Issue 119: 2017 09 07: A Celebration of Statues (John Watson)

07 September 2017

A Celebration of Statues

Bobby Lee in Charlottesville?

By John Watson

One of the advantages of going on holiday is that you do not have to keep on top of the news so that you never discover how some of the stories which were current when you left, actually ended.  Now the American news is all about flooding and the face-off with North Korea so, unless I take the trouble to look into the matter, I will never find out who picked up the blame for the riots at Charlottesville.  I cannot say that I mind very much.  It is an American problem and disentangling the remaining tensions between North and South hardly seems a profitable occupation for a Londoner.  Still, there is one point of interest and that is the statue.  The whole thing began with a row over whether a statue of Robert E Lee should be removed on the basis that he fought for the slave states.  This has spilled over into a discussion of Washington and Jefferson, slave owners both, and whether memorials to them should be demolished too.

This issue is not just about slavery.  Iconoclasm is definitely on the up generally.  The “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign has spread from Cape Town to Oxford where there were recently demands for the demolition of the Rhodes statue at Oriel.  Westminster Council has been reluctant to permit a statue of Margaret Thatcher to be erected in Parliament Square because she is too controversial a figure and it might prove a focus for vandalism.  Unless we address the issue rationally it will gradually get out of control so perhaps it is worth spending a few minutes looking at it.

Viewed simplistically, a statue is a physical representation of a person, but in fact there is much more to it than that.  In most cases it celebrates a particular quality of the person represented and that quality will depend upon context.  Let us take George Washington as an example. His approach to slavery was in fact mixed, his freeing of his slaves by will being offset by a strict approach earlier on and attempts to recover slaves who had escaped from him during the War of Independence from the British.  Still, it can hardly be said that statues of Washington are a celebration of slavery.  They are not.  They represent his role in the birth of a new nation.

Humans are multifaceted and if you are looking at whether to preserve or erect a statue you have to consider which facet is being commemorated.  Lee was a general in the South’s cause but later a very successful principal of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and a keen supporter of reconciliation.  Does a statue of him celebrate his services to the cause of slavery or his more worthwhile activities later?  Possibly it depends upon where it stands.  Take the statue of Rhodes at Oriel.  Is it a celebration of his aggressive imperialism or of the vision behind the scholarships which he endowed?  It could be either, but being at Oxford more probably the latter.  Achievements too need to be considered. The statue of Churchill in Parliament Square says much about the way in which he inspired the nation during the Second World War.  A statue of him at Gallipoli would carry different connotations.

Cromwell, Napoleon, Gladstone, Saladin and all the other great men you could list: great talents certainly but none of them was perfect and a refusal to celebrate them on the grounds of imperfection would be to sneer at achievements far greater than most of us can lay claim to.  It would be arrogant in another sense too.  We can only use weakness in other spheres as a reason to denigrate greatness if we believe that we have no weaknesses ourselves.  Well, there are people like that, of course.  Certain of their own merit and the courage which would have allowed them to insist on rectitude in every area, they stand as magnificent and self-trumpeting advertisements for correct behaviour.  Sometimes you meet them.  That is unavoidable.  Try not to have dinner with them, though.  That would be a mistake.

There is nothing wrong with reviewing the purpose of statues – and indeed, looking from this side of the Atlantic one can see why there is a movement to remove statues of Robert E Lee.  Still, in each case the first question must be the same.  What exactly is it that the statue is celebrating?  It is only after that has been answered that any decision should be made.


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