roosevelt’s gun-bearers? His guides? His security detail? Whatever, he doesn’t look like he needs them. His face is alert, resolute, forward-directed; theirs, passive, withdrawn, cast down.

The image is, of course, a fantasy, one that can, and has been, interpreted in varying ways. One historian reads the standing figures as allegorical embodiments of Africa and America. To Fraser himself they represented “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” But to contemporary eyes, the white supremacist import of its composition is unmistakable, and unacceptable: heroic white man on top of the world. No question, the thing has to go. And in the vaunted “great awakening” to racial injustice underway in the country now (how long will it last? How deep does it run?) the museum, and the city, figured that out.

But here comes a question. What do we do with other monuments that have similar compositions but more complex images and histories, and are, in addition, works of aesthetic distinction (a claim rarely made for the Roosevelt statue)? I’m thinking of the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in Boston — a monument that got graffiti-tagged during protests in May.

This bronze bas-relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, installed on the Boston Common in 1897, also centers on a dominant white equestrian figure, in this case surrounded by black men in military uniforms. It commemorates Shaw as the leader of the first all-black volunteer Union army brigade that formed in Boston in 1863, and marched to a battle in South Carolina, where many soldiers, including Shaw, died, and where they were all buried together.

The visuals here say “white supremacist,” too: the racially hierarchical composition, the single-name dedication, the suggestion of the Union army’s enforced segregation.

At the same time, does a narrative of interracial loyalties between leader and troops add a mitigating factor to a judgment of the work? Or the fact that Frederick Douglass came to Boston to attend the 1897 unveiling? (Two of his sons were in the 54th Regiment.) Or even the fact that the Saint-Gaudens relief is widely regarded as a masterpiece of American public art?

To fully weigh such factors requires some knowledge of history, a discipline that has long been shunted aside in education. The story of Shaw and the 54th Regiment, or at least a highly romanticized version of it, has had the advantage of popular exposure: It was the subject of the 1989 film, “Glory. ” But even so, the monument was targeted by protesters. And the real question is, what’s the correct — meaning useful — response to the monument’s image of an egregious racial power dynamic? Eliminate or obscure it, or explain it?

All to say that the disposal of monuments should be approached case by case. Public political images are never innocent. But some are complex, with questions to ask and lessons to teach, while others — so-called “Lost Cause” Confederate monuments, created long after the Civil War to reassert white power — are, and were intended to be, racist assault weapons, plain and simple. In the current, healthy drive to neutralize assaultive images, it’s necessary, for history’s sake, that we first stand back, look hard, sort them out.

As for the disposition of the Roosevelt monument, which has not been officially announced, I have an idea. Clearly a racist artifact, the work cannot continue to serve as the visual introduction to an institution that, through its modern department of ethnology, is deeply devoted to the study of human culture.

I suggest that the museum retain the sculpture but display it for what it is: an outsize ethnological specimen, the product of a specific era and culture (the piece was unveiled in 1940, a year after the release of the “Lost Cause” film “Gone With the Wind”), now subject to critical evaluation in a different, Black Lives Matter era and culture. This conceptual change in use and value would require moving it, minus its base, into a gallery — and an apt context for display already exists.

In 2019, in response to earlier protests around the sculpture, the museum organized a small, ongoing documentary show called “Addressing the Statue,” which details the work’s history and includes commentary by contemporary ethnologists, social historians, art historians and artists.

Almost everyone says, in different ways, that the monument’s not a good thing and never was. And it would be useful for present and future audiences to be able to learn why it’s not a good thing, and why this not-good-thing — as big and bullying as a Tyrannosaurus — stood where it stood in this city for so long.

As for what might replace it out front, at the entrance: Something should. Why let an empty stone base the size of a small stage go to waste when we have so many politically savvy artists, young and old, who need a platform for their ideas?

As least one has already had a say about the Roosevelt monument: David Hammons, in a 1991 group show called “Dislocations” at the Museum of Modern Art. For his installation there, titled “Public Enemy,” he surrounded photomurals of the sculpture with sandbags and, police barriers. Who was being protected? It — or us? Way back then he wanted it gone, and now the deal’s done. The museum should ask him over for a victory lap.

And the museum could commission new work, keep it impermanent and have it change often, even daily. Mr. Hammons’s “Public Enemy” was ephemeral. When the MoMA show ended, his installation disappeared, perhaps into closets, studios, dumpsters; I don’t know where. More and more right now, impermanence makes sense. Losses from Covid-19, the flood of violent deaths and a new political art that seems to exist entirely on plywood and pavement contribute to this perception.

We’re at an inflection point in this country, potentially the most significant one in generations. Black Lives Matter brought us here. Now it’s everyone’s job to sustain the momentum. New art certainly has a contribution to make. So do our historical public images.

Some examples, like the Roosevelt and Shaw monuments, are eye-and-mind grabbers, dense packages of information and emotion. We should study them as closely and critically as we do the monuments of any age and culture. We don’t have to like them; we just need to understand them, examine their mechanics, what made them persuasive in their time, and how that persuasion works, or doesn’t, now.

By comparison, most of the commemorative statues now under attack across the land — and there are more and more each day — have little visual charisma. They’re generic period images of white male power. You’re tempted to think: If they go, small loss. Let’s move on.

Then you remember that each of those images comes with a name and a history, and some of those names belong to murderers, enslavers and genocidists. And their history is our history. It’s good to keep reminders of that visible, somewhere. Sometimes the most effective way to push yourself into the future is by reviewing the record of how bad the past has been.

Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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