If you really want to understand a people, don’t study the statues they erect. Look at the ones they’ve pulled down. In 1357, local officials in the Tuscan town of Siena voted to remove a nude sculpture of Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty, sex and fertility, that was then frolicking saucily in a public fountain. Though the work had long been treasured by the townspeople as “so marvellous and of such artistry”, according to the 14th-Century artist Lorenzo Ghiberti, attitudes quickly changed after the Sienese were badly beaten on the battlefield. Convinced that their defeat was divine comeuppance for allowing themselves to be led astray by a pagan seductress (“there can surely be no doubt”, insisted one contemporary, “who has caused our misfortune”), the powers-that-be grabbed some ropes and started pulling.
Though art historians might lament the loss of the Sienese Venus as a missing puzzle piece in the evolution of image-making, her disappearance is no less eloquent in what it tells us about the unfolding consciousness of a people. The US is now also in a moment of fiery cultural ebb, keen to wipe clean its churned-up conscience by washing away inflammatory statues of slavery-championing Confederate figures. But not everyone is happy to see the changing tide take away these talismans of intolerance.
In a press conference on Tuesday, President Trump made it clear that he feels the removal of Confederate statues amounts to falsifying the past. “You’re changing history,” Trump exclaimed. “I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” His controversial comments came in the wake of violent incidents on 12 August when white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia – who had assembled to protest the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E Lee – clashed with counter-demonstrators. An anti-racism protester was killed and 19 others injured.
In the aftermath of those events in Charlottesville, demonstrators gathered on Monday at the courthouse in Durham, North Carolina, to voice concern over the smouldering racial tensions in the country and to demand the banishment of their own city’s monuments to the Confederate cause. Photos circulating in the media of what happened next, when protesters lassoed a rope around the neck of a sculpture of a southern soldier and dragged its body, crumpling, to the ground, had the aesthetic power of the climax of cultural overthrow – those slo-mo moments when the statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police force, the Cheka, was toppled in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square in 1991, when Libyan rebels attacked Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s statue in Tripoli in 2011, and when the saluting effigy of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, Baghdad, was dramatically toppled in 2003.
Is Trump right? If a society removes its outmoded memorials to retrograde mentalities, is it guilty of erasing its past? Or should we see these excisions more as amputations of gangrenous limbs, necessary to the body’s survival? These are questions America has been asking itself since its very inception. On another smouldering summer day in 1776, shortly after the recently composed Declaration of Independence was read out in New York, a spirited crowd charged towards Bowling Green, where a statue of King George III by the noted English sculptor Joseph Wilton had been erected only a few years earlier. Stirred by the language of the inspirational document, especially the Declaration’s criticism of monarchical aloofness, the energised patriots grabbed some ropes and started pulling.
The swift toppling became a popular subject for American artists well into the 19th Century. The removal of the leaden likeness of King George III – whose torso and extremities were recycled into bullets – inscribed itself as a set scene of patriotic self-determination in American consciousness, rehearsed variously by William Walcutt in 1857 and by the German-American painter Johannes Adam Simon Oertel two years later. Walcutt and Oertel both delight in the crowds’ tethering of the elevated, outsized equestrian King, as if struggling to contain the raw and unpredictable energies of a feral beast.
Whether the storming of Bowling Green, which sparked a rash of iconoclastic gestures throughout the colonies eager to expunge the symbolism of royal rule, was crucial in shaping the American psyche is a matter of sociological debate. Commenting on the toppling of the leaden King, George Washington cautioned that such actions should, ideally, be “Left to be Executed by Proper Authority” but praised the “Sons of Liberty” for their “zeal in the Publick Caus”. Placed alongside the photos of a collapsed Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina, the reimagined scenes of the tearing down of King George III remind us that a nation’s identity is comprised as much of what is not there, as what is.
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