Bristol on Sunday, 7 June 2020: Black Lives Matter sympathetic protesters
have torn down philanthropist and slaves trader Edward Colston's statue
Source: Gwydion M. Williams/flickr.com under Creative Commons Licence
At the end of 2017, a train was bringing me to Rotterdam, where I would move. When in Antwerp, I assisted to a profoundly embarrassing dialogue. A guy from Varese, Italy – a tattoo artist – was pressing a woman from the U.S. – a visual artist – with the question 'where are you from, exactly?' After five or six times that the question was returned to the sender – 'I'm from the U.S.' – the guy would give in and disclose his aim to know why that American woman's skin was so dark. She froze him: 'There are centuries of history you should be aware of that will answer your question.'
Semantics is important. Words are important, symbols are important. It is not 'just' a cultural issue – culture is never easy anyway – but a process that comes with history, politics, and the subtle art of the narrative of power. So, symbols start falling, cracking the walls of human geography.
A little after the beginning of some protests that contemporary global history will not forget easily, people have started hitting the statues of public figures such as conquerors, colonists, statesmen, journalists. Wikipedia has a continuously updated page about it. In Bristol, on Sunday, 7 June 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) sympathetic protesters have – literally – torn down philanthropist and slaves trader Edward Colston's statue. Almost at the same time, Topple the Racists was launched, an initiative that aims to create an interactive and collaborative map of monuments, statues, and plaques of individuals celebrated by a strictly western-centric (hence, racist) perspective on history.
Colston's case could be considered the forerunner of global iconoclast movements that aim in particular for an inclusive and just representation of all the parties involved in the public histories of Western countries. However, it is not the first time that such a quarrel has been raised. The reader might recall the movement Rodhes must fall in 2015, South Africa, or the toppling of Cristopher Columbus' statue in Caracas, 2004, later replaced with that of native hero Guaicaipuro. The New York Times has published an overview of similar episode in history here.
Today, like Colston, many other statues have had a similar fate. In the U.S. many monuments to Confederates – the most represented of which is Jefferson Davis – are being targeted by protesters.
A similar damned destiny has happened in Europe to statues of political leaders such as Churchill, to whom the epithet Racist has been given, and King Leopold II of Belgium, whose story has been recently brought back by the novel Salam, Europa! : millions have died for the atrocities of his soldiers. There, the Belgians have cut the hands to thousands of young men. To add insult to injury, Leopold used to have an incredibly young, too young, concubine, who would cause troubles to his public commitments. The picture is fairly complete.
Toppling down a statue, precisely for the high symbolic value the statue embeds, marks an inevitably political (more than merely cultural) shift. The most significant example is the destruction of dictators' statues, among which the Soviet ones are particularly vivid in collective memory. It is an irony of fate that the U.S. were among the first to reverse this practice, with the removal of Saddam Hussein's statue, whose mediatic public content served the purpose of political propaganda, a purpose which was paradoxically analogous to that which the statue itself served: to celebrate a political objective (the video of the deposition was massively reproduced).
The controversial and world-famous antecedents constellate the history of mankind from antiquity to the present day: the Pharaoh Akhenathen (1385-1350 b.C.), converted to monotheism (a heterodoxy among the Egyptians) ordered the destruction of all the statues which celebrated other deities from his own; but the most famous example remains the destruction of religious icons during the Byzantine era; between VIII and IX century the Paulicians, influenced by their Muslim neighbours, initiated the programmatic destruction of holy images in what became a ferocious ideological war fought with symbols and murders. The protestant reform, with its radical reinterpretation of dogmas and symbolisms, could not hold itself from a parallel iconoclastic fervour: statues, paintings and manuscripts were destroyed under the axiom postulated in the Pentateuch, which prohibited the worshipping of images and icons.
What does topple a statue mean? Let us step back. What does erect a statue mean? In an article about the recent happenings, Jonathan Beecherd Field contented that some statues are like barbed wire: according to the historian, the simplistic perspective on toppling down statues as 'erasing history', silences a crucial dimension of such destructive acts, that is the fact that statues are a symbol imposed to the space by the will of some individuals. In other words, statues are not there in order 'not to forget history', nor to contextualise and reflect on it. Rather, statues are put there to celebrate. And this is the aspect to investigate. In fact, a slightly less than superficial browse on Wikipedia shows that some of the toppled monuments in the Confederate States had been installed in a much different time than the one in which the individuals these monuments represent used to live. In Asheville, North Carolina, the monument dedicated to the Southerner leader Zebulon Baird was inaugurated in 1938.
The destruction of statues, especially when it assumed systematic, somewhat transferrable features, made us talk and discuss: We have had innumerable conversations with friends and acquaintances on the matter.
