Culture Shock: What next? Blow up Mount Rushmore?
Statues of old white guys are being removed, vandalised or campaigned against. The problem with the new iconoclasm is knowing where to stop
Mount Rushmore: Abraham Lincoln may pass muster, but Thomas Jefferson (slave owner), George Washington (slave owner) and Theodore Roosevelt (white supremacist and imperialist) do not. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty
Who’d have thought that the most provocative visual art of our time would be old statues of old white guys? From Cape Town to New Orleans, from Oxford to Missouri, from Charleston to Bristol, statues are being removed, vandalised or campaigned against. Overwhelmingly, the anger directed at these lumps of stone or bronze is rooted in the history and lingering reality of racial oppression.
In the US the targets of campaigners are Confederate heroes such as Robert E Lee (in New Orleans) and Jefferson Davis (in Austin, Texas) or ideologists of slavery like John Calhoun (in Charleston, South Carolina). There is even a petition to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the campus of the University of Missouri on the grounds that, as well as being a seminal figure in the creation of the US, he was a slave owner. Cecil Rhodes, a driving force in the rape of Africa and a savage racist, has been banished from the University of Cape Town but allowed to hold his place at Oriel College in Oxford. In Bristol the future of a statue of Edward Colston, a local worthy and slave trader, is being hotly debated.
This is the new iconoclasm. The old iconoclasm, unleashed in intermittent bouts of fervour in both Christian and Islamic cultures, was more fundamentalist. It was (and in parts of Islam still is) based on the belief that all “graven images” are an affront to God’s status as the sole creator.
The new iconoclasm is more selective. It objects not to the works of art per se but to the historical figures evoked in artistic form. As against the old iconoclasm’s suspicion of visual art in general, the new version actually accords great power to the statues. They are taken to be living, breathing presences – alive enough to be an affront to those who look at them.
From the point of view of art history this new movement is, to put it at its mildest, problematic. The tradition of visual art is replete with representations of absolute bastards. Pharoahs, kings, emperors, generals: most were mass killers. Many great works show, and glory in, the act of killing. There are reliefs from Nineveh in which the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704-681 BC) displays, in great detail, the impaling and torturing of those he has conquered. Another Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal, proudly records on superb reliefs his punishment of rebels: “I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses].” Perhaps the greatest public monument in the western tradition, Trajan’s column in Rome, vividly depicts the conquest and slaughter of the Dacians.
The problem with the new iconoclasm, therefore, is knowing where to stop. Should the statue of Edmund Burke at the front of Trinity College Dublin be removed because Burke was rather sniffy about democracy? Should the National Gallery of Ireland take George Bernard Shaw out of its lobby because he greatly admired Stalin? If Jefferson’s image is unacceptable because he had slaves, Mount Rushmore probably has to be blown up: Lincoln may pass muster but Jefferson (slave owner), Washington (slave owner) and Theodore Roosevelt (white supremacist and imperialist) do not.
And yet, even as I write this, I am conscious of a certain hypocrisy. I cheered when someone knocked the head off the statue of the IRA leader and Nazi collaborator Seán Russell in Fairview Park in Dublin in 2005 because I find that statue offensive, not just for its bad aesthetics but also for its bad politics. I can’t find it in my republican heart to be sorry that John Hughes’s statue of Queen Victoria – a fine Irish work of art – was removed from Leinster House and quietly shipped off to Sydney. I cringed when I saw the huge monument to the vile Calhoun in Charleston literally overshadowing an adjacent Holocaust memorial. I even flinch involuntarily when I pass the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the houses of parliament in London.
Aren’t we all selective iconoclasts really? How many of those who tell black students in the US or the UK that they’re stupid to want rid of statues of Jefferson Davis or Cecil Rhodes cheered when the famous statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad? If we think, as so many academics have said to protesters, that statues should remain in place because they remind us of the history of a place, do we think it was wrong to remove all those statues of Stalin and Lenin when the Soviet Union fell? Do we not all apply double standards, defending the public art that does not offend our own sensibilities while being happy to see off the art that does?
So there is no easy answer to the questions raised by the new iconoclasm. Perhaps the best we can do is to ask, in every specific case, more questions. Is the public value of being provoked by a statue to ask questions about the past greater than the value of removing a perceived insult? Are there ways of responding to statues of old reprobates that are more interesting and creative than simply obliterating them? And, as we are, after all, talking about works of art, do they have an intrinsic aesthetic value that might outweigh political and moral considerations?
They may not be easy to answer, but these are better questions than so much contemporary visual art manages to stimulate.