What’s All The Fuss About Statues?

Unless you have been wilfully ignoring the news of late, it will have been difficult for you to avoid the talk coming out of the U.S. about statues. More specifically, about the proposals to take down monuments to certain figures of the Confederacy. This has resulted in much debate, in many cases very heated, about the nature of these figures and what their statues represent.

A popular argument for the maintenance of these statues, to figures such as Robert E. Lee (the subject at the heart of the recent protests and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia), is that they are a part of history. The people in favour of these monuments will assert that it is not for purposes of reverence, but to remember a moment of historical significance. The issue with these sentiments, however, is found in the long history attached to the statue and other physical replicas of historical figures that is tied to deeply symbolic social acts.

Why Erect the Statue?

For centuries people have been erecting statues of themselves and others. Why do they do this? The human figure has been a significant tool for ritual and performance throughout history. Since Antiquity creating representations of important individuals has been a vital act of commemoration. These statues, portraits, and engravings were a way to solidify the reputation of the person depicted. The images created were an act of honour to ensure a favourable memory of the individual.

The were also expressions of authority. In times when our political leaders couldn’t communicate with us directly through the radio, television, or social media, these statues offered a concrete reminder of a leader’s power to the masses. A statue could be erected in any place, it could be where the leader is not, reminding his people of his presence.

Public image and perception is also important after death, as well. And is perhaps how we are more familiar with statues today, often commissioned to commemorate a significant figure. These statues act as points of reverence. Often they are situated in places of cultural significance to give prominence to the figure depicted and suggest their importance within the local and national history.

Only Acts of Reverence?

So far, so good, you may argue. A statue of Robert E. Lee fits into the category of person of historical significance, why can’t the statue remain? The problem arises in that statues have always been a point of reverence. They act as monuments of power, authority, and the moral equivalence that is attributed to that. It is no coincidence that the majority of leaders today do not erect statues to themselves, as so many kings, queens, emperors, and generals have done in the past.

There is a tacit acknowledgement that these statues communicate much more than just a physical replica of the person depicted. They are a symbol of power and significance of the individual. If that individual is overturned, disgraced, or usurped then the pattern of history is that the monument to them must come down.

These are often very public acts. The crowd will gather and exact the retribution upon its former leader through the image of them. In recent history, we have seen this with the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. People gathered, threw makeshift missiles at the large effigy to their former leader, while ropes were attached around the neck and it was hauled to the floor.

It is for this very reason that many historical statues have been lost throughout the centuries. In the act of rebellion and revolution, the ousted leaders images have been ritually destroyed by the opposing side. A new regime was not possible until the remnants of the former, in all its forms had been removed, erased from the cultural consciousness.

This iconic statue of Andrew Jackson in New Orleans has also been the focus of such debate, with protesters stating it is a symbol of white supremacy and should be removed with other statues to Confederate leaders.

What About The South?

So what does this mean for the South in the U.S. and their numerous statues to Confederate leaders? Can they remain as reminders of the trauma of the Civil War and the issues of race and slavery that were irrevocably intertwined with it? Or, as so many campaigners assert, should they be torn down and wiped from our cultural memory?

This is a contentious issue, and one that is for many people bound within a highly emotive narrative of racial history in the U.S. If the pattern of history stays true, then it seems that these statues will eventually be torn down, perhaps in ritually symbolic public acts that see these effigies to the confederacy defaced and destroyed. They will certainly be cathartic and symbolic for the people taking part, but what of the legacy of these statues?

Perhaps if we are to learn anything from these statues then this is not the best approach. Maybe it is not the statue itself that is the issue, but its placement. With many of these statues being in places of cultural and political significance it is the context with which they are set that creates contention. If we really want to use these statues as a way to remember a troubled past, and not as an act of reverence for a fallen leader, then surely they would be better served in museums.

In this respect, if the statues were moved to an educational setting, they could then be placed within a greater historical context. Instead of ‘this is the great Robert E. Lee’ as the current placement of the statue in Charlottesville implies, it could be accompanied by a full explanation of the individual, their history, and why they are seen as such a contentious figure. There would be context to the statue, including the reason why it was erected and why it was chosen to be taken down.

This, of course, will not be an agreeable solution for everyone. However, it does address the needs of the the protesters on both sides by not ‘erasing’ Lee and others from the historical narrative, but also removing them from places of reverence and commemoration to address their difficult place within U.S. history.

The history of statues is fraught with emotive and symbolic attachments to these effigies. Their erection and destruction are often seen as significant cultural events. However, with all our knowledge about how these images of leaders were used and removed in the past, surely we need to look at changing that pattern so we have the physical evidence to learn from. For the U.S. this is an issue that is infused with 150 years of history, including the deep racial tensions that still plague the cultural narrative. These statues to Confederate leaders are not merely part of the historical picture, they are symbolic reminders of the authority and superiority of the Confederacy and all the implications that comes with it. However, there is something that can be learned from them by future generations, but only if they are placed within an appropriate context.


Further reading:

David Freedburg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theories of Response (London: The University
of Chicago Press, 1989)

Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010)

Eric R. Varner, ‘Punishment after death: Mutilation of images and corpse abuse in ancient Rome’, Mortality,
6:1 (2001), 45-64


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