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January 19, 2008

The politics of public art in the South

John Stoehr

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The next time someone tells you art is something extra, something to be added to the fundamentals of life, like jobs and education, point this out: the impending fight over the likeness of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman at the State House in Columbia.

John Monk, a columnist for The State, characterized the politician today as "one of the leading white supremacists of his time who worked for years to deny African-Americans their rights. As S.C. governor, he advocated lynching black people. Later, he helped usher in the state's Jim Crow era."

Monk's piece ran the same day that Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, introduced a resolution to remove a huge statue of Tillman from the grounds of the State House. Evidently, the resolution is unlikely to gain traction, according to The State newspaper.

Lawmakers are already aiming for compromise.

Instead of tearing it down, some are proposing that a plaque be affixed to the statue that illustrates Tillman's racist legacy.

South Carolina has already changed the statue memorializing the late Strom Thurman, a former Dixiecrat and segregationist. It now lists Strom's daughter born of a black woman among his four other white children.

Two things to remember here: One is that Rutherford's effort is part of a larger nationwide push for greater accuracy in the historic record as African American history is represented the form of public art. The push intensifies, naturally, this time of the year when thoughts turn to Martin Luther King Jr. and his heroic push for civil rights.

The other thing to keep in mind is that art matters even when we don't think of the thing in question (i.e., a statue of Tillman) as art. Art is a reflection of society, of a literate culture's values. It tells us who we are and who we have been. It's no surprise to see people getting upset by an homage to Tillman, a man who embodied white supremacy and white violence toward black Americans. Statues evoke a sense of permanence, but most thinking people would likely want to leave Tillman in the past.

We'll see if anything happens. As of this writing (Jan. 17), an online poll on The State's website indicates 50 percent of voters wanted change: either remove the statue or put a plaque on it. But the other half said that nothing should change.

(image above courtesy of The State)

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

Posted by John Stoehr at January 19, 2008 12:46 PM