Open Essay

Politics on a Pedestal

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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A deconstruction of the statue culture

AFTER THE RECENT disturbing scenes at Charlottesville, Virginia, in the US, we need to talk about statues—about why we put them up, who has the right to take them down and why we are so passionate about them.

This last question is the simplest. It’s mostly because statues are a starkly binary issue. Like the Grand Old Duke of York, they are either up or down. Debates about them do not admit of much compromise, so when they bring up sensitive historical issues, sparks are bound to fly. Provocation is never far away, because statues do three disruptive things: they freeze time, they send messages, and they simplify both character and events.

All of this applied in Charlottesville, where the fighting was over a memorial to the Civil War hero, General Robert E Lee. Parochial beginnings perhaps, but the controversy—about memory, defeat, oppression and ‘White pride’—has been serious enough to draw US President Trump into a major dispute about the unity of the nation he leads, and even his fitness to lead it.

And it’s not just in the US that an uneasy relationship between history and sculpture has caused uproar. There have been rows in the UK and South Africa too, as several statues associated with the colonial era have triggered passionate debate. There have been calls in Bristol to remove the statue of an eighteenth-century merchant named Edward Colston, because although he was a benefactor to the town, he was also a slave owner. Now an article in The Guardian has suggested that Nelson’s Column be demolished. The piece was not written by a French person still smarting about Trafalgar, but by a young Briton of Black heritage who feels affronted that the monocular admiral spoke against the abolition of the slave trade in the House of Lords.

There is a global change of mood here, triggered by a renewed sense of inequality. Last year, students of Rhodes University in South Africa demanded that a statue of the institution’s founder, Cecil Rhodes, should be removed, and the cry of ‘Rhodes must fall!’ was then enthusiastically taken up by students in Oxford where his old college, Oriel, has a fine figure of the land-grabbing diamond peddler on its facade. The South Africans got their way; the Oxonians did not.

Robert E Lee still stands, though wreathed in weatherproof black fabric, pending an appeal. And if he falls, asked President Trump, what about other great Americans, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—two well-known slave-owners and part-time statesmen. “Where will it end?” he asked. A good question, which ranks as one of Trump’s more lucid moments, even if he was only worrying about a possible future statue to himself. For indeed, which prominent persons in world history could survive a really rigorous examination under modern notions of correctness?

If land-grabbing is a sin, then most of the successful generals in history are out of order. If possession of slaves, or just a little racism is held against our heroes, then both Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi might be up for demolition. And if misogyny becomes a damning crime, we might have to remove any royal personage who ever cast aside a concubine, and we would definitely get rid of Henry VIII, whose likeness adorns Barts Hospital in London.

So, do we have any right to expect our heroes to be entirely, eternally noble? When does a memorial outlive its usefulness? And is it wise to memorialise anyone? What are the rules? Or what should those rules be?

Time for answers, with a view to compiling a list of hints and tips for anyone who might be thinking of raising a statue.

The first thing that needs to be said is that erecting statues is an attempt to defy time but one that will always ultimately fail. Wind, weather, events and pigeons will surely humble the greatest works of sculpted stone or cast bronze. This is the message of Shelley’s sonnet to Ozymandias, self-styled king of kings, who ended up as no more than a pair of trunkless legs.

There are limits to what statue-building can achieve. It is an inherently conservative act intended to preserve precious elements of the past, bringing them to our attention as a frozen tableau

Next, statues communicate. Despite their dumbness, they speak; visually, through the attitudes they strike and the symbolism of their accoutrements, and spatially, from where they stand. A good statue is thoroughly imbued with meaning that will not be missed. So be clear what it is you would like to say.

The most powerful of dictators like to remind their subjects as graphically and continuously as they can of the reason they are subjects. Statues invigilate and intimidate them. This is the primary objection to the Lee statue.

Things are sometimes less clear, though. Vladimir Putin seems intent at present on erecting statues of Stalin, and has avoided the trap of putting up statues to himself, at least thus far. But how can the example of Stalin help his own regime? Perhaps it is no more than a hint: ‘If you think this is bad…’

Statues, however, cannot be expected to send negative messages. No one needs to put up a statue of Hitler in order to remind us of how bad he was. We have books for that. Statues automatically carry an air of glory, elevation and admiration about them. They are bigger than us, and higher up than us. No one need set up a monster as a caution to future generations. In the old days, villains had their actual heads put on pikes for display, not idealised heads put on outsized bodies in the centre of our towns. Statues automatically promote, not demote, so to make a point, choose the best you have, not the worst.

Now to simplification. Every hero shown in moments of glory will probably also have suffered defeat (as did Lee), or may have had all sorts of lapses across their moral record (as did Colston and Rhodes). But this is a matter of balance, and of contemporary judgement.

Clive of India was never a straightforward character— greedy, arrogant and vacillating—and he ended up killing himself. His statue in London makes no reference to any of his weaknesses. Why? Because the public service he rendered was considered to have a powerfully redeeming quality.

Lord Horatio Nelson found himself on top of a column in 1854 because he had saved the nation from French invasion and the nation appreciated his efforts. Any beliefs he held about Africans were not a worry then. Oliver Cromwell may have been a tyrant and regicide advocate, as many English people believe, or a mass murderer, as Irish Catholics insist, but he defended Parliamentary sovereignty. That was enough to get him a slot in Parliament Square in 1895, though unsurprisingly not in Windsor Castle or O’ Connell Street, Dublin.

