On My Peculiar Love (and Hate) for Statues

I love statues like I love graveyards. I mean it. When Erin and I travel we often make a point of visiting the tombs of famous dead people. Some of the better cemeteries even have maps to follow that lead you directly to your favourite fallen heroes. As a result, I’ve stood within proximity of the remains of everyone from Elvis Presley and Karl Marx to Napolean Bonaparte and Greta Garbo. And statues, well, I’ve posed with Bruce Lee in Hong Kong, Terry Fox in Ottawa and, most recently Sir Donald Bradman (the “Babe Ruth of cricket”) in Melbourne. I even have this peculiar penchant to read each and every plaque I come across. I can’t help myself. I would hate to think that I just passed right by the spot where the Sex Pistols played their first ever public concert or something.

Usually, though, when I read a plaque or look up at a statue I’m disappointed. I’ve never heard of the person, or the plaque is commemorating some event that, to me anyway, has no meaning or interest. In other words, the meaning and importance of any of these artifacts is entirely what I bring to it. And, in most cases, the plaque and statues and gravestones don’t really do anything at all to honour or remember these fallen heroes. Those who know about them, know about them from other sources already. If you know nothing about the person beforehand, it’s very unlikely you will pay any attention to the memorial at all (unless it’s especially prominent such as Mount Rushmore or Lenin’s tomb and, even in these cases, the figures being honoured are very well known already).

On a recent trip to Melbourne Cricket Ground, the largest, most historic, and revered stadium in Australia, I noticed numerous statues around the stadium that honoured important cricket and Australian-Rules football heroes. Being a Canadian I had heard of almost none of them. The only cricketer I could name off the top of my head was the aforementioned Sir Donald Bradman, and even that is only because, as a trivia buff, I had researched the legends of cricket. So, yes, when I came upon his statue I paused for a picture. The others were meaningless to me and I passed by them quickly. I cannot name a single other statue that sits outside the MCG (and there are many). If the goal was to educate or illuminate about Australian sport, it certainly had no effect on me.

What is, then, the point of statues? Are they art? Educational? Propaganda?

There is a sense in which statues of the sort we’re discussing here are, indeed, public art. They involve skill, they are visual depictions, and they contain ideas. On the other hand, if we define art as something that illuminates or adds meaning to its subject or something that expresses the personal thoughts and feelings of the creator, then, in most cases, statues are not art, at least not of this variety, nor are they intended to be. I don’t intend to debate definitions of art, only to say that most public statues do not have the same purpose or effect as many other visual representations. To put it simply, the statues that adorn the outside of the museum are not at all the same as the art within it.

One excellent example that helps illustrate this difference is the controversy over a statue of Louis Riel, a 19th-century Metis leader and founder of Manitoba. In 1971, a statue depicting the Metis leader was unveiled at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg. The work, by Marcien Lemay and noted architect Etienne Gaboury, depicted a naked and contorted figure, which “sought to capture the relentless tensions of Riel’s life.” It was symbolic, ambiguous, and open to interpretation. To many, the statue wasn’t clear in its meaning and, thus, stood as a source of controversy and protest for more than two decades. Finally, in 1995, it was moved to a less prominent position near the St. Boniface College. A new, more traditionally heroic, statue was erected on the banks of the Assiniboine River. Proponents of a more traditional statue argued that Marcien Lemay’s figure was too ambiguous. As Shannon Bower argues, “ambiguity is certainly not an inherently negative quality. However, given the enduring social context of colonialism, any symbol that did not overtly oppose colonialism was suspected of collusion.”

