My mind has been jumping around a lot, lately, between the swirling politics going on around us, and the earthly pleasure of trying to bend difficult materials to my will. This is a great example of someone using technology to do the latter (and some of the former) very effectively, and it makes me glad at many levels.
Statues are not a social problem; it’s the weight that people are putting behind them – they represent a compacted version of “what is important.” And, that’s why the statues of old plutocrats on horses ought to go: the world has suffered enough damage already from those old equestrian plutocrats. Isn’t that enough for them, do we have to love them, too? Whenever I think of the scene in 1984 when the sadist O’Brien is interrogating Winston, I think Orwell missed a trick: the powerful do not ratify their power by making people suffer – they want their victims to love them too. Digressions aside, that is why I have come to believe that statues should not be preserved for the ages: they should be rotated regularly.
As part of constant revolution, we ought to be tearing down the statues of the plutocrats and replacing them on a regular basis. In fact, if the statues become a rallying-spot where pugilistically-inclined parties from all sides wish to meet in battle, it’s better than having them engage in places where the collateral damage is likely to be higher. All of that said, there are some great art-works that deserve preservation in their own right, so it’s complicated. In a sense, I like Trump’s idea of a statue garden, if we can step past his shockingly bourgeois taste. The Hungarians had a pretty effective response to this question; there’s a museum of soviet-era art – all of the neo-brutalist statues of Stalin and Lenin and a few Trabants are all sitting in a fenced-off field 10 miles outside of the capital. The art was not bad, really, but it was nothing but political homage to a gone era – and, and era that was seen as repressive. If the US collectively could get its act together, and haul all the confederate statues (most of which are pretty bad art!) down to a field surrounding Stone Mountain near Atlanta, then by all means let the racists go ‘out’ themselves by parading back and forth near the site of the south’s crushing defeat.
The act of toppling a statue is more dramatic than moving it gently, but both amount to relocation. In a sense, the existence of the monument, as a target of anger, justifies its destruction or removal because it’s the inverse of the reason why it was erected in the first place. It seems to me that the obvious answer to the issue of statue removal is to place them on private property, but their intent is never private and that demands a public response. What I am saying, in other words, is that statues ought to be a battleground because they already became a battleground as soon as someone staked out their opinion in the public sphere by erecting a monument.
All of this musing leads me around to strongly supporting guerilla art. I’m a huge fan of Banksy’s work and I fully support his painting on other people’s walls. What if there was a confederate, racist, Banksy going around spraypainting johnny reb artwork on people’s walls? Well, there have been people who remove Banksy paintings, and there will be people who remove johnny reb paintings. In that sense, this whole thing is a process of communication; it’s a sort of straw poll of public attitudes and support for them.
Shifting gears a bit, this makes me happy: [guard]
‘Hope flows through this statue’: Marc Quinn on replacing Colston with Jen Reid, a Black Lives Matter protester
Today the sculptor placed his statue of a woman doing a black power salute on the vacant plinth in Bristol. Our writer, who was at the dawn unveiling, tells the full story of its creation – and speaks to Jen Reid, the protester whose gesture so inspired him.
Producing the sculpture was a combination of photogrammetry, 3D printing, and resin casting. Reading between the lines, it sounds like the artist took a bunch of versions of the photos of Jen Reid standing where the statue of Colston used to be, and made a model from them, broke it into tractable size(s) and 3D printed it, then made molds and cast resin blocks that are glued onto a strong steel armature. This is a pretty remarkable turn-around time, and it ought to be a fairly tough statue if reactionaries try to destroy it.
There’s something beautiful, to me, in the fact that the artist did not re-interpret the subject; they worked from a direct capture and did not edit it. It’s more like a 3D photograph than a sculpture. It’s not interpretive, and I like that.
It fulfils one of the purposes of a memorial: it’s a vivid reminder of a moment in history. If art has any purpose in its own right, it’s to be beautiful and thought-provoking, and it fulfils that purpose as well.
This statue is the essence of Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” – a way-point between one thing and another.
It’s not just that public statuary “should” be a battleground for people’s politics, ideologies and self-image, it always has been. The idea that it shouldn’t be, that statues go up once and for all and should never be interfered with, is a deliberate piece of repressive messaging designed to stifle the normal course of these events. It is an idea that those with an interest in preserving the status quo put about to make the status quo seem irremediable.
