Art as political and social comment has a very long and effective history, but the artist’s intent and the message of the work has often been abused for political ends. This repurposing can happen well before the art is installed, or long after. Public sculpture monuments are not a simple thing to discuss because they are seldom just about one thing such as heritage, pride of accomplishment, or status. There is no universal value that everyone will hold except for the value of humanity – which should be a constant and universal point of view for all.
Sculptures have become a rallying point in the current miasma of US politics. In the ongoing saga of the American cultural reckoning with its past of slavery and racial inequity, the George Floyd travesty was the latest flint point to remind citizens that the United States is far from done with bigotry and racial prejudice. No one was naive enough to think that electing a Black president would fix racism, but the backlash was far greater than many expected, and has caused the remaining majority of citizens to examine their national history as never before. One way they are doing that is to look to public sculptures which were meant to serve as a reminder of past achievements and a model for future endeavors. In their search they are struck with the awareness that an achievement for one may not represent the endeavors of all, but that those endeavors should at least strive to maintain respect for human dignity.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu so aptly pointed out that there is a difference between remembering and glorifying. There is a definite purpose and validity in knowing our history, and there is danger in amnesia concerning the past. But neither is there value in continuing to glorify practices that oppose humanity. The sculptures that represent ideologies inconsistent with basic human justice and sensitivity need to be contended with, and how to do that is an ongoing discussion. Aggressive and destructive acts against sculptures do not soothe or satisfy beyond the moment. For now, many sculptures that honor men or events of cruel or racist intent are being removed. Relegating them to a museum where people are informed with unbiased history and have a choice of viewership seems to be one solution. Leaving them in a place of pride in full public view is not.
One of the questions that remains is what to put on top of all those empty plinths and pedestals. The answer is easy to see. Instate art that embodies accountability, that reminds us that freedom cannot exist without responsibility. There are so very many unsung heroes in US history! Many scientists, artists and humanitarians of color and citizens with other national origins have become invisible, yet contributed immeasurably. Removing symbols of inhumanity and commissioning sculptures that represent people and events that gallantly served their fellow human beings would be a great start towards the correction of historic knowledge, the mending of the national fabric of humanity and the reinstatement of the values that made the United States a glorious and great country.