Victory excuses, but the right kind of defeat can redeem. The Rani of Jhansi was a loser, and it is not clear that she would have approved of the India of today, in which neither she, her deceased husband, nor her disinherited son would find a privileged place. Nevertheless she carries a message about courage and patriotism that is exemplary, and the war she fought was for freedom. Again, the comparison with Lee and his defence of slavery is stark and unfavourable, and points to the main reason that statues of Washington and Jefferson will not come down. They worked long and hard to create the United States of America; Lee actively fought to dismember it.

Finally, there are limits to what statue-building can achieve. It is an inherently conservative act. Statues are intended to preserve precious elements of the past, bringing them constantly to our attention as a frozen tableau. But the conservatism involved is not a right-wing preserve. Empires and royalty are keen on them, but no one has stood on more plinths than Lenin, and the concern of the Soviet leadership to preserve Lenin’s memory is a very pointed illustration of how revolutions that are iconoclastic on Day One become conservative and nostalgic as soon as the new rulers wish to point out that, while the revolution they led was okay, any others beyond it are not. That’s usually around Day Two.

The biggest lesson is never put up a statue to yourself. The plucky few that do may assuage their vanity, but Saddam Hussein lived to see his statues toppled and desecrated

True radicals would be better advised to concentrate on books and posters, or anything that communicates abstractions that inspire, and to avoid statues of individuals.

This, of course, was precisely the bind that snared the southern gentlemen who erected the statue of General Lee at the rather late date of 1924. They chose an assured and charming hero like Lee because the notion of putting up a monument to the lost cause of slavery would have been in pretty bad taste.

The memorialisation of great leaders necessarily submits them to a long and continuous process of judgement, and in our more sensitive, media-savvy days the trend is now to set up monuments to sufferers, not perpetrators, a simple reversal that solves nearly all the problems that statues throw up. Berlin has its Moltke bridge, complete with statue, built in 1891 to commemorate the victor of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but more recent commemorative projects in the city have been dedicated to large groups who were victims of Nazi genocide, such as the Sinti and Roma people, or European Jews; individual depictions have been avoided. This trend may gradually deprive us of heroes and heroines of the old type, but it does also diffuse the bitterness that statues can generate.

Careless of this warning, however, the government of Gujarat has decided to embark on the largest statue building enterprise of all time, with a giant image, due for completion in 2018, that will be twice the size of New York’s Statue of Liberty. In either a brilliant compromise or a hopeless muddle (time alone will tell), this gigantic figure is to be named ‘The Statue of Unity’, although it is actually a portrait of ‘Sardar’ Vallabhbhai Patel, famed Congressman and Independent India’s first Home Minister.

Why would Narendra Modi, who apparently came up with the idea, wish to make a giant memorial to a hard man from Gujarat? The online promotional material claims the project will boost tourism. Perhaps it will, but the history of statues suggests that trouble may lie ahead. Some have objected on environmental grounds, but the real issues may be political. Perhaps there is a danger that this giant figure may dwarf his contemporary successors, or that the emphasis on Patel’s unshakeable resolution, unimpeachable integrity and incorruptibility may even be taken by some as a reminder not of how far India has come, but of how far her standards have declined.

Certainly any leader who chooses to build a spectacular monument has no control over its future. Trajan’s Column and Constantine’s Arch are still there in the heart of Rome, but the enormous golden statue erected to his own glory by Turkmenistan’s president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov, has disappeared. Once he was safely dead in 2006, his successor simply exiled it to the outskirts of the capital, Ashgabat, and took out the motor that made it revolve to face the sun.

The biggest lesson here is never put up a statue to yourself. The plucky few that do may assuage their vanity, but Saddam Hussein lived to see his statues toppled and desecrated. And over time it is unlikely that the many statues that Mayawati commissioned of herself will be more honoured than those she erected to the memory of Dr Ambedkar.

SO MUCH FOR putting statues up. What about pulling them down? Who has a right to object, and what grounds are sufficient to assure removal?

The answer has to be that the effective constituency must be a local one, otherwise chaos would ensue, with international deputations touring the world’s capitals picking out figures who are variously seen as rebels or liberators, mighty warriors or genocidal criminals, and demanding their removal. After years of protests against images of the likes of John Lawrence, General James Neill, and John Nicholson, Independent India removed all its imperial-era statues almost immediately. There wasn’t a peep from London, nor should there have been.

Localism and majority opinion would seem the only workable way ahead. Our house, our décor. The students in South Africa were entitled to ask for the removal of Rhodes; they were in a majority, and Rhodes was an egregious racist. The case against him was weaker in Oxford, but the issue was never brought to a trial, because the majority opinion was that Rhodes should remain erect. Colston still stands in Bristol, with a little re-contextualisation—a revised plaque pointing out his ambivalent standing in modern eyes. Nelson is probably safe.

As for Charlottesville, the White supremacists who bussed themselves in have no right—beyond free speech—to be protecting (or assaulting) any public monument in the town. Their voices should hold no priority over local opinion. At best this was busy-bodying; at worst it was a calculated attempt to seek confrontation. The town council had voted to remove the statue of Lee, after a protracted process of consultation. What’s more, the statue was not in imminent peril, because by the time of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, a formal appeal had been lodged against the removal. The residents of the town were engaged in an entirely correct and civilised internal process. Meanwhile, the former Lee Park, where the general stands, has been renamed Emancipation Park. With the statue gone, this would have amended the record about as well as renaming places and reassessing objects ever can.

The world changes, and our moods and sensitivities change with it. But the main thing about statues, the mineral precipitate of history, is that they don’t change at all. In one way that is why we like them—as permanent reminders of things we would like to solidify—moments of greatness, or characters who have displayed our finest qualities, who exemplify what we aspire to be.

All that, though, is asking rather a lot of them. They are also like tacks that try to pin down the ever-slipping carpet of history, and are always likely to create little ridges that trip us up.