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COMMENT: The power of monuments

 

Why the belief that smashing an image will somehow solve the problems associated with is wrong

COMMENT | IAN BURUMA | The ghastly spectacle last month of neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches and barking slogans about the supremacy of the white race, was sparked by the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army, which fought to retain slavery in the secessionist South during the American Civil War. The statue of General Lee on his horse has been there since 1924, a time when the lynching of black citizens was not a rarity.

Inspired by the events taking place in Charlottesville, advocates have emerged in Britain seeking to pull Admiral Nelson off his famous column on Trafalgar Square in London, because the British naval hero supported the slave trade. And two years ago, protesters at the University of Oxford demanded the removal of a sculpture of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, where the old imperialist had once been a student, because his views on race and empire are now considered to be obnoxious.

There always was something magical about this kind of iconoclasm, which rests on the belief that smashing an image will somehow solve the problems associated with it. When English Protestants challenged the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, mobs laid waste to stone-carved saints and other holy representations with pick-hammers and axes. Eighteenth-century revolutionaries did the same to churches in France. The most radical example occurred in China only a little more than 50 years ago, when Red Guards destroyed Buddhist temples and burned Confucian books – or indeed anything old and traditional – to herald the Cultural Revolution.

It is easy to deplore this type of destruction. Great buildings and works of art are lost. One is tempted to assume that only people who believe in the magical power of images would wish to erase them. The sensible way to deal with monuments of the past would be to see them simply as artifacts of history.

And yet it is not so simple. Who would argue that after 1945 streets and squares in German cities should continue to be named after Adolf Hitler? It was surely not just a childish mistake to remove sculptures of the Führer – or of Soviet leaders in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. One could argue that images of these leaders and their henchmen lacked the artistic value of great churches of medieval England, or Tang Dynasty Buddhist sculptures in China. But then statues of General Lee are hardly worth preserving for artistic reasons either.

The question is where we should draw the line. Should a historical figure be judged by the amount of blood on his hands? Or should we establish a proper time frame?

It might be argued that monuments celebrating villains who lived within living memory and would still cause grief to surviving victims must be removed, and that anything older should be left alone. But that doesn’t quite work, either. The argument for preserving a sculpture of Hitler in a public place, assuming that such a thing still exists, does not get stronger as time goes on.

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