Ever since there was such a thing as public statuary, the breaking, defacing, removal and replacement of it has been a key part of the public conversation. Amenhotep’s stautes and carved friezes were defaced and re-carved when his monotheistic experiment ruined the state treasury and the backlash began (the famous gold death mask of Tutankhamun, his son, may be a part of this story, as might many other tomb treasures in that haul). When the Persians sacked Athens at the culmination of the Persian Wars, just before Salamis, they seem to have dumped most of the statues on the old Acropolis site down the wells (or maybe the Athenians did that pre-emptively?). They also stole the statues of Athens’s famous tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, as one in the eye to a people who would seek to celebrate the dethroning of monarchs. The Mutilation of the Herms (a high-spirited nocturnal snapping off the penises basically) during the Peloponnesian War caused scandal and religious outrage in Athens. Alexander recovered the statues of the Tyrannicides from the Persian treasury at Susa and returned them as a mark of pro-Hellenic public policy, before burning down everything in Persepolis to make a point. He was said to have raised the biggest, most brutally impressive statues he could commission in India before turning back west, to intimidate the locals.
Those disappeared without trace, though it did begin a fruitful fusion of Hellenistic and Buddhist statuary in the centuries to come, which eventually seems to have inspired Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army in some capacity. That was promptly smashed to bits when his successors decided his regime should not be memorialised. The habit of Roman masons to sculpt public statues with removable heads, and re-carve old heads (a Caligula into a Claudius for instance) for when the new regime found the regime of the guy they had just bumped off disagreeable is well known. Flash forward a few centuries and we have the Muslim invasions of India, where statue-rich temples to the Hindu gods were broken up and the stones turned into Mosques (though many of the statues remained somewhat intact embedded in the walls, and curiously almost always the right way up). Then there was the Protestant Reformation, where statuary in Catholic cathedrals was removed, defaced, or just covered in white paint to remove the vibrant, opulent colours in which it was painted. Some English cathedrals, such as Ely, are still resplendent with a panoply of half-smashed statues on the walls, heads and hands broken away and scoured of any trace of colour. The defacement of art has always been a core part of what art has meant to society.
call me mark says
Welp that didn’t last long: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/53427577
Marcus Ranum says
call me mark@#2:
The city’s mayor just made a decision that he just said was up to the people of Bristol to make. I am disappoint but not surprise.
Marcus @ #3:
There’s a lot of “why should we let this sculptor guy from London exploit the drama in our city?” in that decision. Also, bureaucrats gotta bureaucrate. That said, they clearly did not think the message through — or perhaps they did and were fine with it.
Marcus @ #0:
Whenever I think of the scene in 1984 when the sadist O’Brien is interrogating Winston, I think Orwell missed a trick: the powerful do not ratify their power by making people suffer – they want their victims to love them too.
I think you’re very, very wrong about this. It may not be apparent from that scene, but you should re-read the ending.
Marcus Ranum says
I hope the artist puts up another one. Or, better: two.
3D-printed? Drat. First seeing it thought someone had gone through all the trouble of chiselling / moulding that magnificent hair, but alas, no. I suppose that would have been unreasonable but part of what I like about sculptures is the effort it must take to shape them. So printing seems a bit like cheating. This should not be taken to mean that I think of the artist as lazy or anything of the sort, however.
From the BBC article:
“””The statue, called A Surge of Power, was created by artist Marc Quinn and designed to be a temporary installation to continue the conversation about racism. […] The mayor explained the decision to swiftly remove it. “I understand people want expression,” he said, “but the statue has been put up without permission.
“Anything put on the plinth outside of the process we’ve put in place will have to be removed.” “””
Maybe the mayor thought that conversation would be too uncomfortable to have. That’s the general reaction, isn’t it? Nevertheless, the reason given sounds, well, resaonable on the face of it, but at the same time has the look of someone seeking refuge in the rulebooks of the bureaucracy because that’s all they’ve got by way of argument.
As mayor it would have been easy enough to demonstrate some openess and understanding just by dilly-dallying a bit before removing the statue. Maybe gauge the public’s reaction, point out that there are procedures and oh, if only someone had filled out the proper forms, maybe the statue could still stay if people really liked it.
Well, if there’s a protest or some sort of local campaign to get the statue back and it does turn up again we’l at least know the bit about people decding was sincere.
P.S.: cartomancer, interesting as always. Thank you for taking the time to shower us with bits of history (and occasional latin)