“H. sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority,
then forgets that symbols are inventions.” –Joyce Carol Oates
The old argument goes like this: If we take down the statues of Confederate soldiers and their leaders, then we will have to take down statues of the founding fathers like Washington and Jefferson who were slave owners, and then we will have to take down the statues of anyone who was a racist or merely a misogynist, and then where will it end? If we carry on like that, eventually we will have no public statues left.
Wow. Talk about some white-people problems.
There is a long list of things that we are going to have to give up—and it’s about time—if we are actually serious this time around about purging racism and white privilege, and sexism, while we’re at it, out of our national culture. But “statues of ancient dudes in public places” is so far down on my list of things society will miss when they’re gone that I can’t even read it from here. Trust me, if all the statues came down tomorrow, we would survive as a nation. I sure hope so, because if something as unimportant as the public enshrinement of notable dead people is a make-or-break part of the deal, then we’re in even more trouble than we imagine.
Before you get too excited, be assured that I do not object to the harboring of effigies of once-living men (most of them do seem to be men) or women in private. I don’t really care what kind of tendentious art or graven images you choose to enshrine in the confines of your own home; you’re the ones who have to try to digest your dinners there. And if anyone wants to claim a removed statue and relocate it in a museum to commemorate a time when we valued all the wrong things, be my guest. But bewailing their eventual absence from public places, historic or otherwise, is a complaint whose time has come and gone.
It is true that when we take them down, all those people whose sole method of learning history is walking past statues of “great” men, looking up and then looking down again if there’s enough time on the tour schedule to read an inscription, will have to find another way of learning history. One obvious substitute might be tuning in The History Channel. Or they might try watching a Quentin Tarantino movie; that’s always some eyebrow-and-hair-raising fun. A more esoteric approach would be to read a few books. I realize that reading books can be a tedious and time-consuming way of learning history, but it has been proven effective over time and it doesn’t require the smelting and casting of expensive rust-resistant alloys.
The argument that staring at hagiographical statuary is an educational pastime is simply laughable. By their very nature, statues are always didactic but rarely illuminating. (Now there’s winning combination.) But don’t blame the statues; their purpose is to deify, not edify. Their alleged educational value is simply the excuse we use to justify the space they occupy. Unless there is an unusually lengthy plaque or a friendly local who is willing to take the time to tell you what the hell this bronze effigy is supposed to represent, your chances of learning something you don’t already know from gazing at a statue are slim. And if you’re gazing at that statue for the purpose of admiring his virtues while you preach about them to others, then you might want to consider the possibility that you are worshipping a graven image. No judgment here; I don’t care enough about biblical proscriptions to mind if you choose to do this in public. It’s your reputation, after all. But please don’t tell me that what you are engaging in is edification. It’s just showing off in front of a captive audience, which, unfortunately, is not a crime in this country. Although we have a president who is remarkably good at it.
While chatty plaques do not begin to redeem statues for me, I will admit that they are not completely useless. If you’re interested in preserving your magnificence, sometimes a carefully worded inscription does a better job of glorifying your magnificence than an army of graven images will. But not always. Ozymandias managed to make an ass of himself with his double-edged attempt at self-celebration. Even without its arrogant inscription, what remains of his effigy is an object lesson in the foolishness of erecting a monument to something as transient as an empire, not to mention a mere human being. But his attempt to drive his point home to the less than discerning viewers by adding the suggestion that we should stand back and marvel at his achievements (I can just see the eye-rolls of the stone-carvers as their supervisor dictated that little gem) is at least a partial fail because no two scholars or poets have managed to agree about the exact wording of his exhortation. If you can’t get your point expressed in your own damned words, what the use of be all-powerful? And speaking of that, “Ozymandias” is only the English translation of the Greek version of his name. His actual Egyptian name was Ramesses II, aka Ramesses the Great, or perhaps Remeses or maybe Ramses. So much for the idea that personal monuments are a timeless and accurate method of preserving your glorious history.
Those beautiful statues of ancient Greek and Roman emperors, soldiers and despots, all lined up in parades of faded arrogance at museums like the Louvre are more useful as exquisite examples of the craft and discipline that produced them than they are as historical portraiture. It’s the deeds of these men that matter, not their faces and bodies, and these effigies don’t address their deeds. Does it make any difference anymore which one of them is which? Now that they are dead and gone, do we care what the actual subjects looked like or how accurately the artists depicted them? Unless one of their wives or children or house slaves or any other piece of human property they might have owned made a quick sketch in a moment of pique or boredom, we’ll never know anyway. The idea that any of this aesthetically satisfying marble-gazing is historical education on its own terms is one that has been a non-starter since antiquity.
