This article originally appeared in Censorship News Issue 128
The fall of socialism came unexpectedly for all of us who grew up in what appeared as a regime built to last forever, its permanence embodied in the weight of Stalinist architecture and the monumental roughly-hewn statues of communist leaders. The removal of those statues and of the giant red star shining above the towering structure of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Sofia symbolized for me and my friends the demise of a repressive regime. We cheered.
Public monuments are symbols of power. They convey a strong official message about the values and principles to which a nation subscribes. With revolution – whether a political revolution or a fundamental change of values – the monuments to past leaders come down together with the ideas they enshrine.
Confederate monuments were erected in the 1890s, as the Jim Crow system was established in the South, and in the 1920s, at the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. They had a purpose: to counter the growing civil rights movement. They also had a message: white supremacy remains at the heart of the nation. Those who commissioned the monuments spoke for state power. By honoring confederate heroes they reminded civil rights fighters that the Confederacy may have lost the war, but its values remained.
Public monuments are not the free products of an artist’s vision: the artist’s hand expresses the values of the state. There is no multiplicity of competing ideas where monuments are concerned. When the state speaks, it speaks with an authority no artist or art institution has: The state speaks for power. Removing such monuments does not violate the First Amendment. Under the Constitution, while government cannot suppress the ideas of its citizenry, no matter how obnoxious, when it speaks on its own behalf, it is free to promote a single viewpoint; in this case, the view that racism, segregation and slavery are all bad ideas.
Those who stand on pedestals are not there just because they played a role in history, but because they stand for the values a nation holds dear. To keep them in their places of honor is to perpetuate those ideas, often ideas that a nation has come to detest, even as they may linger on the fringes.
Removing monuments from prominence need not lead to their destruction. The statues of Bulgarian communist leaders, idealized revolutionary workers, and Lenins are now in the Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia. It is very popular with tourists. There are ways to preserve history without insisting that, as a nation, the United States should continue celebrating the bankrupt values of the past.
Yet, while the time may have come for monuments intended to perpetuate white supremacy to be retired to a museum, the post-Charlottesville upheaval in transforming public space threatens to dispose of a much wider range of historical artworks and to do so in the heat of the moment: under pressure and without the necessary deliberation.
Around 1AM one morning in early March, under the thundering drumbeat of indigenous demonstrators, Kalamazoo, MI commissioners voted to dismantle a 1940 Art Deco sculpture of the stylized figures of a settler and a Native American in headdress facing each other above a reflecting pool.
Contrary to Jim Crow-era monuments, Fountain of the Pioneers has no clear political message. It commemorates a fact: the displacement of Native Americans from the land. Some opposed having a reminder of a history that caused them emotional pain; others (including Native groups) advocated for the monument as offering an occasion to remember and learn about the past. Without reaching community consensus, the commissioners made an irreversible decision.
Cities across the country are reconsidering public art: a New York City task force added plaques with historical context next to the statues of polarizing figures such as Christopher Columbus, after months of debate; the San Francisco arts commission decided that a plaque was not enough and voted to remove a statue showing a Native American man at the feet of a Catholic missionary and a Spanish cowboy; Pittsburgh is taking down a statue of local composer Stephen Foster with a black slave sitting at his feet playing the banjo.
There are ongoing campaigns against many other public works that reflect historical power relationships and against monuments that celebrate figures with complex involvement in the nation’s historical sins. The conversations started by such campaigns are necessary: public art has a special role in our shared living space. However, making often irreversible decisions to remove or destroy work in the heat of this politically polarized moment puts us in danger of losing artistically important work and purging public space of valuable (if sometimes painful) historical reminders.
Svetlana Mintcheva is Director of Programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship. She grew up in Bulgaria in the 1970s and 80s before moving to the United States in 1992.