Some were dismayed by such violence: "this is not how you obtain an actual change", many people told me, condemning with indignation the rebels' fury. But how do you actually elicit change, then? Where do you start from? Other people told me that those statues are a cultural problem, not a political one. But is it really possible to separate the two layers of analysis? And even assuming that they could, does cultural or artistic values (provided that those statues have one; plus, what does cultural really mean in this context?) can be considered untouchable face to the semantic problem that they enshrine?
After all, not a single statue which has been toppled down was put there because of its "intrinsic beauty": it is not to amuse, nor to protect passers-by with its shadow, that that statue was put there. Those statues, we have said that before, are not there because they are "art". Those statues are there because they are a celebrating symbol. Those statues, more specifically, are a semantic operation, a signifier, and as such they have a signified which, in turn, is the result of a Weltanschauung, a vision of the world, on which one is forced to bump into, which is imposed historically and geographically.
In medio stat virtus: let us not destroy statues, but rather keep them as a warning, just like Forrest Gump, named after a Confederate Tenant. One could then try and build a statue à la Schroedinger: a statue which is there while being tore down. And in facts it is what Banksy has proposed with his draft Everyone happy. If we want to keep those statues, we need someone to curate them, that is, someone who tackles them. The Mayor of London has created a special commission with the precise task of dealing with such issues. But before getting to this point, we needed the problem to be raised. Therefore, toppling down the statues was all the more meaningful.
Even though the bottom-up logic of the urban movements are missing in this different case, an analogous "problematization of narratives" has led the streaming channel HBO to remove Gone with the Wind from its platform: the narrative under which we have all come to appreciate this film is that of an "eternal classic, the first-ever, hyper-romantic kolossal". The fact, however, that the two founding stones of American cinema are a Southerner film (Gone With the Wind) and a film on and in favour of KKK (The Birth of a Nation) cannot be narrated in strictly artistic or cultural terms. Removing Gone with the Wind or vandalising a colonialist statue, then, represent acts of censorship and of historical denial, or aren't they rather a way of raising a problem?
To what are people opposing, when they advocate the removal of such statues? In 2016, a year after the protests in South Africa against Cecil Rhodes (which the Rhodesia State, the modern Zimbabwe, is named after), Amit Chaudhuri explained incisively on the Guardian that the problem is not about the individuals represented by the statues: most of the controversy generated by the movement has revolved around the figure of Cecil Rhodes – but Rhodes himself is not really central to its aims. What is at issue is an ethos that gives space and even preeminence to such a figure, and hesitates to interrogate Rhodes's legacy. Statues must fall because institutionalised racism must fall: without a strong gesture of rupture, the problem would be barely discussed.
We must admit this: we too often pass by without even looking at those statues – and even when we do, we do not ask ourselves many questions. There never was room for such questions. Even though you had never perceived those statues, even if you had never wondered who these men really were, even though you considered yourselves absolved, you are always involved.
Therefore, where language is made up of symbols, there's no room for moderation. If there is no justice, there is no peace, the protesters repeat. Nobody is indignant if no rupture occurs. Let us operate such rupture, then.
One can extensively read about how to solve such an iconoclast fury. Instead, I argue that this is not time to think solutions up. Rather, it is time to listen, because it lets us learn.
Excoritate a 'method' is not a fruitful strategy and certainly cannot be attempted in the context of this short commentary. However, some distinction can be made.
In order to further examine the argumentation according to which statues must be toppled, it would be sufficient to distinguish the historic contextualisation, praised by the moderates, in at least two levels. The first level consists of contextualising a statue based on the age the celebrated individual belongs to. The latter level consists of contextualising the age in which the statue has been raised: were those times so far from today's perception, or would the act be unacceptable already? Tearing pyramids down today would be ridiculous because we would engage with an order that existed thousands of years ago.
While we knew already that the pyramids were built by slaves and that even Aristotle and Plato considered slavery acceptable, it is not to be taken for granted that people know that the Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, founder of one of the most important Italian newspapers, whose statue in Milan has been recently vandalised as well, kept considering normal to buy a 12 years old and make her a concubine. We are used to take for granted that history's voice is one and only one and that it is "whitewashed", as a BLM activist put it during an interview in Copenhagen. It is the subtle presence of things like bronze statues in the corners of our squares that demonstrate that there is no such thing as room for the negotiation of the symbols of civilisation.
In conclusion, the relationship among history, statues and destruction of statues is not, as some shocked conformist maintains, an attempt to erase history. On the contrary, as some have said, toppling statues down does not change history, nonetheless collective memory is an ongoing evolutionary process, a vital key that can also be a powerful political instrument.
The only thing we may all do is listen and learn. And then scrutinise more.
Francesca Sabatini, PhD candidate at the Department of Architecture and Territory – Mediterranean University (Reggio Calabria); Her research focuses on culture and the public sphere, with a particular emphasis on theatrical practices.
Valeria Morea, holds a PhD in cultural economics and is lecturer at the department of Arts and Culture at the Erasmus University (Rotterdam); She studies art in public space from the perspective of cultural and urban commons.
Originally published at the website of transform! italia (Italian, full version)