I like a nice Rodin as much as the next person, but I have never seen a realistic effigy that’s as moving or revelatory or slyly entertaining as a sculpture by Henry Moore. Or a Calder or a Serra or a Bourgeois. Or Maya Lin’s list of the war dead engraved on a black marble wall of extraordinary beauty and stunning eloquence. Now that’s a memorial. When you gaze, open and attentive, at something as timeless as that is, you will learn more about yourself or the world or human folly, than any celebrated man, on or off a horse, can tell you. I will admit that the massive effigy enshrined at the Lincoln Memorial is awe-inspiring. But I suspect that the awe I feel in its presence is more about its size and scale than its artistic or historical merit. It could be almost anyone sitting up there in that setting and you’d still be awestruck. We don’t really need that beautiful object to assure us that the man Lincoln will be remembered by history.
The first memorial statue I remember seeing is the one of Thomas Francis Meagher that’s in front of the Capitol Building in Helena, Montana. He sits with sword held aloft astride a spirited horse that is clambering over what appears to be rubble but may actually be a pile of objects of great symbolic significance. When my parents took me there, I was about 10 years old and, in spite of Meagher’s many accomplishments, what I found most interesting about the statue was that beautiful horse. I was burning with envy because I desperately wanted a horse as magnificent as that one and I knew it was never going to happen.
Meagher lived what can conservatively be described as an astonishing life. Born in Waterford, he was a leader of the Young Irelanders in the Irish Rebellion of 1848, for which he was banished to a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land from which he escaped, against all odds, and ended up in New York where he became a journalist and lawyer before joining the Union Army where he was appointed commanding officer of its Irish Brigade by Abraham Lincoln. And that was before he became the first Governor of the Territory of Montana and a few years later fell overboard from a steamboat into the Missouri River and disappeared forever. As you might imagine, theories about his mysterious death abound. If you want to learn much more than his statute can teach you about this remarkable man and his cinematic life, Timothy Egan has written an excellent biography called, The Immortal Irishman. Check it out.
Given his life, if anyone deserves a statue of himself, it would be Meagher. And that’s exactly the point. We all deserve a statue. So what? And beware of what you or your descendants think you deserve, because history is a bitch, and there may eventually emerge some unintended consequences of your time here and that might not be so nice. And there you will be: an irresistible unmoving target.
Human beings are not perfect. Not one of us is. That’s why it’s a good thing that our bodies don’t last as long as our statues do, because sooner or later, our racism or sexism or our belief in our right to own other people (whether they are our wives or our field workers), or even our unkind words and petty acts will come out. They always do. I don’t know about you, but I would be dismayed to find myself standing there, in public, unable to defend myself, when my reputation finally catches up with me.
None of my ancestors are embalmed in bronze, so maybe that’s why I won’t miss commemorative statues if they disappear from the landscape; I have nothing to lose. But I have always had trouble feeling affection for statues of notable people. I prefer less ambitious objects like abstract sculptures or depictions of anonymous human beings or, the most charming and affecting effigies of all, the gargoyles. The Philip Levine ballerina by the Henry Gallery used to cheer me up on my way to run the gauntlet of class registration at the University of Washington. And nothing makes me happier than looking up to see the walruses on the Arctic Building.
Nothing lasts forever. Not even the works of the mighty Ozymandias. It’s all going to be gone, or at least become pretty tattered over time. So why don’t we decide to spare the wind, rain, floods, bombs, rust and even the pigeons the responsibility of doing the work of gradually wearing away at all of this commemorative junk so they can devote their energies to more important tasks? Why don’t we stop erecting these silly and insulting monuments to our vanity and replace them with something that respects and recognizes the eternal quality of transience?
I say we have little to lose if we take all of those venerated statues down and replace them with art that exists simply for its own sake and celebrates nothing but its own beauty. I think we should stop worrying about whether anyone will remember us or our history or our personal ancestors if there are no public effigies to remind them. Maybe we will lose some of our precious history if we do this. But maybe what we will regain is some of our lost dignity.