Some, however, defended the original statue on artistic grounds, claiming that the statue should be judged based on the intention of the artists rather than in possible negative misinterpretations of the public. Bower counters by saying “that the controversy surrounding the Riel statues must be understood not in an artistic context, with rather with reference to the social and historical contexts that framed the events in question.” Those social and historical contexts are ones shrouded in colonialism. Why do we place ambiguity and complexity into figures such as Riel, but no such room for interpretation is given to the man who had him killed, Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald? It’s a legitimate question. If Riel is to be honoured with a statue it should be just as unequivocally heroic as any other Canadian icon and his depiction as heroic can, in fact, be a dramatic act of decolonization. Is Riel a complex figure? Yes, as is any other person. But the fact that “Louis Riel: Hero or Traitor” is still a hot  topic in Canada, while the same questions are not often asked of white colonial ‘founding fathers’ indicates some telling biases within our culture. John A. MacDonald statues are always reverential and “proper.” Unlike this first Riel statue, they represent an answer rather than a question.

My point here is not about Riel, nor even to denigrate the original statue. I think a good case could be made for all statues, if we’re going to even have statues, to be of the ambiguous artistic variety. However, this example in Manitoba illustrates how statues are primarily used to simplify history through propaganda (or counter-propaganda) rather than to illuminate its complexities or raise questions.

If statues are to be called art, at best they are propagandistic art that primarily serve to shrink the range of dialogue about an individual, not to expand it. In that sense, almost all statues are acts of propaganda, some for good causes (like the newer Louis Riel statue, which could be viewed as anti-colonial propaganda) and others for evil (such as those depicting Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and so on). However, I think it is clear that, in most cases, whether for a good cause or bad a statue does not raise questions, spark curiosity, or depict the subjective vision of the creator. In most cases, a statue shuts down questions, stifles curiosity, and mythologizes.

As I said before, most often, they’re not even particularly effective propaganda. Perhaps in the context of a personality cult where Kim Il Sung’s visage is on every street corner, they have some efficacy, but, as I pointed out earlier, in a democratic country, they really don’t work all that well. There are far too many statues and most we completely ignore.

So, then, what about confederate statues?

On occasion, however, as with the controversial Louis Riel statue or the Confederate statues recently, statues draw a lot of attention (for very different reasons). I’m not going to make a case to retain or remove any particular statue. I think its best if those decisions are made by those directly affected by it. My comments are only about statues in general. Why protect them? Let me go further. Why even put them up in the first place?  Most statues go completely unnoticed, like the tombs of more or less any person a few generations after they die. Most statues have so little impact and have so little effect in implanting the memory of their subject in the public consciousness that they might as well not even exist at all. If my experiences are normative (I’m not suggesting they are) then they have no real value other than, perhaps, as a tourist trap. (“God Save the Queen, ’cause tourists are money”). Anything I knew about Donald Bradman I knew before I stood beneath his stone effigy.

In those rare cases where statues draw significant public attention, whether they honour heroes or villains or anyone in between, they still often tell us very little about the figure and the information they do convey is, at best, full of half-truths. Often they blatantly lie. It’s true that books, museums, historic sites, and classrooms can lie as well. They can be propagandistic, too. However, because of the size, time, and space these alternatives are more likely to result in an expansion of thought and knowledge, rather than a reduction of it. There are room in these places to tell stories. Those who make an argument to retain or erect statues on the basis of their historic importance are perhaps missing the point that statues, by their very nature, are anti-history. The context surrounding the erection of the statue is of historic interest (why was it put up? who put it up? why was this person chosen? and so on), but the statue on its own does nothing at all to address these interesting questions. On some level every single statue in existence is a deception and that is its entire purpose. Even the best of them are a deception in the reductionist view of the individuals they depict, and their overly simplistic views of heroism; their selection and placement is often equally problematic. In the context of a museum, perhaps, these statues can be give more nuanced meaning but out there on the streets they can only be a standing beacon of deceit. Let’s not reduce our history to statues.

So, when Donald Trump rheotorically asks, “well, what’s next? George Washington? Thomas Jefferson?” I would say, go right ahead. You can tear down all the statues for all I care…except that I really do love statues and would miss all the photo opportunities.

(photo credit: Trevor/CC/Flickr)

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